Holy Trinity Lutheran Church is located in the heart of Lebanon, Pa., a small postindustrial city whose major steel plant closed in the 1980s. Two years into her ministry there, Gretchen Ierien officiated at the funeral of a 49-year-old member who had died from a rare form of cancer. The next week, five people told her they were diagnosed with different forms of cancer.

“I realized right away that this was not normal,” said Ierien, now in her fifth year with the congregation. “In fact, members of Holy Trinity started sharing information with each other, and we realized that Lebanon was a ‘cancer cluster’ ” (a greater than expected number of cancer cases within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time).

This led Holy Trinity to form the Healing Grace Ministry for people living with cancer and their loved ones. “It’s the one ministry of this congregation that I hope will not grow because it means that no more members are suffering,” Ierien said.

Time for silent prayer is central to the group’s gatherings. “Often we hold up the story of the transfiguration as a prayer visual,” she said. “We metaphorically join Christ on that mountaintop and bathe in the love and light of Christ. We visualize the brilliance of God entering into our bodies, down into the cancer cells and dissolving them from our bodies. As Christ descends from the mountaintop and onto the ultimate act of healing, we, too, are filled with courage for the healing regimens set before us.”

Monique Derfler has been active with Healing Grace Ministry since its inception, right after her diagnosis of stage-3 breast cancer. After radiation and surgery, the cancer is now in remission, and Derfler tries to never take a day for granted.

“I am so lucky to be alive,” she said. “The lady next to me at the oncology center at U Penn fought just as hard as I did, but she died. I am not sure why things happen the way they do, but I am trying to stay positive and think about what God needs me to do with the time I have been given.

“We become very connected to the other people in the group because we hear them sharing their stories. It’s a small group, but we talk honestly about our feelings with each other.”

“We lost our daughter, Danielle, to a drunk driver 20 years ago. Maybe God wants me here to help people in their grief. Maybe God wants me to walk with people who are struggling with cancer. To remember to eat, drink enough water, to pray, to get through each day.”

Derfler’s husband has cancer and is also part of Healing Grace Ministry. She said the congregation has been a network of support, and she credits Ierien for guiding the group in prayer.

“She helps us to be grateful in all things and how to visualize our connection to God in order to help heal the body,” Derfler said. “We become very connected to the other people in the group because we hear them sharing their stories. It’s a small group, but we talk honestly about our feelings with each other.”

Ierien said this prayer life helps bring clarity for the group’s members. “There is something quite powerful about sharing our burdens and challenges with each other and, with this act of anointing, [we] proclaim hope and love through this blessing,” she added.

Since the ministry started, about 20 people have participated, and the number changes every month depending on where people are in their health journey. Participants pray for healing and wholeness and don’t dwell on the negative aspects of their health challenges, Ierien said, adding that the attitudes of participants have influenced their prognoses.

“Some are living much longer than their doctors anticipated, others have entered into remission when we all thought that was impossible, and others maintain well-being even while living with chronic conditions,” she said.

Holy Trinity member Julie Mentzer has stage-4 cancer. While there are other support groups in the Lebanon area, she has “leaned in” to the Healing Grace Ministry. “People come and share as much as they need to,” she added. “There’s no pressure to talk about anything beyond what we want to.”

Mentzer has found that the breathing techniques taught during meditation sessions help ease the anxiety she feels around needles, especially the port she has to have installed for treatment.

“I know that when I meet someone with cancer, I can invite them to the group. ‘Come as you are, I don’t care who you are—come check it out,’ ” she said. “I am living for what I have now. I focus on the bad sometimes and get upset, but then I take a few days to process it and then get back to living. Make sure my son is having the best life possible—I live for these things.”

Martin Zimmann
The Rev. Dr. Martin Otto Zimmann is an adjunct professor of church and society at United Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg campus. He holds a Ph.D. in American culture studies.

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