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Joy and Gratitude in the Midst of Pain

A Letter from Martha Sommers, serving in Malawi, currently in Chicago

October 2018

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Dear Friends and Family,

Today, like many mornings, I awoke before the sun came up, experiencing burning pain across most of my anterior trunk. As my awareness increased, the pain localized to the area where my left breast used to be and the abdominal wound where a graft was taken to reconstruct the left breast once the mastectomy was done for my recurrent breast cancer.

These early mornings are my most painful and emotional time of day, and tears flowed. First tears of frustration: Surgery was nine weeks ago, and my wounds are weeks away from healing, since they reopened, especially where they border tissue that was damaged when I had radiation to this area in 2014. Next tears of relief: I am now cancer-free, the graft succeeded, and my wounds are slowly healing from the inside out.

These tears flow into feelings of gratitude for so much, especially how I have been and continue to be cared for and supported by so many in person and around the world.

When it is 5 a.m. in Chicago, I know it is noon in Malawi. So, missing my community of friends in Malawi, I reach for my cellphone to start exchanging messages. When I shared my difficulties with pain when going to bed and waking up with a WhatsApp group formed with three dear friends spread throughout Malawi, my friend Louise texted back, “…daylight brings relief to many who suffer. Night can be so hard. Thank you for sharing. Now we know better how to pray for you. You are part of my daily prayers.”

The next message was a video of the dancing to close the General Assembly of the PC(USA)’s partner, the Church of Central African Presbyterian’s Synod of Livingstonia. Mphatso, who was at the meeting, added, “Martha, I sent this to you so that you can dance a bit and wear yourself out to sleep.” Then after my questions about the event, messaged, “Great fun today, Martha. I really enjoyed it.”

These exchanges are great positive mood changers.

When still in bed, I often read from the Bible on my smartphone. Today, I was reading the story of Jesus healing the man who was let down through the roof of the house from the New Life Translation: “Four men came to Jesus carrying a man who could not move his body. These men could not get near Jesus because of so many people. They made a hole in the roof of the house over where Jesus stood. Then they let down the bed with the sick man on it” (Mark 2:3-4). These verses caught my attention.

By this time, the sun had begun to shine through my bedroom window, so I decided to get out of bed for my morning walk through the neighborhood and reflect on these verses as I walked. That I can take these walks, which lengthen as I recover, reminds me that I am healing. In between greeting other walkers and noticing changing flowers and trees, I loosely followed the Ignatian Method of imaginatively inserting myself into the story in Mark 2. This time, I imagined myself as the man who was being carried by his friends. From my present experience as a patient, I projected the feelings of doubt in those he has to trust to be brought to the point of healing, the frustration that the journey may be useless as well as uncomfortable, the amazement at the creative problem-solving of his friends, the anxiety in wondering if the strangers who would have to make way for him as he was let down would assist, and the fear that hope is not possible. Next, the relief upon arriving, and then the amazing healing. Then my imagination wandered to his friends who had worked together creatively to bring him to Jesus, where he was healed. My imagination hopes that they walked back home together celebrating.

By this time, I was back at home at the base of the stairs, pausing to catch my breath before climbing the stairs to the door of our first-floor flat. I thought of my dear sister Mary, who has rearranged her household to ease my healing. My bedroom just across the first-floor bathroom, a refrigerator consistently full of ready-to-eat healthy food, and the front room with a bed that family who came into town to care for me could use. The family and friends she arranged so I always had a caretaker my first month, and the fun we have had with chats and watching a bit on Netflix together. I think of my nieces and nephew in town. This prolonged recovery has led to precious conversations as they took me to appointments, braided my hair, and did cleaning and laundry. I also give thanks for the visits, phone calls, cards, messages, and prayers from so many of you. You have brought joy to my days.

By now I am inside, sitting at the dining room table, half of which has become my temporary desk. I am remembering patients I cared for with complicated wounds while serving as a doctor, working with our partners at Embangweni, Ekwendeni, and Nkhoma Hospitals. Sometimes patients would have to stay in the hospital for months, especially when there was not a clean water supply close to their houses. I remember their guardians, which is the term used in Malawi for the people who bring the patients to the hospital and stay with them to take care of their needs while they are there. This includes serving the patients’ meals, bathing them, washing their clothes and bedding by hand, and learning skills like wound care. I would join our nursing and clinical staff in encouraging the patients and families through the frustrations, and we celebrated when they could finally be discharged. Now that I am having my time of being a patient, I am thankful for what patients have taught me about trusting, receiving, and persevering.

Hopefully my present experiences will inform my teaching and caregiving when I return to Nkhoma Hospital to work alongside our partners. Your financial support makes my ministry possible. Thank you. Please continue supporting me, and prayerfully consider increasing your support as we journey together.

Love to you all,


Please read this important message from José Luis Casal, Director, Presbyterian World Mission

Dear partners in God’s mission,

We near the close of 2018 inspired by the hope of Christ. God is transforming the world, and you are helping to make it happen.

Thank you very much for your support of our mission co-workers. The prayers and financial gifts of people like you enable them to work alongside global partners to address poverty, hopelessness, violence and other pressing problems in the name of Jesus Christ.

Every day, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers are blessed to be able to walk alongside their brothers and sisters across the globe. Listening to each other in faith and in friendship, they learn from each other how to work towards a world in which everyone flourishes. Acting upon what they discover together, PC(USA) mission co-workers and our global partners strengthen the body of Christ.

Because you are an integral part of God’s mission, I invite you to become more deeply committed to Presbyterian World Mission. First, would you make a year-end gift for the sending and support of our mission co-workers? The needs in the world are great, and World Mission is poised to answer God’s call to serve others.

I also invite you to ask your session to add our mission co-workers to your congregation’s prayer list and mission budget for 2019 and beyond. Your multi-year commitment will make a great difference in our involvement with our partners. The majority of our mission co-workers’ funding comes from the special gifts of individuals and congregations like yours, for God’s mission is a responsibility of the whole church, not a particular area of the church. Now more than ever, we need your financial support!

In faith, our mission co-workers accept a call to mission service. In faith, World Mission, representing the whole church and you, sends them to work with our global partners. In faith, will you also commit to support this work with your prayers and financial gifts? With hope and faith, I await your positive response!

At God’s service and at your service!

José Luis Casal

P.S. Your gift will help meet critical needs of our global partners. Thank you!

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