HOUSTON A church planter in Houston has seen God implement what he calls a “ministry of suffering” in his local church after his 4-year-old son was born with a heart defect that has required three open heart surgeries.
Cameron Whitley and his wife Hannah had two sons and were expecting a third when they learned from a routine sonogram that the baby was missing a right ventricle, or essentially had half a heart.
Whitley had grown up at Fielder Church in Arlington and was on staff in the youth department there while in college at Dallas Baptist University. He served six years on staff at The Woodlands Church near Houston before moving to the Atlanta area in 2014 to serve as a campus pastor at Mountain Lake Church in Cumming, Ga.
The Whitleys had been in Georgia about a year and a half when they learned their third son, Judson, would face such a difficult journey, and, as Cameron recounted to the TEXAN, “We thought our world was unraveling.”
“Unfortunately, there is a bad theology we can have as believers where we think, ‘If I walk in obedience, if I walk in faith, then everything is going to be great for me.’ Sometimes we believe that lie,” Whitley said. “For us, it was really disheartening. It challenged our faith. It challenged our calling. It challenged our ability to remain hopeful in the midst what seemed like tragedy.
“We didn’t know what Day 1 would look like for Judson, much less what his life would look like. We were battling through the pregnancy with a lot of anxiety and fear.”
Judson was born in the spring of 2015, and when he was three days old he had his first open heart surgery, and in the aftermath he developed a wound infection that required more surgery. He was hospitalized for the first seven weeks of his life, and God used that time to work in his parents’ spiritual lives.
“Hannah and I would leave every morning around 5:30 or 6, we’d go to the hospital and stay until about 4 p.m. … My wife and I spent an hour on the drive there together, we spent all day at his bedside, talking and praying and reading while we were there with him, and then we would drive an hour and a half or more back home,” Whitley said.
“What that really did for us, that’s probably the most concentrated time that we had spent together in our entire relationship.”
All the while, God was preparing them for a new church planting assignment.
In the weeks that followed, Whitley was led to travel to Texas, where he sensed God calling him to plant a new church in a growing area of northeast Houston. Despite the upheaval in their family that accompanied bringing home a new baby with extra needs, the Whitleys followed God’s leading and moved to Houston to plant a church.
By then, Judson had endured a second open heart surgery at five months old and again had acquired an infection that meant weeks of hospitalization in Atlanta, but he was improving. The Whitleys hosted three vision nights for the new plant and—through inviting friends and spreading the word on social media—developed a core group that grew from 28 people in March 2016 to 65 people in August.
“We baptized six people on our core team. A lot of our core team were believers. Some of them weren’t,” Whitley said. “Four of the six were our neighbors that we had grown in relationship with. We had an energizing start to what has been an amazing journey.”
In September 2016, West Lake Church was launched with 241 people in attendance. Sponsored by Fielder Church, they’ve been meeting at Summer Creek High School and are averaging 220 people as they approach their third anniversary, Whitley said.
“Church planting is 10 times more overwhelming than a person could imagine, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else anywhere else,” he said. “It’s a very redeemed ‘overwhelming.’”
Judson had his third and what doctors expect was his final open heart surgery last November, and despite many people praying that he wouldn’t get an infection, he did.
“It was a kick in the stomach for us,” Whitley said. Hannah was pregnant at the time with their fourth son, and “it was very deflating for us.” The infection meant a two-and-a-half-week hospital stay that coincided with Christmas and New Year’s.
“Planting has been the easiest part of the last four years,” Whitley said, comparing something that is hard enough on its own to something that no parent wants his or her child to have to face.
After the first six months of Judson’s life, considering what the Whitleys had been through physically with their son and spiritually with the Lord in that season, “it was kind of like, ‘What could be harder than that? What would he ask us to do that would require more faith or more endurance or more hope than that?’” Whitley said.
“To a degree, the old cliché of refining took place for us, and … what ended up being a beautiful thing at West Lake Church is the ministry of suffering and how needed that is in a church body, in a church family.
“If there’s never a recognition, if there’s never a testimony, if there’s never a speaking of suffering, then you lose the power of grace, you lose the power of mercy, you lose the power of fellowship, you lose the power of hope,” Whitley said. “I think one thing that it’s done for us as shepherds is allowed other people, specifically at West Lake and even just friends we have who aren’t a part of church, to see an openness of suffering, which is a very specific ministry.”
Through social media in particular, Hannah has been able to shepherd other women who are walking through similar trials with their children, and she even has ministered to mothers whose children have died.
“For my wife and I, there’s a very specific testimony that is interwoven into West Lake Church because of Judson,” Whitley said.