Friends, family, and loved ones,
This is both very late and painful to write. The pain has much to do with why it has taken me so long to send it out to you, and for that I can only ask for your forgiveness. Several things have made for a difficult period of time for me personally and for the family here in Cherokee. One of the families that had become close to us moved to live in eastern Tennessee, and when they and their 4 children left we had a hole that was not easy to used to. Their participation and faithful attendance were welcome and we miss them, while at the same time being glad for their new opportunities after the move.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with was the loss of one of the stalwarts of this congregation. For about as long as there had been a church of Christ in Cherokee, there has been a Winnie Cooper singing, learning, loving, and sharing her life with all that were part of our number. She was a personal friend to Debbie and me, she was an example to many here, and when things got tough for the church in 2004, when there were only 3 regular members here, Winnie was very much the glue that held out the hope that if they just hang in there, God would help the church turn the corner. After nearly 3 years without a regular minister, with the congregation here on the ropes, a series of things brought us to Cherokee to work with the congregation. We were new to this kind of work but people like Winnie and Rege McCauley were patient with me as I learned to preach and learned to be 'the minister'. Winnie passed from this life to her reward and we miss her still.
About 6 weeks prior to losing our 'Miss Winnie', Sam Swayney (one of our converts of the last year or so) lost his mother to cancer. She was not someone that I knew closely, but my relationship with Sam is close and his family asked me to take the lead in her funeral services. I had no idea how respected she was among the people here... there were more people than the building could hold for her services. She and her husband had taught one of the most respected Baptist preachers on the boundary how to speak Cherokee. He and another minister from the other large Baptist congregation were at the funeral, and both spoke highly of her after the services were over. They were also both very kind, complimenting me on my message and speaking about how much they were glad for the positive influence that my wife and I have had on the boundary.
Less than a week after Sam's mothers burial, a young man (early 40's) who worked for the tribal DOT was killed while on the job early in the day. I didn't know Brad Allison, but I did know his daughter. Kathrine Allison worked at the coffee house that I stop at virtually every day for an hour or so. It is an opportunity for me to meet people that I wouldn't meet any other way. As folks talk to me while they are waiting for their coffee, we sometimes get into deeper topics about how their lives are going, what is difficult that I can pray with them about, etc. Well, Kathrine asked me to officiate for her dad's funeral. She and her brother were left to deal with all of the arrangements as he was a widower. I met with other family members in order to gather what I could to prepare myself for the days ahead and helped Kat and her brother Cole with the things that must be done at a time like this. It was such a public death that we used the auditorium at the high school for the memorial services and nearly 850 people were there. The next day for the graveside committal the number was still well over 250. It was a chance to make an impression on many people here in Cherokee, but first and foremost it was a chance to help my friend bury her father.
Three deaths in a very short period of time, all people very close to me... it took quite a bit out of me. In a few weeks there was to be another death. Bruce Martin was my friend. He and his wife Nancy became our best friends here, they were both Native Americans, both well respected people on the boundary, and losing Bruce to cancer was the hardest thing for me personally. He passed on a Saturday and because it was his wish not to be embalmed, his funeral was scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 4:00. I was committed to a wedding the same day, also at 4:00 in a community about 45 minutes away, so we left the early visitation with the family and headed to the wedding. While waiting at a traffic light about halfway there, we were rear ended by a vehicle going about 50 MPH... none of us were injured, but it was a father's day that I will not remember fondly.
Numbers have remained strong, in spite of losing 7 people in a short period of time, we continue to have 35-50 on a regular basis for Sunday worship, our evening numbers are still in the high teens to low twenties, and our bible studies are going strong. We have been so blessed in so many ways. The final difficulty for me personally was about 3 months ago. On a routine doctor visit it was recommended that I see a dermatologist about a few spots, one on my neck and one on my back. Some biopsy's later, it is confirmed to be Basil Cell Carcinoma... a skin cancer that is relatively easy to treat, so after 2 rounds of surgery the margins are 'clear' (good news) and I am due back for a 6 month checkup. Other people get cancer, not me. Some of you reading this may know exactly what I mean and the range of emotions that ran amuck at times in my mind. It was just another ride on the emotional roller coaster that Spring/Summer 2015 has been.
Some of you are aware that our oldest daughter is trying to get her life back on track and has lived with us since the first part of the year. While she is making good progress, there is still a long way to go. Pray for her and for us... I especially ask you to keep Debbie in your prayers as she has a front row seat to all of this! We continue on, this is a long and sometimes difficult road to be on, but we feel that God has called us to this place and as long as we can do the things needed in this community, this will be home. We'll never be 'from here', but our acceptance in the community is unquestioned. There is a new Chief and Vice Chief of the Cherokee people and I know but of them closely enough to call and be called by name. Pray that we may have even more opportunities here!
I feel as though there are many things that I have left out, we had folks from Creve Hall church of Christ bring a group in and we had a successful VBS, there have been other groups come for quick weekend work days, and our ladies just got back from attending the Diana singing a few weeks ago in Tennessee. At times I think that I am waking up from a numbness, like when your foot falls asleep and as it 'wakens up' the tingling has a really odd feel to it... well that is the way I am still feeling to a certain degree, but the normal is returning. Fall is approaching, cooler temperatures will be upon us, and the time that heals will soon help this to be a memory that is easier to view from afar.
Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers, it is a great comfort to know that people that hardly know us bring us before the father on a regular basis. May God bless you all!
Jim and Debbie