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Fellow travellers in the valley

17 October 2014

When Helen Jones failed to find a cancer-support group, she founded one. Now it is developing into a ministry, reports Pat Ashworth

Cancer support: some of the participants on a Firm Roots retreat day

Cancer support: some of the participants on a Firm Roots retreat day

THERE was a part of Helen Jones that wanted to forget all about her cancer treatment after it was over, and continue with her life as though it had never happened. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 40, she underwent a mastectomy, and then endured six gruelling months of chemotherapy, in what she describes as "physically a really horrible year".

Spiritually, however, it was a different matter. "I had a firm sense from the beginning that God had a purpose in this, and was going to use it to his glory and to do a work in me," she says.

"I had never felt closer to him. He completely held me through it, and gave me the strength every day. When I wanted to forget it ever happened, I just felt him saying that I needed to remember the story of his grace, in order to help other people."

She embarked on a search for Christian cancer-ministry in the UK, and was nonplussed to find nothing listed. She recalls how her hopes were raised as she trawled the internet, and came across a group meeting the following week to pray for people going through cancer - only to find it was in San Diego, in the United States. It was run by an Evangelical megachurch, Rock Church.

"I got in touch with its founder and said: 'God is putting this on my heart. I want to tell people God walks alongside us through cancer and gives us strength. How do I start such a ministry?'"

Start in the church where you are now, was the ad-vice she received: get the church's backing; share the vision; get them to pray for you. And then start a prayer group where people can find friendship, conversation, and support, and will pray for the people who come, and for those who cannot make it, but want someone to pray for them.

St Matthew's, Kingsdown, in Bristol, took up the vision. The Firm Roots Cancer Prayer Support Group met for the first time in June 2012, and has continued every month since, fulfilling its aim to walk alongside cancer sufferers and their families.


THE nature and complexity of cancer is well articulated in sufferers' stories and comments on the Firm Roots website, where descriptions of trembling legs and hearts that almost stop on being given a diagnosis find a counterbalance in discovery of a new strength.

Andy Hunter, for instance, offers deep reflection on the "confusing picture" of words in Mark 9: "I believe; help thou mine unbelief." "I am not a cancer sufferer but a person with cancer. Sometimes this is messy," he says.

"This is the point of the text. For many of us, we do 'get' it, sometimes. Other times, we are not sure. Sometimes we are believing and walking. Sometimes our faith is strong and punching. Sometimes we need help. Sometimes it feels messy. Sometimes we are leaping, and sometimes we are limping."

The vision for Firm Roots - which is advertised in churches of all denominations in Bristol, and at the Oncology Hospital - has always been that it is not solely for people with cancer, but for their families, too.

"We have some who are, or have been, patients, and many who had cancer years ago, but say it still casts a shadow over their lives, and brings issues they still have to deal with," Mrs Jones says. The prayer group remains confidential.

"Often," she says, "they can't share with their family what's on their heart, because they don't want them to know how desperate they are feeling - how afraid they are of dying, or whatever." The organisation's strapline - "Strength for today, hope for tomorrow" - is something that carries encouragement for the bleak days, and for those facing death: "We still have hope through God."

Retreat days have developed out of the prayer support-group at Bristol. Mrs Jones describes these as "a combination of worship and music, a mixture of quiet time and encouragement".

Creativity features highly on these retreat days, whether in writing, relaxation, or massage, as does the prayer-and-share time, which provides "a chance to share each other's stories and encourage one another. That's been a real highlight."

Firm Roots is also spreading and developing geographically. Mrs Jones's husband, the Revd Ian Jones, trained for ordination at Trinity College, Bristol, and is serving his first curacy at St John the Baptist, Burscough, a move that has taken the family back to its roots in the north-west. The Lancashire Cancer Prayer Support Group resulted from the move, and has met monthly since February. A third group is planned for Birmingham.


THE vision for Firm Roots was always to offer practical as well as spiritual support for people going through cancer; something that had been at the discussion stage in Bristol at the time of the family's move.

During work with Macmillan in Lancashire, this has become a reality: 18 volunteers have just completed training to be able to offer practical assistance. The volunteers, linked with West Lancs CVS, will take meals to people, and do housework and gardening for those trying to cope on their own. The model can now be replicated in other groups.

Mrs Jones is currently writing a pack for churches on how to set up their own Firm Roots group. And funding from Macmillan, for whom Mrs Jones now works, will enable a conference and training day in 2015.

"When God was putting this on my heart, I thought: 'Why me? Choose someone else.' But I'm like the boy with the loaves and the fishes. And I really believe it is God's ministry, and that his passion for it lives in me."



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