I love you Glenwood family.
The story of our coming to you fills me with joy, hope and faith every time I recall it.
We remain, all these years later, exceedingly grateful to run this race with you.
My Uncle Tommy and Aunt Pat moved to Tyler when I was really young. I remember that we all thought it was very far away. I mean it was EAST TEXAS for goodness sakes! After they moved and began work we got Uncle Tommy's church bulletin every week. I read it, oddly enough. The bulletin was mostly full of names that I didn't recognize, but I would read Tommy's writings at the front and then scan the youth group news and announcements for any mention of my cousins or aunt and uncle. This was a regular, weekly occurrence throughout my youth. We received many church bulletins and I read them hit or miss for the most part, except for Uncle Tommy’s. The Glenwood church of Christ bulletin was a part of my every week.
Fast forward some years to Christmas 2001. Jeff and I and our two toddlers were in the States to raise money and search for a new supporting congregation. While fundraising and traveling, our family was simultaneously enduring a very heavy season of grief and loss. We had not only made a major job transition but we had also lost Jeff’s grandfather and my best friend within months of each other resulting in two very important funerals that we were not able to attend because we were on the other side of an ocean. As the holiday season nestled into American homes, we ended some difficult weeks of travel that had taken us across the entire United States where we had made contact with all the congregations that had supported us in the past. We were warmly received in each church family we approached, but over and over we were told "no" to our request for oversight.
I was newly pregnant (SURPRISE!) and very sick. We landed in our Texas home for a large extended family gathering over the Christmas holiday. As the festivities came to an end and everyone prepared to return to their homes, my Uncle Tommy gave Jeff an email contact for a man named Jack. Jack was the mission committee chairman of a church in Tyler and Tommy said that it was worth a try. Tommy said that the church, Glenwood, was a wonderful place and that they loved missionaries.
Over the next few weeks, we sent requests and information to several different churches including Glenwood. There were no immediate responses so we settled into the next season which would include more loss, more sickness and much opportunity to wait.
Part 1: McDonald’s
My most memorable McDonald's meal took place in Abilene, TX in February of 2001. What was meant to be a mere six week fundraising jaunt had blossomed (like my swelling abdomen) into an overextended test of endurance. Our search for an overseeing church had grown very long.
Our family had pushed through to attend the lectureship at Abilene Christian University despite Jeff’s recent pneumonia diagnosis. I drove us to Abilene so that we could meet with several potential supporters, among them a couple named Jack and Tootsie who had recently been in contact with us concerning the information we had sent to Glenwood. We looked for Jack and Tootsie unsuccessfully for the whole lectureship but finally, on the last day, we met them face to face. They invited us to have lunch with them.
We were meeting with these new friends to discuss the landscape of our life. Our dreams. Our struggles. Our hopes. Everything really.
And we decided to discuss these very important things over greasy McDonald's burgers because, of course. Jack and Tootsie were patient with us. We chose McDonald’s because of the play place.
I remember telling Jack so many stories while Tootsie madly tore open ketchup packets to keep our kiddos happy and stuffed with french fries. My Dad very mercifully joined us to corral our kiddos at the play place so we could visit with Jack and Tootsie in peace for just a bit.
I remember feeling tired and weary to my bones. Jeff shared all that we had been witnessing in Uganda. I listened to my husband tell stories I had lived and re-lived so many times, wondering if anybody would ever embrace this ministry as we had. Share the passion with us.
I couldn't read Jack's mind. He was thoughtful. He used few words and made no promises but he did say that he would pray.
We hear that often when we talk about the work here: "We will pray." Precious commitment. One we do not take for granted.
That day, at McDonalds, I learned several things:
1. Tootsie is the world's fastest ketchup packet opener---seriously!
2. Jack and Tootsie are Kylee's grandparents (long story)
3. When Jack says he will pray, he means it.
It was just a visit at McDonalds. But, oh, how it changed my world.
Part 2: Wednesday Night Supper
A few weeks later, Jack emailed us that the church in Tyler wanted us to visit over Easter weekend. He didn't know exactly what we would be able to do while we were there, or who we would be able to meet but could we come?
Sure we would visit, but at that juncture I felt cautiously optimistic--heavy on the caution. We'd been through this so many times. I often found it painful to get my hopes up.
We drove into Tyler in the late afternoon of our scheduled arrival date and we were immediately directed to the church building where the church ate together on Wednesday nights. The evening meal fellowship would give us an initial opportunity to meet folks. I smiled at many kind faces while trying to feed my 4yr old and 2yr old chicken spaghetti.
The associate minister was visiting with my husband while we all ate and I overheard snatches of the conversation. "We’ll give you about five minutes...question answer format...really informal...intial introduction... etc."
After we finished dinner, we were directed into the auditorium and shown seats towards the front (mother-of-toddlers nightmare: the FRONT of an auditorium of people you'd like to make a nice impression on!) As the minister began to introduce my husband, I noticed three stools in the front. There was one for the minister, one for my husband and who is supposed to sit on that other one?
As the congregation filled the pews, Rob invited over the microphone, “Cheryl, we’ve got a seat for you up here!"
I quickly gave stern instructions to my young ones who I left in the care of Aunt Pat and then elegantly waddled my pregnant self up to the front of an increasingly full auditorium. Once I had clambered onto the stool, my loving husband handed me the microphone FIRST. Gulp!
I’m pretty sure I said something about world peace. I can’t really remember. But the sweet folks in the audience smiled at me when I finished and I passed the microphone off to Jeff. Jeff said some good things, we passed the microphone around a bit and then Rob asked if the congregation had any questions.
The first question came from an older gentleman (precious Jim Welch) near the back. He said simply and directly, "What can we give to you?"
We answered some things about prayer and encouragement to which the older gentleman replied with a firm shake of his head.
"No. I mean financially. What would it take for this church to take care of your family in every way?”
Jeff and I sat stunned while Rob responded for us, "Jim, we'll get Jeff to write the details of his financial needs down for us."
I remember hands going up all over the auditorium while we proceeded to answer questions left and right. Rob eventually ended the time with prayer and people came to welcome us from every direction. We talked and hugged and were loved on and embraced.
As we drove away from the church that evening, Jeff asked me what I thought about our first introduction to Glenwood.
I replied simply, "I feel like we've come home. And how can that be exactly?"
With tears in his eyes, Jeff nodded his assent as we found our way back to Jack and Tootsie’s house.
We both agreed that we had never experienced anything quite like that Wednesday evening at Glenwood.
Little did we know that there was a whole lot of that exact same awareness just ahead of us.
God had been planning and purposing all along, even in the midst of our losses. What a glorious moment when our eyes were finally allowed to see.
Part 3: Tell Me the Story
Jack and Tootsie's phone rang non-stop after our first evening at Glenwood. Jack smiled alot.
Things began to take shape. We were to meet with the new mission committee chairman, speak at a group dinner Thursday, participate in casual sharing time Friday, have lunch with Greg, have lunch with Jim, and the Goodes were eager to share time and pray for us.
We met many people. Faces, names, quick smiles and hugs. We sat in many circles and told many Uganda stories.
As Jeff would talk, I would watch the faces of those listening. They were passionate. Spell-bound. Interested.
They couldn't get enough.
I was amazed at this. Most people enjoy a story or two, but these folks would CHOOSE to listen for hours at a time. We'd stop when WE got tired. Usually, it was the other way around.
It seemed to me, and I was still cautious in my assessment, but, it did seem God was building in these people a deep love and passion for the Fort Portal work. I wanted that to happen but could it really? Congregation wide? Kids to adults? Elders and mission committee? I was watchful, but still hesitant a bit.
At night, after another day full of introductions and testimonials we would return to Jack and Tootsie's. Over bowls of cereal we would talk about what we were experiencing. Jack would smile. Remind us he was praying. And somewhere in the talking, Jack would repeat "If God makes this happen, you're going to be loved like you've never been loved before. Because Glenwood will TAKE CARE OF YOU. I just know it."
Then Jack and Tootsie would ask Jeff to tell just one more story....
Part 4: Home
We flew out to Tyler twice after the initial visit and following two pretty incredible meetings and oh, so many prayers we were invited to stay in Tyler for several months to become Glenwood's missionaries.
On our first Sunday at Glenwood, the elders announced that they had decided to take on oversight of the Fort Portal work and some folks in that generous congregation erupted in applause. Applause?!
I sat in that very full auditorium and sobbed many thankful tears. I felt so loved, so amazed and so hopeful. And it had been a long go since those exact emotions had flooded me so obviously.
Tyler became a healing haven for us. A place to re-charge and regroup. A place to belong.
Our Isaac was born, loved on, prayed over and blessed.
Our support team came together in a beautiful way as six precious couples agreed to serve the Uganda work from the States.
We worshipped and prayed and shared and planned.
I was overwhelmed every day I was there.
But especially, on our very last day before departure, there was this one elders’ meeting. It was a moment that something very important shifted in me. Here’s the story:
In our last few weeks with Glenwood, before we finally made our return to Uganda, we hit a bit of a snag in our communication with the leadership. It was an easily resolved issue in the end but as these things can go, our conversations had grown acute and painful. My trust in church leadership had taken a tremendous beating in the years preceding our joining with Glenwood, so when the conversations with our new leadership labored into the zone of our previous wounds I began to despair in my heart.
To settle the storm stirred in the discussions of those last few weeks, we were requested to attend a leadership meeting on the last Sunday of our time in Tyler. I dreaded it all week. Jeff and I arrived at the church building early and were asked to wait just five minutes in the lobby before we came into the meeting. We sat quietly while my stomach churned and I tried unsuccessfully not to glance repeatedly at the men gathered in the next room. I was thankful to see them all engaged in prayer together. My heart rate slowed a bit as I witnessed their seeking supplication.
We were brought into the room with warm hugs and hand shakes and with very little delay their appointed spokesman began. With tears in his eyes he offered these life giving words:
“Jeff and Cheryl, we have spoken our minds to you on this issue and we also know where you stand. Having openly shared our opinions we now only have this to say to you: We trust you. We believe in your wisdom, your insight and the Spirit work in you to make the best decision in regard to this issue. We will not require anything of you in this matter. We only want you to know how very much we believe in your ability and your strength and our God who is at work in you. You are so very loved. Know that you have our blessing and our complete support.”
I was stunned to silence and deeply effected. I weep even now.
With tears flooding from our souls we sat that day vulnerable and embraced among a church leadership that deliberately chose our relationship over the issue. Their resolution was submissive and sacrificing. It absolutely reeked of Christ.
And it definitively made all the difference. For very many years.
Our connection to Glenwood, especially in those abundant early years, was more than I ever dreamed possible. Some of our very best friends, to this day, came into our lives in that season.
Among those brothers and sisters my faith was renewed and my hope was restored.
We were, by God’s grace and mercy, home in a way we hadn’t experienced before.
Glenwood had become our church family. Our support. God's Embrace.
Glenwood had become our church family. Our support. God's Embrace.
Jack was right.
Glenwood would continue to love us well for years to come.
We are so very thankful.
God be praised!