Church helps woman rise above addiction to serve others

Church helps woman rise above addiction to serve others

Andrea Cooper (right) shares lunch and a poem with one of the many neighbors served by Rocky Top United Methodist Church.

ROCKY TOP, Tenn. – Andrea Cooper doesn’t bother to close the side door on the old church van while it ambles through narrow streets and country roads. The door stays open so she can hop out to deliver bag lunches to apartments, hotels, and mobile homes.

“Hello, beautiful. Lunch is here,” she calls, banging on the door. The people look happy to see her. She returns the favor as she greets them by first name, handing off a lunch and a handwritten poem.

It’s Wednesday in Rocky Top, the day the local United Methodist church delivers a weekly meal to 48 neighbors identified as elderly shut-ins or “marginalized.” Andrea Cooper represents the church, but she also represents the community she serves.

“Whenever I meet someone, I let them know I’m a recovering drug addict,” says Cooper, age 50. “They used to call me Meth Head Andrea.”
Andrea Cooper serves from the open door.

She’s a ball of energy, waving and calling to the people she encounters in every parking lot and trailer park. Cecilia Henderson, the pastor’s wife, drives the van as Cooper and another church member, Maggie Webb, go door-to-door with spaghetti, salad and cake.

After the route is complete, the team returns to Rocky Top United Methodist Church, where leftovers and kitchen cleanup are waiting. Cooper pauses from her work to share her story, and the energy gives away to grief and tears.
Cooper and Henderson work in the kitchen.

“When my daughter got killed, my heart got ripped out of my chest,” she says. “I wanted to die.”

For the last three years, Cooper has been an active member at Rocky Top. The church currently has a worship attendance of 12 yet serves hundreds, including many homeless neighbors, with food and other aid throughout the month.

“The ministry we do with the homeless and disenfranchised resonates deeply with Andrea because she has been there herself,” says the Rev. Dave Henderson, Rocky Top pastor. “She has a personal connection to nearly everyone we see each week.”

In July 2013, Cooper’s 23-year-old daughter died in a car accident while driving and texting. She was 34 weeks pregnant with a boy she had already named Landon Ray.
"I have to stay busy," says Cooper.

Drug use had already been a part of Cooper's life since age 17, including marijuana, cocaine, alcohol and pills. When she lost her daughter, she started “shooting up” methamphetamine. She sold it to support her addiction.

On the night her daughter died, Cooper happened to be watching the news on TV when the accident was reported. “I feel so sorry for that girl’s mother,” she said, not knowing the victim’s name. Cooper learned of Christina's death the next day. “I was that mom.”

The pain compounded other tragedies she has experienced, including abusive relationships and childhood molestation by a teenage babysitter and his friends.

“My whole life has been nothing but hate and one bad thing after another. Nothing good,” she said. “It felt good when I got out of jail and was stronger, and I’m not that person anymore. I hate hatred. I don’t like animosity. I want everyone to love each other. This is why I like coming here to this church.”

In 2017, Cooper said she finally cried out to God. She was living under a bridge with her dog, a beloved miniature pinscher named Chloe Bell. The dog had been poisoned with antifreeze and was dying. “I built a fire to keep her warm. Somebody reported that I was making my own meth.”

A friendly police officer came to check on the fire that night, resulting in a conversation that Cooper says led to her incarceration. Chloe Bell also died that night.

“I stood in front of that bridge and said, ‘Lord I want you to take control of my life,’” she recalls. “Twelve days later, I was arrested.”

Cooper went to jail and cried the whole first month of her sentence. “I weighed 80 pounds. I looked like a skeleton.” However, she says six months in jail helped her get clean.

“I went in a size 0 and came out a 9. ... I know jail is jail, but it saved my life. My mom was happy I was in there. I was safe and had food and I was off drugs.”
Cooper leaves a home on the lunch route.

When she was released, Cooper went to the food pantry at Rocky Top United Methodist Church to get food. There she encountered a warm welcome that made her want to keep coming back.

“They hugged me and didn’t look at me as any different,” she says. “This church won me over. I seen there was so much love here. I wanted to get more involved in it.”
Cooper and Webb stop for a chat on the route.

Cooper started singing in the choir. She was Mary in the church Christmas play. She became a member of the core team that prepares food for weekly lunch delivery, a monthly pantry, and for the homeless and hungry people who knock on the church’s back door every day.

“I watch her struggle with everyday life, and then I see her hop out of that van and say, ‘I love you. Lunch is here,’” Cecilia Henderson says.

“My church has done a lot for me and made me a better person," says Cooper.

Cooper frequently says, “I have to stay busy,” and that need is reflected in her ministry. On the lunch delivery trip, she spies a lawn ornament that needs painting and offers to do it for the woman who lives there. “I get to paint her duck for her,” she says, carrying the duck back to the van. “I like taking stuff and bringing it to life.”

One of her gifts is writing poetry. She delivers a new handwritten poem to her lunch guests every week. “Every poem I’ve ever written has something about God in it,” she says. The titles have names like, “To Know Him is to Trust Him,” “Thank You, Lord,” and “Walk with Jesus.”

People look forward to her poems, the church members say.
Cooper hugs a friend after inviting her to church.

"If I can reach one person that’s reading my poetry or if they can see that I’ve changed and there's a better way -- it makes my heart flutter if I can do some good," she says.

One of her favorite poems is, “God has Two New Angels,” written in July 2013.

This is a poem, it begins. It's sad but it's true. About the loss of a daughter and a grandson, too.

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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.