Many pastors try to give comfort and consolation to the faithful--but how many are willing to give a kidney?
Pastor Alvin Dickerson, of Heritage Baptist Fellowship in Point of Rocks, Md., was.
On Oct. 1, doctors at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore removed one of his kidneys and transplanted it into his good friend, Carol Myers, 60, a speech teacher at Arundel Senior High School in Gambrills. Myers, who was close to going on dialysis, now has a kidney that doctors say is functioning normally.
And Dickerson, 36, has a reminder of his faith.
"I envision our time and history as a tapestry God is weaving," Dickerson said the day before the operation. "We can often see the threads but we don't always see the big picture. I'm very grateful because this has given me a chance to step back and see the big picture."
Dickerson and Myers have been friends since 1985. A midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy and self-described "lonely hick," Dickerson hadn't gone to church much since leaving his home in Center, Tex. But after visiting a friend in Gambrills one Sunday, he wandered into Arundel Baptist Church on a whim and met Pastor Robert "Mac" Myers, who hailed from another East Texas town, Henderson, about a 45-minute drive from Center.
Arundel Baptist is affiliated with the American Baptist Association, the same fundamentalist denomination Dickerson had grown up in. And both men were fans of the Dallas Cowboys.
"It was like old home week," Dickerson said. "We spoke the same language."
Myers invited Dickerson to come to services the following Sunday and to lunch after that. His wife, Carol, cooked chicken spaghetti, and it wasn't long before Dickerson was a regular at their table, an occasional overnight guest on their couch and a big brother to their two school-age children.
"They weren't thinking, well, in 15 years Carol might need a transplant and he can be a donor," Dickerson said. "But God was."
After graduation, Dickerson fulfilled his five-year commitment to the Navy but decided along the way that the ministry was calling him. He returned to Gambrills and became the youth minister at Arundel Baptist.
Carol Myers, while she denies she is a matchmaker, arranged for Dickerson to meet Barbara Illsley, a pianist playing at a church function. He was too shy to talk to her, so Myers arranged for them to have dinner at a friend's house. Illsley and Dickerson talked for a long time that night. Soon they were engaged.
All along, Myers knew that she was a likely candidate to develop kidney problems. Her grandfather died at 57 of polycystic kidney disease, also known as PKD. An uncle died from the disease at 43, and her mother died of it at 54.
When her PKD was diagnosed in 1994, Myers felt her days were numbered.
"Frankly, I began to think about ordering my life," she said.
Dickerson had a different thought.
"I had that same sickening feeling that I would've had if it was my own mother, and I made the decision right then and there," he said. "If she needed a transplant, I would do it."
Myers's condition stabilized, and she continued her busy schedule teaching speech and coaching the debate team at the high school.
When the Baptist church in Point of Rocks disbanded because of bad feelings, Dickerson moved there in June 1994 to restart the congregation. With a new development springing up nearby, he said, Baptist Heritage Fellowship is established and growing.
But this summer, Carol's kidneys began failing rapidly, and she signed up for a transplant.
"As much as they had done for me in my life, I didn't even really think about it," Dickerson said. "To have the chance to help her was just an illustration of how much God loved us."
"I get teary just thinking about it," Myers said.
The operation went off without a hitch. One team of surgeons removed Dickerson's left kidney through a three-inch incision in his belly. A second team of doctors then made a seven-inch long incision in Myers's abdomen and attached the donated organ to her bladder. To make the operation simpler and shorter, her dysfunctional kidneys were not removed. Doctors say they are harmless and will shrink from lack of use.
By the time Dickerson woke from the anesthesia, his former kidney--now Myers's kidney--was functioning normally. And when he visited her hospital room on Sunday, "I could already see the difference in her skin and her eyes," he said. "I was so glad I'd given her a good one."
Myers was discharged from the hospital Tuesday. Dickerson visited Wednesday, offering reflections on painkillers and providence. While she looked at him with the bright eyes of a proud mother, he sat a little stiffly at her side, glad to be doted on.
"He's not into this hugging thing," she confided at one point.
"I know as a pastor, people think I'm supposed to have faith. But we can all grow in our faith, and this has really strengthened mine," Dickerson said. "Here in 1999 we can look back and see God's hand working in our lives all along the way."
For Myers, the blessing of the transplant has been an immediate improvement in the way she feels and also a lesson in generosity.
"I have learned so much about how to encourage people in these few weeks," she said. "I'm going to try to do the same thing for somebody else."
Robert Myers told his wife he'd put a up a new message on the sign in front of his church, a passage from Proverbs 17:17.
"A friend loves at all times."
CAPTION: When Carol Myers, left, had a disorder in her kidneys, her pastor and longtime friend, Alvin Dickerson, donated one of his, calling the experience a reminder of his faith.