Early the morning of Saturday, March 30, 2013, Asbury United Methodist Church Rev. Gayla Rapp woke up and noticed an odd sensation along the right side of her body. She figured she’d laid on it oddly and it had fallen asleep. She didn’t think much of it. But when she woke up a few hours later, the strange numbness was still there. Something wasn’t right.
A friend took her to an urgent care center near her home. The doctor took her blood pressure, and found it was extremely high.
“I think you’re having a stroke,” he told her.
“But I need to preach tomorrow,” Rapp responded. It was the day before Easter, after all. Nothing was going to keep Rapp from getting behind the pulpit on Easter.
“You won’t be preaching tomorrow,” he said. “And we need to get you to the hospital.”
The next 24 hours were like a slow motion crash as the effects of the stroke gradually took hold. When she arrived at Shawnee Mission Medical Center, Rapp could read and use her phone and speak freely. But hour by hour, her faculties diminished. Simple tasks became confusing. The doctors and nurses would show Rapp a picture of a scene in a kitchen and ask her to describe what was happening. The picture showed a mother looking at her son as he crawled on the counter and spilled water, with a dog on the floor. At first, Rapp could describe it easily. By the end, the only thing Rapp, a dog lover her whole life, could say was, “There’s a dog.”
Barbara Lukert, chair of Asbury’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee, recalls seeing her in the hospital the next day.
“It was…it was very discouraging,” Lukert said. “She couldn’t really talk. It was clear that this was something very serious. At that point, I would never have predicted that she would ever recover.”
Associate Rev. Jeff Prothro had only been in the ministry for a few years and only been at Asbury for several months when Rapp had her stroke. He remembers standing at the front of the sanctuary on Easter Sunday and relaying what had happened. There were audible gasps.
“I remember looking out and seeing these faces of confusion and concern,” Prothro said. “There was the shock of processing it.”
When Prothro and his wife visited Rapp in the hospital, he asked what he could do to help, and remembers being a bit taken aback by her response.
“Get back to work,” Rapp said. Her message was clear: She wanted Prothro and the rest of the staff to stay focused on the progress the congregation had been making. It wasn’t surprising to members of the congregation that Rapp was still thinking of moving Asbury forward even as she faced the immense challenge of recovery.
“Her message after the stroke was ‘Let’s keep going, let’s keep the momentum,'” Lukert recalls. “She has unusual leadership abilities. So even in her condition, she was still leading.”
Prothro stepped up and took on responsibilities he’d never handled before. He said the vision Rapp had set for the church was so clear that he felt like he “just had to facilitate it.”
“I matured really quickly,” he said.
The early recovery process was grueling.
Eventually Rapp was able to start coming back to the church office a day a week. More than anything, she wanted to relearn how to navigate her way through the church so people wouldn’t feel awkward around her. She had to work hard to learn the fundamentals of reading, and it’s still a laborious process. Rapp returned to the pulpit for the first time in September. She now preaches without relying on notes, since she couldn’t read them quickly enough to be of much use.
She has a constant numbness on the right side of her body, and a good portion of her field of vision has simply disappeared.
Life can be a struggle. And yet, Rapp said, overall, the past year has been very good at Asbury. And Lukert agrees.
“It’s kind of interesting to me, but in some ways, the whole thing has had a positive effect,” Lukert said. “Everyone wanted to do something for Gayla, and it’s brought us all together.”
Prothro said the church is seeing more regular faces in the pews that it had in previous years. Despite the blow of having Rapp sidelined for so many months, the church is thriving.
“I think a lot of people might have been troubled by that,” Rapp said with a smile. “But I love the fact that things kept moving forward without me. I love that.”
Rapp doesn’t know what her future holds. She said her difficulty reading may prevent her from continuing on as a lead pastor eventually.
“I’m just not sure that, where my reading is at, that it’s possible to really do everything you should do,” she said. “But if my ministry in the future is that I’m the person who sits with someone who has just had a stroke, and waits for them to be able to say their first words, I’m okay with that.”
That decision day may arrive soon. But on Sunday, she will get behind the pulpit in the Asbury sanctuary and deliver an Easter sermon. Of course, she could probably stand and say nothing and make just as powerful a point. Because a year after a stroke kept her from her congregation on one of the church’s biggest days of the year, she’s back and she’s preaching before a church that is energized. And what could say more about resurrection and renewal than that?