LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (Nov. 1, 2015) -- To the 283 people attending the annual meeting of the Holston United Methodist Women, the presenters on the stage did a great job. Reports were given. Songs were sung. Training was accomplished.
However, for the handful of people who knew what was going on behind the scenes, the music and message were even more inspirational than usual. They knew the preacher and pianist were fighting a debilitating battle with cancer.
The Rev. Rhonda Hobbs, age 57, was in the midst of chemotherapy for follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Gail Morris, age 59, was recovering from tongue cancer.
Here are the stories behind Hobbs’ and Morris’ appearance at the Holston United Methodist Women’s Annual Meeting, held Sept. 19-20 at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.
POWER IN PRAYER
“Hi. I’ve been back stage and am wired up for tonight’s message for the United Methodist Women at Lake Junaluska. Please pray for energy and voice strength!”
That’s the message Rhonda Hobbs wrote on her Facebook page moments before she spoke to a Saturday-night crowd at Stuart Auditorium. The preacher was in her second month of chemotherapy and fighting an overwhelming fatigue.
“I felt like an elephant was sitting on me. I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs,” she said.
Hobbs was first diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2009, a few weeks after learning she had passed her final exam for ordination. Follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma is “very treatable but not currently curable,” she says. Without chemo, she was given 18 months to live. Hobbs opted for six months of treatment, which led to years of remission.
In late 2014, the disease returned. In August 2015, Hobbs once again began chemotherapy. The Holston United Methodist Women had asked her to preach for their annual meeting more than a year before, and she planned to follow through.
Yet when the pastor arrived at Lake Junaluska’s Stuart Auditorium on Sept. 19, she was praying for help.
“Chemo fatigue is not like anything else,” she said. “It comes out of nowhere and you can’t even walk across the room. It’s a sudden energy drain and you have no power. You can’t just lie down and get rested. Your energy won’t build back up.”
Hobbs tried to practice, but she didn’t have any strength. The staff offered her a stool to sit on, which she hoped she wouldn’t have to use. She asked for prayers on Facebook and opened her sermon by telling the auditorium about her situation. And then …
“God gave me the strength,” she said. “He really does give us what we need when we need it.”
Hobbs finished her sermon, based on John 21, with elation. “There was so much said that was not in my notes, that was in the moment. I love that about preaching – it’s such a sense of fulfillment, beyond yourself. You’re a vessel.”
Hobbs says she knew there were people praying for her on that night in Stuart Auditorium, just as she knows her parishioners, past and present, are praying for her daily. “There really is power in prayer.” Hobbs currently serves as pastor at Glen Alpine United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tenn.
Fighting cancer while carrying a pastor’s load is accomplished by “listening to my body and not pushing to exhaustion,” Hobbs says. “That’s not easy for pastors, but cancer doesn’t give you a choice.”
She’s also learned the power of a good attitude. “You’ve heard of preaching faith until you have it? Everybody has bad days. Sometimes you just have to prop yourself up and push through.”
GLORY TO HIS NAME
Gail Morris taught music in schools and played piano for United Methodist churches and events for more than 30 years. It was “devastating” to learn that surgery to save her from stage 3 tongue cancer could also end her career and ministry.
The diagnosis came in March 2015. “I was in the middle of writing a spring concert for 350 students” at Indian Trail Intermediate School, she said. “Suddenly my world was full of meetings with doctors.”
“I have cancer in my family, but I never dreamed it would be tongue cancer,” Morris added. “I’m not a smoker or a drinker.”
Her goal was to heal and recover any lost abilities in time for the annual meeting of the Holston United Methodist Women (UMW) in September. However, because she didn’t know what the future held, Morris recorded a CD at Jonesborough United Methodist Church, where she served as pianist for 16 years. Titled “Hands for Him,” the CD featured a photo of her hands on the church Steinway.
“I prayed about what songs to play and which scripture should go with each song,” Morris said. She donated the CD to churches where she had served, including Telford UMC and Limestone UMC. The congregations used the CD as fundraisers for missions such as meals for shut-ins and youth trips.
On May 19, Morris underwent surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The procedure involved removing the cancer and taking a large skin graft from her arm to reconstruct the tongue.
A blood clot and serious complications led to four more surgeries over the next 16 days and an additional skin graft from her thigh.
At one point the doctor told her, “You must have had a lot of people praying for you because it could have been fatal. You’re very sick, but you’re going to make it.”
When the pianist finally went home, she had a feeding tube and other challenges. Church members came to assist her family with her recovery. It wasn’t long before Morris was well enough to begin physical therapy (for numbness in her arm) and speech therapy (to learn to talk again).
When September arrived, Morris was ready. “I was so excited and thankful but nervous,” she said. At her Lake Junaluska hotel, she took her Bible out on the balcony overlooking the lake and prayed before her first performance. “I asked God to let my playing bring praise and glory to his name.”
Four months from the day of her first surgery, Gail Morris played her piano on the Stuart Auditorium stage for three bouts on Saturday and again on Sunday. In all, she pounded through about 25 songs, including all of the songs from her CD.
The highlight was “How Great Thou Art,” she said, when the audience gave her a standing ovation. “Tears flowed in thanksgiving that God had brought me to this place.”
Gratitude: Gail Morris expresses appreciation to “God, my husband Jeff, son Jon, brother Richard and wife Linda, family, prayer warriors, friends, churches, and staff at Indian Trail Intermediate School and Woodland Elementary.”
Rhonda Hobbs wishes to share “a huge thank you for everyone's prayers,” especially the congregations at Emerald Avenue, Burks, Fairview, Floyd and Glen Alpine.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.