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Testimony of Mary Lou Long
Mary Lou Long
Mary Lou Long

"God's Amazing Love"

Brooksyne Weber

If Opal Whary had anxious thoughts they were surely intensified as she was in route to the Shamokin Community Hospital preparing to give birth. A winter snow storm caused her husband, Harry, to lose control of the car. As they were climbing the mountain the car slid off the road and got stuck in the mounting snow.  Fortunately his brother-in-law, traveling with the young couple, lent his support. Together he and Harry physically lifted the car and got it back on the snow covered road.   Just forty minutes shy of being the first New Years baby of 1949, Opal gave birth to Mary Lou in the early morning hours of Jan. 2, 2008.

She was born to a father who was a young army veteran dealing with nightmarish memories of his service in World War II.  After his military discharge Harry went to work in the coal mines.  He abused alcohol attempting to erase some of the painful recollections inevitable to those who have fought in the military, especially during the war years.

His excess in alcohol likely contributed to the physical and verbal abuse Mary Lou endured during her childhood years.

Knowing the grave dangers of coalmining Harry and Opal chose to move their family to the small community of Columbia, PA in Lancaster County when Mary Lou was three years old.  While they lived in Columbia their family grew with the addition of two more children.  Harry went to work in the foundry and Opal began working at the Little Prince Factory right across the street from their home.

Mary Lou as child
Mary Lou began attending a church in her neighborhood where she walked every Sunday. Her parents did not attend, but Mary Lou had a desire to learn about God so she went to church on her own and attended a Catechism class where she was getting Bible instruction.

On May 9, 1960 Deborah was born to the growing family now settled in Columbia for the past seven years.  In March the following year the family vacationed in Shamokin at Mary Lou's grandmother's house. They returned on a Sunday and by the time they reached home Debbie, now 10 months old, became very ill.

Doctors still made house calls at that time, so the doctor stopped late Monday afternoon to check on little Debbie.  She indicated that the baby was very sick and late that evening made a call to the hospital to make arrangements for Debbie to be admitted.

Harry, extremely worried throughout the day, walked toward the stairs to go change from his work clothes. On his way up he looked his 12 year old daughter squarely in the face and said to Mary Lou, "If she dies it's your fault."

The weight and confusion of that statement crushed Mary Lou's young heart as she considered Debbie's critical health crisis.  She didn't dare ask what her father meant by his accusatory statement, but it never left her memory, even to this day.*  Debbie was soon to be diagnosed with viral encephalitis, a severe and potentially life-threatening rare disease.   It was a viral infection that started in her stomach and rapidly traveled upward to her brain.

Mary Lou began to pray fervently for her sick baby sister.  She still recalls sitting on the hassock in her bathroom praying with all her heart, pounding her head against the wall in exasperation, praying, pleading, praying, and pleading some more.

By the end of the week the extended family members were calling on the family.  During one of their visits the telling phone call came at 3:40 on Saturday afternoon. The exact time is permanently etched in Mary Lou's memory because the electric clock in the dining room stopped working at the exact moment the call came.  It never did work again.   She knew in her heart, even before the words were spoken that her baby sister, Debbie, had died.

Mary Lou had pleaded with God in her many heartfelt prayers over the past week to heal her sister.  She reasoned in her young mind:  "God would never take an innocent child.  This was not what I was brought up to believe.  You don't take babies because they don't sin.  Debbie was perfect."  Mary Lou had begged God to take her instead because she was not perfect; she should be the one to die.  She had already celebrated 11 birthdays and Debbie hadn't even blown out her first birthday candle.

"There is no God."  That was the philosophy Mary Lou embraced upon hearing of her sister's death.  She instantly made up her mind that she no longer believed in God and she would never go back to church.  She angrily told her mother, "You can make me go but you can't make me believe."

She never did go back and she embraced the erroneous belief that God did not exist. Her catastrophic personal loss so greatly affected Mary Lou that she held onto this hopeless philosophy for nearly 48 years.  She grew up, married, and soon had a son, Brian.   Then at a young age Mary Lou found herself to be a single mother following the divorce from her first marriage.

Mary Lou as teen
When Brian was 18 months old she fell in love with Neal whom she eventually married.  He was an enlisted man so they moved to New Jersey where he was stationed.  Neal adopted Brian and they also wanted a child together, but Mary Lou had great difficulty conceiving.  In fact the doctor told her that she would not be able to conceive, but God miraculously intervened 16 long years later and she became pregnant.  Since she had difficulty giving birth to Brian she found herself praying that she would be able to carry this miracle baby safely to delivery. She prayed to a God that did not exist.  God did answer prayer and Christy was born on Feb. 2, 1987, when Brian was 18 years old.

Mary Lou raised both of her children with the familiar philosophy:  I won't send or take them to church, but when they're old enough I'll let them decide for themselves.

Her marriage to Christy's father disintegrated and she was divorced for a second time in 2002.  About 15 years ago Brian married and made his home in Lancaster City.  Christy, now 21, serves in the navy and is stationed in Jacksonville, Florida.  She recently married a fellow sailor, Aaron Woolever.

In November 2007 Mary Lou, now living on her own, was diagnosed with a very rare cancer, large-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma of the lung.  It is an aggressive form of cancer that would require her to undergo many months of chemotherapy and radiation.

She was able to arrange rides for her treatments but soon found that she was physically and financially unable to provide herself with nutritive meals.  One of the critical side effects of cancer patients is their likelihood of losing weight which greatly compromises the healing process.  Mary Lou's weight at the time of her diagnosis was 150#.  She now weighs merely 78# (about half her original weight).

Oren and NaomiMary Lou's nurse contacted loveINC  (Love In the Name of Christ) which brings Christian churches together, across denominational lines, to help the needy by meeting immediate needs such as food and clothing, to longer-term responses through relational ministries such as life skills training and transitional housing.  Naomi, a woman in our church, who volunteers with Love INC began to visit Mary Lou shortly after she began her treatments.  She and her husband, Oren, began to pray for Mary Lou's physical challenges and for her spiritual heart to be transformed.

In a very short time she enlisted Pastor Bob to make regular visits to Mary Lou's apartment.  He talked to her about spiritual matters and gave her the Bible on tape, hopeful that she might listen as she recovered on the couch day after day, month after month. Naomi also asked me to visit and I did so in February and March of this year.  Not knowing where Mary Lou stood spiritually I began to ask her questions, prayed with her and also gave her some Christian literature.

On my first visit I asked Mary Lou, "What is your relationship with Christ?"  She gave me an interesting response.  "I don't believe that God exists, but over the years I prayed to Him at different times.  I asked Pastor Bob, 'Is it possible to still pray but say I don't believe in God?'  He thought about it for a while and then told me, 'In my opinion I think you do believe.  You wouldn't pray if you didn't believe in God.'" Spiritual conversation did not come easily on my first few visits, nevertheless I prayed with Mary Lou each time and sensed that God was doing a special work in her heart.

I lost touch with her for several months.  The last time I'd seen her was on Sunday, March 23, when I took over some spring flowers and an Easter dinner.  The next week she went out of state to her brother's house and then I broke my ankle and was out of commission for quite some time.

Being reminded at church recently of Mary Lou's need for meals, I stopped for a visit a couple weeks ago.  I expected to have the usual conversation with her, but I was in for a wonderful surprise.

Pastor's reasoning with Mary Lou months earlier got her to thinking about her long held belief that God does not exist.  After she began to turn that thought over in her mind for some time she came to realize that God does exist and she invited Him into her life again.  In her own quiet time she repented of her sins, her disbelief in God, and the many years she wasted embracing this poisonous lie.

Mary Lou wept as she told me, "I lost all those years, denied myself all the pleasure of knowing God and following Him.  I now got back the joy, happiness and peace that I once had."  And it is very evident as her countenance is brightened and her outlook is much more positive.

Only about three months ago Mary Lou came to realize that her disease is terminal.  The chemo and radiation were given to her to prolong her life, but the treatments are unable to eradicate the lung cancer.  She began to receive hospice care this week and has only a short time to live.

I asked her how she is able to live day to day knowing that doctors have numbered her days.  She told me she cannot see into the unforeseeable future but she has chosen to receive "the foreseeable gift, accepting God's Son as her Savior."  Again Mary Lou wept as she told me, "I just cannot comprehend the love of God – that He would give His only Son to come to earth to die for me."  She compared this incredible love with the unconditional love she has for her children.  Bothered by the fact that she can't comprehend God's overwhelming love for her, she was relieved when I confessed that I also cannot grasp it.  I told her, "Mary Lou, I can't understand it but I can accept it by faith."  She responded to my honest confession, "Then, I can do that as well."  We both smiled and marvelled in God's amazing love.

Mary Lou had wanted to participate in clinical trials, but due to the rarity of her cancer there is no funding for this type of research.  She then thought about donating her organs but her only acceptable organs are her corneas which would help only one person in need.  She has instead decided to donate her whole body to science so thousands may benefit.  Whole body donations provide the ability to find cures for many debilitating conditions like cancer and Alzheimer's.  Donations help develop new medicines, study human anatomy and perfect new surgical procedures.  Please remember Mary Lou in prayer as she experiences a lot of discomfort.  She is able to eat only a few bites of food each day.  Pray especially for her daughter, Christy, who is having difficulty accepting her mother's illness.  She has been given temporary leave to be with her mother.  Though Mary Lou's body is weakening her spirit is being strengthened and renewed day by day.

*Mary Lou has thought many, many times about the day her father told her "If she dies, it's your fault."  It didn't make sense then and it makes no sense to her now.  Likely he was in shock and didn't even know what he was saying at the moment, worried about the possible outcome.  Mary Lou also recalled that the car got very warm on the way home from their trip to her grandmother's house.  Debbie's face had reddened so Mary Lou unzipped the top part of her snow suit thinking she had gotten too warm.  Maybe her father thought she'd caught a serious cold as a result.   In hindsight it was likely that Debbie  already had the viral infection while on her family trip.


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Personal Mission Statement: "I am created by God to bring Him glory. Through God's Son Jesus Christ I have been redeemed and I make it my life's goal to please the Lord. My mission in life is to honor God through my faith and obedience and to prepare myself and all whom I may influence for eternity."

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