Life Groups Stories
by Sarah Morlandt

Our Dawson Life Group story begins in 2007 when my husband, Tony, and I moved from South Texas to Homewood, Alabama, to begin his residency at UAB. Pregnant with our first baby, we settled into one of Edgewood Boulevard’s quaint 1950’s cottages and immediately began to look for a church to join. Only a few blocks from our house, it was a simple choice to visit Dawson first, and we quickly felt a call to unite with the vibrant congregation.

In Dawson’s large buildings and robust congregation, we soon found a cherished home in Doug and Sandra Arendall’s Sunday School class. Here we met other couples at similar life stages. Many, like us, were expecting their first child. Doug and Sandra led our group with humility and wisdom. Doug’s teaching was not merely an academic exercise but rather an overflow of his intimate, personal time with the Lord. Once we found a restaurant open on Sundays (welcome to the South!), Tony and I spent most lunches discussing what we learned and how we felt convicted by those lessons.

Fast forward 14 years and our Sunday School classmates have dispersed into different leadership roles across the church, serving in kids ministry or teaching adult classes. Looking back at our 2007 class, I am struck with the trials we have faced over the last 14 years. Various diagnoses, disappointments, deaths, and other hardships have entered our lives, and yet our class was able to minister to one another through each trial. I am reminded of the Scripture from 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God.” Walking alongside and comforting in community has been a powerful outcome of our involvement in Dawson Life Groups throughout the years.

Our first-born, Ana “Sophia,” arrived in the fall of 2007. As new parents we were unprepared for the chaos of our colicky infant. Night and day, Sophia cried inconsolably, suffering with undiagnosed reflux. We cradled our squalling infant as we bounced on exercise balls to calm her, deployed white noise, and slept in short spurts. Church attendance was difficult during those newborn months, but when we returned to Dawson, nervously leaving Sophia in the nursery for just the Sunday School hour, she cried the entire time. At pickup, we were often surprised to find that she was not in her assigned room. Faithful nursery volunteers had retreated to a dark, quiet room to rock and sing hymns to our colicky newborn. I’ll never forget one volunteer who greeted me with the encouraging words, “Sophia is precious! The key is finding the right way to hold her. She likes to be swaddled in tight, doesn’t she?” Fast forward to today and that same colicky newborn is one of the most vocal in her Life Group.

We now have four children: Sophia, Vincent, Luisa, and Grace. We rarely eat out for Sunday lunch anymore; these days favoring takeout assembled at the kitchen table. At home, the conversation centers around topics raised in Sophia’s 7th grade Life Group class or Vincent’s 6th grade class. Grace, our youngest, will chime in with a simple summary of her Preschool Life Group lesson, or if we are lucky, she might sing us one of the songs she learned in her five-year-old class.

The children’s chatter fills the kitchen while I cut sesame chicken into small, bite-sized pieces. While Tony facilitates conversation, my eyes focus on Luisa, our 3rd born, who is eight years old. She smiles widely and her eyes are bright as she listens to her siblings. Occasionally, she contributes to the conversation with sing-song intonation or a squeal of delight. Sometimes she uses her eye-gaze language device to engage us, forming one-to-two-word sentences in a computer-generated voice. Tony and I often know just the right questions to ask her, thanks to her Hearts and Hands volunteers who give us a full report of her morning in Life Group and Children’s Worship.

After Luisa was born in 2012, we brought her home to our cottage on Edgewood Boulevard to meet her two older siblings. Luisa met all her early developmental milestones and proved to be an easygoing baby as we moved to Jacksonville, Florida, for Tony’s surgical fellowship, and then back again to Birmingham as he started his oncology practice at UAB. At 16 months, when Luisa’s gross motor development began to visibly slow, we became concerned and began to search for answers. After six months, we received a devastating diagnosis of Rett Syndrome, the rare, severe, and global neurological disease primarily affecting girls. Luisa, who was speaking 12 words at the time of her diagnosis, would lose all verbal speech as her body succumbed to the effects of this disease. Walking, hand use, breathing, behavior, and life expectancy are all impacted by her diagnosis.

The Sunday after Luisa’s diagnosis, Tony and I stood together in Dawson’s pews and sang aloud, with tears in our eyes, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, the very hymn we chose for our wedding day in 2001. God would prove ever-faithful throughout every part of our disability journey. The beautiful book of Psalms says: Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand... My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:23, 26). How did this scripture become real to us at Dawson? We saw God’s presence in the form of flesh and bone people, and we witnessed His portion: bread crumb-crusted macaroni and cheese made by women, wise with age, from the Lytle Sunday School class. Women who prayed for my children as they braised the beef, baked the bread, and seasoned the soup that sustained, warmed, and fed us when we were weighted with grief, overwhelmed by endless therapies, and crushed by loss.

Dawson’s Hearts & Hands Ministry has enabled Luisa to experience Life Group with her peers. One-on-one volunteers invest in Luisa, taking her to and from her 2nd grade class so that she might hear the Gospel story—our eternal hope that someday all will be made right. Several of Luisa’s volunteers have been with her for close to five years. God, in His sovereignty, has not allowed us to know how much Luisa understands about her world. And yet, this we know for sure: He has shown His love for her through the people He has equipped to care for her, both inside the church walls, in her community, and at home.

We are thankful God placed us in Edgewood in 2007 so that we might find Christian community at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. Now that we live across town, Dawson remains our gathering place for worship, education, activities, and family. From our colicky newborn to teenagers with questions and from new parents to grieving middle-aged caretakers; Dawson’s Life Groups have ministered to our family on this beautiful, yet broken, life journey.

Sarah Morlandt is wife to Tony and stay-at-home mother to Sophia, Vincent, Luisa, and Grace. She holds a Masters degree from Baylor University in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Currently, she is working on her memoir, a narrative recounting of Luisa's disability journey.