Of all the words in the English language, one word seems to possess a stopping power that few others can claim.
That word alone has the immediate potential to elicit a wide array of emotions, often accompanied by fear, panic, grief, and many other emotions. A cancer diagnosis is arguably the most feared of all medical news, as cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Every year, millions of dollars are invested in research that one day might find a cure.
But for now, countless people live through a cancer journey, and Our Journey of Hope (OJH) was started to support them.
In the early 2000s, Rev. Percy McCray was working for Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) as a hospital minister.
“I was the director of chaplains at CTCA Chicago, and I had the opportunity to support a cancer patient. This particular patient asked if I would be willing to sit down with her pastor to share with [him] the things we were doing from a cancer care perspective. [Things] that would enhance insight and ministry to cancer patients inside the local church.”
From this singular interaction in a Chicago hospital room, the global need became obvious to McCray.
“That really birthed the idea that there was a missing gap of information and resources [in] the local church regarding cancer care ministry,” McCray told AFA Journal.
With the support of CTCA, OJH now offers free training sessions around the country where church members can receive instruction and resources regarding how to start cancer care ministries in their local churches.
“Our Journey of Hope,” said McCray, “empowers the local church to be an engaged community – people who are not shrinking away from the conversation of cancer but are poised and positioned to engage with those individuals.”
This ministry is expanding far beyond the United States. Nearly 2,000 churches worldwide have been equipped, including congregations in Africa, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and Canada.
A special ministry
“The unique dynamic of cancer care ministry is the universality of the effect of the disease,” said McCray. “[Unlike] other types of ministries inside the local church – the choir, the ushers, the children’s church, the greeters, the singles ministry, etc. – the difference is that cancer is indiscriminate to age, sex, or cultural orientation. Cancer impacts everyone.”
One facet of ministering to those with cancer involves understanding just how many people are experiencing cancer right now.
“According to the American Cancer Society,” said McCray, “one out of three people are estimated to be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime.”
The National Cancer Institute reported that 2018 saw 18.1 million new cases of cancer worldwide with 9.5 million cancer-related deaths.
The mission of OJH is to provide churches with an understanding of what cancer victims go through and to prepare congregations to support their specific needs.
“Many cancer patients have belonged to great churches and loved their pastors but [don’t] feel like they [are] being embraced,” said McCray. “In many ways, the stigma of not understanding the disease...not understanding what to say or do creates a sense of ‘I’m here, but I’m not really here.’”
The presence of this specific type of ministry is sorely needed because of the specific needs and dangers often associated with a cancer journey.
“In some cases,” McCray explained, “[cancer patients] become very isolated because people stop talking to them altogether. The impact of this ministry to a local church is to equip that community of people to engage that person in a way they feel loved, valued, and responded to.”
A personal journey
In 2019, the impact of cancer became very real to McCray when he was diagnosed with early-stage 1 colon cancer.
“When I was told that I had cancer,” McCray recounted, “it became very clear to me that cancer patients must summon incredible strength to overcome the mental and emotional avalanche of hearing that word.”
Through his own cancer journey, McCray is now able to encourage other patients with the good news of Jesus Christ as well as accurately instruct church bodies in how to most effectively minister to cancer patients.
“The first thing every individual should do when told someone has cancer,” advised McCray, “is to allow that person to decompress without providing any type of unsolicited information.”
McCray’s testimony is one of reliance and trust in God’s plan to use any situation for His glory.
John 9:1 (NIV) says, “[Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”
“I accepted this,” McCray said of his cancer experience, “as being part of the purpose and the plan for me from a ministry perspective. What I have experienced on some glorious levels is how cancer has changed and enhanced a person’s personal life.”
McCray tells the inspiring story of a woman who, after surviving a bout of cancer, felt challenged to remain active and impactful.
So she planted an organic blueberry farm.
The woman then opened up the farm to her Iowa community, allowing others to come and pick what she had planted.
“It’s turned into a testimony that is blessing people,” said McCray, “and her comment was ‘I would have never done that had I not been a cancer patient.’”
For 24 years, McCray has ministered to cancer patients, speaking the Word of God over their lives, such as Romans 12:2 (NIV): “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
For many, the most hopeless and dire moments have been brought by a cancer diagnosis. However, the transformative power of Jesus is strong enough to take the pain and anguish, even of cancer, and turn it into something truly spectacular, for the glory of God.
The promise of John 16:33 is still true today. “Take heart!” Jesus says. “I have overcome the world.”
Remarkable faith, resilient hope
Although millions like McCray have survived a cancer journey, many others have lost loved ones due to the same disease. Monica Cole, (photo, left, with her late husband Keith and their son Michael) director of AFA’s One Million Moms, lost her husband Keith to stomach cancer in 2020. Through her family’s experience, she is able to offer insight and encouragement to others who are experiencing a cancer battle.
“We continued to stand strong in our faith,” Cole said. “I don’t know how anyone gets through something as life-changing as a cancer battle without a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Keith’s battle with stomach cancer lasted 25 months, and Cole encourages others not to waste a single day of the time you have left.
“Take advantage of even the small moments,” Cole said. “Be patient and continue to pray.”
Although they experienced different outcomes, Cole and McCray both adamantly agree: Keep your hope in Jesus.
“The hope was knowing where Keith was going to spend eternity,” Cole explained. “We were at peace, my son and I, knowing that he will spend eternity in heaven and that we will see him again one day.”
(Editor's Note: This article was published first in the May edition of the AFAJournal and was posted online HERE).