KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Gratitude is more than showing off your good manners and saying “thank you,” says the Rev. Brooke Hartman.
When you’ve looked stage 3 cancer in the face – when you wonder if you’ll live to see the autumn leaves again or to see your son graduate from high school -- gratitude takes on a deeper meaning.
“Gratitude is rooted in grace and our understanding that we don’t really deserve anything,” she says, “yet we get so much.”
Gratitude is the first taste of food – “the best orange juice ever” -- after a dangerous infection following a double mastectomy. Gratitude is submitting to chemotherapy and praying, “Thank you, God, for the countless hours, millions of dollars, and nameless people who made it possible that I’ve got a shot to survive.”
While others spent the months since spring 2020 adjusting to a pandemic, Hartman fought cancer and came out on the other side with a seminary degree and new job.
“I don’t think I ever lost hope, but there were many days I couldn’t see beyond the cancer,” says the new pastor of discipleship at Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. “Cancer removed so much and made life so simple. We live under an illusion of how life is supposed to go.”
Hartman’s battle began shortly after her former church, Powell United Methodist, joined others across the nation in shutting their doors against COVID-19. Like many other pastors in Holston Conference, Hartman remembers in detail the day Bishop Dindy Taylor sent an email announcing a temporary ban on in-person worship services beginning March 12, 2020.
“We had just had eight baptisms, and literally, as I went to sit down, my phone was blowing up with the news,” she says.
As then pastor of recovery and discipleship at Powell, Hartman led a Thursday night recovery worship attended by 125 that evening, including the eight people baptized. It was a great night. As she contemplated the new reality for churches trying to survive during a pandemic, Hartman said the silver lining for her was, “What a way to go out. I had no idea a tumor was in my body at that time.”
One month later, Hartman found a lump in her left breast, which led to a diagnosis of invasive ductile carcinoma. The added “triple negative” diagnosis meant there were fewer keys for treatment as compared to other breast cancers.
“Your next six months is about fighting cancer,” her doctor told her.
As it turned out, Hartman spent the next 14 months on medical leave, weathering chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and a fever and infection that landed her in the hospital for six days in October 2020.
“I thought cancer was linear, but cancer is anything but linear,” she said. “It didn’t go as planned. There were so many twists and turns.”
At the lowest point, Hartman laid in the hospital and wondered about her and her family’s future. “It was a perfect storm,” she said. “My body couldn’t fight anything off. My oncology team was concerned that I had sepsis. ... It just felt like we had taken so many hits. I didn’t know if we could take any more.”
Hartman looked at the autumn leaves and wondered, “Moments like this, is it my last one?” On top of everything else was the isolation necessary to protect the patient from COVID-19. Her husband Clay and teenage son Jacob suffered with her.
“The hardest part as a mom was knowing what he [Jacob] had to sacrifice for me to have the best chance to beat cancer,” she said. “He had to sacrifice connection.”
The pandemic “shut down our lives,” Hartman added. “We weren’t on the sidelines. We were in the cheap seats.”
Yet the pastor rejoiced in the love and care extended by the congregation at Powell United Methodist Church and throughout Holston Conference. Church members provided two meals a week for Hartman and her family for eight months. They came to her porch to visit at a safe distance.
She received get-well cards from United Methodist pastors she had never met and notes of encouragement attached to Holston Conference benefit statements. She never had to worry about health insurance or whether it would cover her treatment, she said. “Our life was shattered, and the connectional system came along and wrapped itself around me and my family.”
Through it all, Hartman kept praying, and her prayers most often were about gratitude, she said.
As she approached summer 2021, the clouds began to lift as Hartman began to feel better. Having managed to continue her seminary studies through her illness, the 50-year-old former schoolteacher graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary in May.
In June, she finished chemotherapy.
In August, Hartman was commissioned as a provisional elder (a step toward becoming a fully ordained United Methodist clergy member). She also returned to full-time work with her new job at Concord United Methodist, after five years on staff at Powell.
The Concord job was an opportunity made possible by the retirement of one of her mentors, the Rev. Glenna Manning, she explained. Throughout the pandemic, Concord didn’t lie down but kept the outreach and mission going 24/7.
The gratitude Concord is experiencing over its resulting growth pairs well with her gratitude for surviving the last two years, Hartman said.
“This is a church that is alive. How many churches were just trying not to die during the pandemic?” she said. “Forty people have joined Concord just in the last two months. To me, it sounds like a healthy church.”
In the throes of her illness, Hartman caught herself complaining to her district superintendent, “Churches are trying so hard not to die that they’ve forgotten how to live.” Then she realized she could be talking about herself.
In September 2021, almost one year after the lowest point in her struggle, Hartman’s chemotherapy port was removed, which signaled to her the cancer journey was over.
This fall, she hiked the hikes she wanted to hike, visited the beach she wanted to visit, “soaked up the moments” big and small, while newly awakened to the reality that nothing is sure except for God.
“God’s presence and provision have been beyond anything I could imagine, and it wasn’t always because it was going good,” she said. “God is our only constant. Seasons still change despite the pandemic, despite my diagnosis. God is constant, and you don’t have to feel it all the time for it to be true.”
Holston Conference includes 850 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia. Sign up for a free weekly subscription to The Call.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.