The Rev. Kathy Nelson of Peace UCC in Duluth, Minn., undergoing chemotherapy, is surrounded by parishoners who shaved their heads to show their support. © David Brewster photo/Star Tribune 2002.
At the age of 42, the Rev. Kathy Nelson, pastor of Peace United Church of Christ in Duluth, Minn., was knocked square in the face with the biggest news of her lifetime—cancer.
On Jan. 9, Nelson was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer, a type occurring in only 8 to 10 percent of all female breast cancers. A bilateral mastectomy was performed on Jan. 28. By early March, due to bouts with chemotherapy, Nelson was bald.
The news of Nelson's cancer jolted her congregation.
Peace member Doug Bowen-Bailey wanted to show Nelson, and all women battling breast cancer, his dedication to their struggle. For him, donning a pink ribbon was not enough.
"I had been wearing my hair in a long ponytail," he says. "I called Kathy and, a little apprehensively, told her I wanted to shave my head to show my support. I thought she would be against it. After all, I'd had my ponytail for 14 years and was pretty attached to it. Instead she said, 'Great idea, Doug. Go for it!'"
Bowen-Bailey's gesture caught on with others and on March 10, with the help of another church member, Jane Rupel, a "hair-razing" party/fundraiser, complete with games, hot dogs, potato chips and a Three Stooges video, took place in Peace's fellowship hall. Twenty-three more members, including Rupel, had their tresses sheared that afternoon as spectators surveyed the scene. The not-so-brave stood on the sidelines and cheered, making contributions through donations and pledges.
Dubbed "Bold, Adventurous, Loving and Daring" (BALD) by Rupel, the party drew full media attention with the story of the much-loved pastor appearing in print and on the airwaves.
More than $4,000 was collected from the party, with proceeds going to the American Cancer Society and Peace youth group's volunteer summer mission project in San Antonio. The hair was donated to Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children under 18 suffering from long-term medical hair loss.
What started out as one individual's act of support for his pastor peaked into a meaningful display of loyalty, comradery, rejoicing and celebration. Nelson's flock let her know in resounding style that she was not going to walk this path alone.
Rupel says she felt a special connection in helping Nelson. When she and her husband had their faith severely tested, Nelson was there.
"Last December, my son Asher was stillborn," she says. We called Kathy and she wasted no time in getting to the hospital. She baptized Asher, prayed for him, prayed and cried with us, and then held and rocked him. She was with me and my family pretty much the whole day. We needed her and, as always, she came through. Kathy truly lives out the message of Christ's and God's love."
Misty Peterson, one of the hairstylists at the BALD party, lost her 15-day-old baby, Tyler, from a rare muscular disorder last August. Nelson stood right next to Peterson and her husband when they made the decision to discontinue their son's life support.
"At the time Tyler was born, my husband and I, though we were married at Peace, were not members. That didn't matter to Kathy. She knew we were hurting and came to be with us because she cared. She has such a calming affect. Kathy baptized Tyler and visited him every day."
Peterson and her husband became members of Peace a few months after Tyler's death.
"It was a combination of Kathy and the whole congregation as to why we became members," Peterson says. "We felt at home and as if we belonged to a family."
Despite her malady, Nelson feels blessed.
As she provides guidance and nurturing to members of her congregation, they feel it's time she is paid back.
"We want Kathy to receive just as much as she gives," says Rupel. "She is facing a milestone in her life and we are with her all the way."
Nelson says her congregation has "fed her spirit." She gets her energy from them and, more important, she sees how they have shown a "sense of community" while being there for her. "I even had a hat party!" Nelson said. "I received some of the best hats. It was wonderful."
Bowen-Bailey vows to keep his head shaved until Nelson completes her chemotherapy in the fall. Would he chop off his pony tail if he had to do it all over again? "In a heartbeat," he says.
American Cancer Society: phone 800-ACS-2345; website www.cancer.org.
Breast Cancer Action: phone toll free 877-2STOPBC (877-278-6722); website www.bcaction.org.
To donate hair to Locks of Love: phone toll free 888-896-1588 or 561-963-1677; website www.locksoflove.org.