CLEVELAND, Ohio (Christian Examiner) – It was after the heartbreaking loss of their son Benjamin that Anna and Eric Heatherly realized the unique challeges posed by their son's health problems had given them opportunities to share the Gospel in unexpected ways.
Anna, a 2002 graduate from Truett-McConnell College in Georgia, would never have guessed the plans God had in store for her when she entered her freshman year at the college—a plan that would involve challenges, tragedy, and a calling to ministry.
"We wouldn't want to go through anything like this again, and we most certainly would rather have Benjamin with us," Anna told Truett-McConnell, "but we said from the beginning that if one person has seen Jesus through this situation and one life was changed, it was all worth it."
Not long after answering the call to ministry, Anna and Eric celebrated their third pregnancy.
However, their son, Benjamin West, had a condition undetected by doctors, hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which meant he was born with only half a heart.
After his birth, the Heatherlys were told their son would not make it through the night, but God had different plans. Their 10-day-old son had an eight hour open heart surgery. He was in the hospital 58 days before coming home, Anna remembers.
After another surgery, Benjamin went to be with Jesus where he was eternally healed.
God used even this tragic situation for good. "This was a very tough time for our family," Anna said. "However, we have seen God work in so many ways. We've been able to share the Gospel with people through Benjamin's story, and we've been able to minister to others who have had children in the hospital for long times or even lost a child."
Echoing his wife's sentiment, Eric shared how this period of testing challenged their family in every way possible: "It was the greatest test I have ever experienced as a follower of Christ, as a husband and a father. My family and I literally saw God perform miracles, answer prayers, hold and carry us when nothing else would or could do so."
While seeking the Lord's will for their lives, the Heatherly's became aware of a church planting internship in Cleveland, Ohio. A part-time position, Eric knew it would not be enough to support his family, but he sent in his resume anyway.
Soon the couple was invited to learn more about the part-time associate pastor position in Painesville Baptist Church.
Eric trusted God's provision in accepting the job. "As we left our meeting with the pastoral search team at PBC, I recall Anna and I getting into our car, looking at each other and both saying, 'Uh-oh, we're moving to Ohio.'"
Eventually, Eric's part time associate pastor position turned into a full-time pastor position of youth and family ministry.
"Roughly 90 percent of northeast Ohio, particularly the Cleveland area, is believed to be unsaved or unreached with the Gospel," Eric said. "Those numbers were earthshattering. They were and remain numbers that crush my heart."
While many Christians are unaware of the large number of Americans who have not heard the Gospel, the Heatherlys are determined to persevere toward God's call to ministry.
ANSWERING THE CALL
"My calling is to share the Gospel – to be salt and light – no matter the circumstances," Eric said. "Knowing that God is in control and that He is going to be glorified takes all the pressure off of me. I am but a bondservant and my labor is to exalt my King."
Eric credits Anna with the strength to submit to God's will in their marriage and ministry.
"I chose TMC for all the wrong reasons," Eric admitted. After he became a believer during college, he left TMC for a while, returning to finish his degree after his marriage to Anna in 2001.
"We struggled to remain obedient to Christ," Eric said, "but God stirred Anna's heart to recommitment before He did mine. Once we both recognized that we were missing the mark by not having Christ at the center of our relationship, God really began to grow our relationship both vertically and horizontally."
Anna testifies about God's goodness in giving them memories of encouragement from their college years to fall back on in the midst of tragedy: "I look back at the time at TMC and I'm thankful for the friendships I made back then," Anna said.
"After Benjamin was born and died, there were so many people at TMC who rallied behind us and prayed for us and just encouraged us through the rough days. It makes me thankful for the friendships and relationships we made there."