In late July of ‘86 my husband was hired for his first full time work as a preacher in Forest Grove, Oregon, a small farm town 30 miles west of Portland named for a grove of oak trees that still stand on what is now the campus of Pacific University. It was less than two hours from our parents so our children could continue to enjoy visiting them and we could continue to help one another out as needed.
Since the church of Christ would much, much rather support preachers all over the world who are spreading the gospel and saving souls, than put a lot of funds into a fancy house of worship, I remember the first time we turned the corner approaching the church building and thinking, “That can’t be it--- that’s too pretty!” But as it turned out, the stately, white 1912 church building with the stained glass and bell tower at 18th and Birch in Forest Grove turned out to be the right place because they’d gotten a screamin’ deal from the Methodists on it.
The church building came with a parsonage. Over and over, if we did not keep the door locked, confused homeless people off the street would just walk in because the cement on the sidewalk had an inscription indicating the building was a “Children’s Home”. The doorbell would often ring, and someone would be there asking for cash, usually for “bus fare”. For a while, everyone seemed to always be at the opposite end of the country than where they needed to be. Almost always we would either feed them dinner, or pack them a sack lunch, and usually we’d offer them work for money, though no one ever took us up on that.
The house was all one level, and the talented members in the congregation had converted what had once been that children’s home and office space, into living quarters for the preacher’s family. The big house was considered part of the preacher’s paycheck --- a great arrangement, especially for a preacher not as concerned about growing equity in an owned home. We loved it, and it was certainly handy to have a dishwasher repair or any other kind of fix just a phone call away for “free”.
The parsonage had so much more space than I had ever lived in, that the living room felt more akin to a bowling alley. We used every square inch of it though having this very social congregation over. There were Sunday night gatherings with the youth where I remember after class when Mark would dismiss them to line up for dinner, I would on occasion announce “The first shall be last and the last shall be first'' and the line would start be flipped with stragglers going first and the “me first” types, last. There were beach trips, themed potlucks, a “secret sisters” club, holiday parties, and any other excuse we could think of to spend time together. Not long after our arrival, a spunky, intelligent woman named Maria had immigrated to America from Mexico with her four school-aged children, and although she could speak almost no English, she invited us into her home to teach her children the Bible in English. After enjoying our Bible class together, Maria taught me how to cook all kinds of authentic Mexican food with the help of her three boys and daughter willing to translate and a lot of hand gesturing.
Before gospel meetings the church would pass out hundreds of flyers to the neighborhood inviting the locals to come hear our guest speakers.
In the 80’s and 90’s many of our visitors were open to Bible studies and Mark and I both would always have several studies each week with people we were meeting in the community and friends of our church family. The church grew quickly. Whenever anyone was baptized, Mark would continue to study together with them to help ground them in the truths of scripture and help insure their long term spiritual success. For a new sister-in-Christ, we would teach her similar classes, but one on one with a different sister for every lesson so she would have an opportunity to also start building deeper friendships within the congregation. Mark was soon invited to study with some local preachers that were very instrumental in helping him dig deeper into the word so he could mature and grasp more clearly how to apply the word to more complex situations such as what the scriptures specifically say are a Christian’s options for remarrying after divorce.
Things were going very well, and eventually I juggled a job in the grocery department of a local variety store with teaching classes to the ladies. One of my sisters asked me to teach a ladies class from a book called “Let This Cup Pass” on the topic of surviving loss, trauma and trials. I agreed to it, but remember not feeling very qualified, having never gone through much of anything too terribly trying . As Providence would have it, by the time we had completed the book, I had become much more qualified to talk about the pain and sufferings of this life.
C.S. Lewis has noted a concept that comes into play at this point of my memories from our years in Forest Grove. “A secret Master of Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others...They are, like all others, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing. At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests.” C.S. Lewis
Providence “spread the board and chose the guests” when newlyweds Mike and Debbi McCown moved to Forest Grove the same week we did so that Mike could go to Pacific University to become an eye doctor. The friendship chemistry between the four of us was spot on our first evening together and we became almost inseparable. We'd end up best friends for life, not so much because of how hard we played together enjoying racquetball, skiing, basketball, board games and going out for dinner, but more because, Mark and I were about to experience some of the most painful events of our lives, and this couple, as well as the other kind hearts in the Forest Grove congregation, would be our support network through it all.
When our first born, Ashley, was four, Mark and I decided to have another child. I was 25 years old when I conceived in September of 1987 but in January of 1988, when I was about four months along, my obstetrician’s office called me alarmed at the results of a high AFP test. They were concerned about a neural tube defect, and wanted me to go quickly to Emanuel Hospital in Portland, to ensure that the baby was okay. The statistics were on my side and I began to feel the baby kick that very day.
My mother met Mark and I there at Emanuel, and we sat in a room with a genetics counselor, who described all kinds of neural tube defects and what the survival statistics were for each, but because of anxiety, all they were saying just kind of went through me. They led me to a small exam room, turned off all the lights, and began an ultrasound. The process went on and on in silence, except for the hum of the machinery, and the clicking of the keys, as they took one picture after another. I rarely looked at the screen, but instead watched the wall next to me, knowing that I would not be able to make sense of the screen anyway, and did not want to unnecessarily alarm myself any further with my untrained eye. Mark and my mother watched the screen, but no one asked any questions. The technician was professional and of course showed no emotion. I turned and looked at the screen, just in time for the radiologist to turn it off. I could see a wide-eyed baby like a little skeleton staring blankly back at me. He turned off the screen, and I watched the image fade. The lights were turned back on, and he said, “Your baby has anencephaly. Do you know what that is?” The genetic counselor sighed aloud. I felt the blood rush to my face, and adrenaline sore through my body. My heart was pounding. “No”, I answered. “Anencephaly is the most severe form of neural tube defects; it occurs in about 5 out of one thousand pregnancies, and only about one third of these continue to term. The baby is alive now, which is why you feel it kicking and getting the hiccups, but the child has zero percent chance of survival outside of your womb because the only part of the brain that has developed is the brainstem. You will probably want to terminate the pregnancy for your own well being as soon as possible.”
We walked what felt like a death march back to the genetic counselor’s office to talk about the risks involved in continuing the pregnancy. I had to be able to live with myself. I told her that I would not decide the day of my baby’s death, but would leave that up to God. I personally would not feel at peace with God if I took an innocent life, even if it was a life that was soon destined to end. It felt like it would have been a thousand times easier, had I had a miscarriage, but now I had to tell the rest of my family, my church, and my coworkers, that I would be pregnant for up to another five months, yet I would not be “expecting”.
When I got home from the ultrasound, I went straight to Debbie’s. Mike took one look at me, expressed his support and kindly left the apartment so we could talk in privacy. When the door closed I told her my terrible news, and threw myself on her floor, sobbing and wailing loudly. I cried, and cried, and cried. She did not try to hug me; she knew better, that was not how we helped each other. Instead, she talked and talked to me until finally, I came to my senses. She expressed her respect over my decision to carry the baby, and I was encouraged. She swore her allegiance to me, and would be with me every torturous step of the way. When Mike eventually came back I asked him if they would still be our friends even if we spent a lot of time grieving over the next five months. “Of course” he said, and kept his word.
The ultrasound happened to be a Wednesday, and so we had Bible class that night. After the class was over, and we were about to be dismissed in prayer, Mark got up before the congregation and read what I had written to them:
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance and let endurance have it’s perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” God has seen fit to bless us with a trial, which is not beyond what we are able, with His divine help, to bear.
Today at noon we found out that our baby has a very extremely rare problem called anencephaly meaning it is without a brain. Because its heart continues to pump it is likely that it will live in the womb for 9 months. However, the prognosis for life outside the womb is 0. There is absolutely nothing that we could have done to prevent this birth defect. We have decided to carry the baby full term and let nature take its course. Many more decisions are left to be made. Although we are terribly disappointed, we do not mind at all discussing and answering questions about our problem. We continue to rejoice and celebrate the expectant births of the Cook, Kent, and Root families, and will enjoy, just as much, the birth of their healthy babies. Paul considered that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. We will strive for this attitude. “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” -Pray for us-“
We received Christian love in every way it can be expressed including cards and letters, but the one that touched me the most was a poem written by a grandmother named Esther Roland. It read:
“ Most people look forward to the birth of a child, as a little baby is so meek and mild, One we can hold, and cradle and love, A baby sent from God above.
He gave us an angel.
Our baby girl so sweet, tiny, and new was unlike most babies God gives to you. She was a precious bundle we could not keep, because God wanted her in his place to sleep.
So he gave us an angel.
Sometimes it's hard to understand the hurt we share. But it's not ours to question or ours to say Why God has dealt with us this way.
He gave us an angel.
We can only pray for courage and hope to see us through, and help us cope with all the qualms, anxieties, and fears we are feeling right now mingled with tears.
For our little angel.
With the passing of time the pain will ease, And after turmoil, there will be peace. One day maybe, in a future year He will give you another little baby dear.
God keep our little angel.”
Karena was born and died on Friday, June 17, 1988. Everyone supported us in every way they could. My friend Tami Spidle sewed a burial gown for Karena, and a brother in Christ at our congregation, Al King, who was a cabinet maker, built a coffin for Karena. We made arrangements for Fruiten-Rose Mortuary Chapel for my parents to drive her vaulted remains to her grave at Belcrest Cemetery in Salem, Oregon, near where I grew up. We marked her grave with the sentiment:
“Our joys will be greater,
Our love will be deeper,
Our life will be fuller,
because we shared her moment.”
The chances of having another baby with a neural tube defect were very unlikely, so much so that we decided not to let one devastating pregnancy immobilize us with fear. We were told it would be wise to wait three months to heal, so we waited those months, conceived another child and waited with soberness and some apprehension for the baby to grow enough that we could get some positive medical results to finally put our hearts at rest. Instead, we were called and again told to go to Emanuel Hospital for an amniocentesis, to find out if our baby had, this time, a suspected chromosomal problem.
We waited for two grueling weeks for the results. It was silent as I sat gowned in the cold exam room at my next scheduled appointment with my obstetrician. As I waited slumped and looking at the floor I watched my tears fall onto the little black step stool below. Dr. Robinson walked in with a dreadful look on his face, and told me my baby had Downs Syndrome
My worldview instantly flashed through my mind. I thought my own convictions through again from the foundation up. Am I absolutely certain that there is a God? Zero doubt. Am I absolutely certain that the Bible is His word? Zero doubt. Does the Bible say “Thou shalt not kill”? Most certainly. “Do my decisions in circumstances like this one, determine my eternal destiny?” That’s what God says. Finally, I lifted my head and spoke. “There is no option. I’m having this baby.”
I spent the next eight months preparing to be the mother of a Downs Syndrome son, but when I went in for a third-trimester appointment, my doctor began to look for the heartbeat, and was having trouble finding it. I felt certain it was there, because I had felt the baby kick the night before. He traded his stethoscope for some other contraption that he strapped to his head like a minor, and tried and tried to find the heartbeat. He was blushing with emotion, and would not look me in the eye until finally I said, “If it’s not there, it’s not there.” “It’s not there” he replied.
Mark Maxwell Dunagan was born July 21, 1989 and buried two days later alongside his sister. Debbie McCown was with me for both deliveries, and I was with her for the delivery of her healthy son not too long after that.
The congregation in Forest Grove brought us food as we recovered, counseled and consoled us and in so many other ways loved us well. When we adopted a son from Korea in 1990 and then a daughter in 1993, they showered us with gifts and some of them came to the airport to welcome our babies home. We worked with them for a total of around 7 years before we moved about 30 minutes east to work with a congregation in Beaverton, Oregon. We’ve stayed in touch throughout the years and have watched these brave souls survive some of the most fiery trials a congregation can experience. Still they stand because they’ve put their faith in God alone.
When we visited recently, it had been almost 35 years since they had hired us. They had sold that big old church building, having found it to be too cumbersome to maintain and were in a sleek little rental for the time being. Good call.
There were tried and true people we knew we would see when we walked in, and a few weary prodigals who had finally wandered the winding path home to the arms of their Heavenly Father, bringing their own children along with them. There was also an encouraging sister there whom I did not recognize as she walked up to us thanking us for talking to her in our living room in Beaverton perhaps ten years ago and setting her on the right course. “I've come a long way” she smiled. So have we, dear one. So have we.
Forest Grove Church of Christ
4150 Pacific Ave.
Forest Grove, OR, 97116