Twelve-year-old Hannah is curled up in a blanket on a Sunday afternoon, weary from attending church. Yet, she emits energy as she chatters on about her medical trials and faith in God. Her baby blue eyes are the focal point of the room.
For more than two years, Hannah has battled cancer in her brain and spine. She has had two relapses since medulloblastoma was diagnosed in February 2006, the most recent relapse in March 2008.
Her cancer is now in remission, after surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Today, Hannah is excited to talk about her journey and the special award she received in June.
Hannah Williams, a member at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Morristown District, is the recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award for youth. She received the award during an emotional highlight of the Holston Annual Conference.
Hannah didn’t know about the award until she was brought on stage at Lake Junaluska. Her family simply said they were taking a surprise trip to western North Carolina.
“When they announced my name, Preacher John said it was a high honor, an award for telling people about God,” Hannah says, referring to Mt. Zion pastor John Thompson.
She was so surprised to find herself standing before 1,500 applauding people, all she knew to do was just – smile, she said.
Her smile, in fact, is frequently mentioned when people speak of Hannah’s inspirational impact on her church and community.
“Just seeing Hannah deal with everything with a smile on her face and never failing to praise her Lord speaks volumes,” says Thompson. “There is something about that child that draws you to her. It is truly amazing.”
Thompson – as well as Hannah’s mother, Kathy Ogle – tell stories of how the girl freely shares her faith with nurses, doctors, hospital patients, church members, neighborhood children, and anyone else she encounters.
Hannah even inspired her mother and grandparents to return to church, after Hannah discovered Mt. Zion UMC about five years ago. The family previously had a “bad experience” with church, Thompson said. But Hannah found a church home after friends invited her to join them on the Mt. Zion van that transports children for Wednesday night activities or Sunday worship.
According to the young evangelist, her strong connection to God became evident when doctors diagnosed her brain tumor on Feb.7, 2006. On Feb. 9, she underwent surgery with a dismal prognosis. Yet Hannah wasn’t scared.
“God told me that I was going to be fine,” she says. “He said he would take care of me.”
On the morning of her surgery, Hannah lay in bed with a room full of family. People were crying, her pastor remembers. But the room became very quiet after the child spoke.
Hannah remembers the moment, too. “I said, ‘It’s OK. Why are you worried? We’ll get through this,’” she says. “‘God has already told me. I will be OK.’”
Hannah not only recovered from the surgery, her confidence didn’t waver through the weeks of hospital stays and painful treatments, according to her mother.
"My faith has always been on the edgy side,” admits Ogle. “But Hannah always says, ‘Mom, don’t worry.’ That’s how she is.”
“You never ask why it happens,” Hannah says to her mother, as if they’ve been conversing on this topic. “It’s not God’s fault. If it’s God’s fault, why is he helping me?”
Hannah is still undergoing chemotherapy, but she is well enough to attend school for the first time in two years. She cheerfully reports that her teachers are kind and the students haven’t made fun of her hairless state.
As for the cancer, “it’s likely to come back, but not in the same place,” she says. In the meantime, she understands Preacher John when he says, “You have work to do.”
“I know that God has called me,” says the girl who was born on Christmas Day. She dreams of taking a mission trip, likes to volunteer in soup kitchens and buy gifts for the needy. She claims she prefers these activities to sharing her story, but then admits, “Once I get to talking, I tell everything.”
“When I tell people about God, it makes me feel good,” she explains. “I really want people to look at life differently. Because you don’t realize, until you get sick, how wonderful life really is.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.