Faith-based partnership can save lives, too




The Rev. Bridget Thornton has always known that the partnership between Christ United Methodist Church in Neptune Beach and Mayport Coastal Sciences Middle School made a difference in the lives of students, who come from all over the city, and their families.

Rev. Bridget Thornton

For the past two years, the church has provided the school with supplies, volunteers and will soon add a food and clothing pantry. Thornton knew the faith-based partnership could change lives. Now, she knows it can save lives, too.

Tim Farmer and his wife, Tonya S. Evans, moved back to Jacksonville in 2016 with their son, Zane. They came back so they could be close to Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, where Tonya, who had NASH disease—non-alcoholic steatohepatitis—got a new liver in 2013.

“She never had a lot of energy after the transplant,” Farmer said. “You trade one problem for another. They tell you, this is not a long-term fix. It’s an extension of life.”

Farmer works in call center operations, a job that has taken the family all over the country. They were living in Dublin, Ohio, but Farmer said they had a difficult time finding all the medical care Tonya needed.

“She was bouncing from doctor to doctor. We decided, ‘We just can’t do this. Let’s go back to Jacksonville.’ ”

The family quickly settled in. Farmer got a job. Tonya went back to her Mayo doctors. Zane liked his new school.

But in early May, Tonya said she didn’t feel well. The day before Mother’s Day, she became disoriented and unresponsive, signs of liver failure. Farmer called an ambulance. She died two days later at the Mayo Clinic.

She was 46.

“A few days before she got sick, she grabbed me and told me, ‘I love you so much.’ That’s my favorite memory,” Farmer said.

The couple was married 18 years.

The worst memory is the talk he had with his son after he watched his mother die.

“The first thing out of his mouth in the car—he was pounding his head—‘I had to watch my mom take her last breath, and I’ll never get that out of my mind.’ It’s hard to hear,” Farmer said. “It echoes.”

Reality quickly set in. Farmer hadn’t worked since February when his contract with a call center had expired. Medical bills had exhausted the family’s savings.

“I knew I didn’t have the money to bury her,” Farmer said.

The school alerted Pastor Thornton.

Farmer said he and his wife had never been church-goers, but he was grateful when Thornton reached out.

“We took an offering so she could be cremated,” Thornton said.

Farmer and Thornton chatted by phone and exchanged texts and emails for several weeks.

Farmer sent his son to Georgia to stay with his brother and his family.

The church’s community outreach includes worshiping with the Campus to City Wesley Foundation, which serves students on the campuses of the University of North Florida, Jacksonville University and Flagler College.

“Tim was alone in his house—no job, no wife, no son. Grief swallowed him whole,” Thornton said. “He had built a shrine to his deceased wife, but he couldn’t move past the grief.

“The Monday after Annual Conference, I was grocery shopping when he sent me a text that he couldn’t take it anymore,” Thornton said. “I tried to call him, but he didn’t answer, so I texted, encouraging him not to give up.”

Later, he sent another text.

“It was essentially goodbye, thanks for everything but I’d rather be with my wife,” Thornton said. “I texted back that he needed to think of his son. That this shouldn’t be the end of the story.”

When he didn’t answer texts or a phone call, Thornton called 9-1-1 and drove to the house.

Police took Farmer to a mental health facility, under the state Baker Act that allows emergency intervention in the case of suicide threats. He was released the next day after agreeing to counseling.

Thornton said that, at first, Farmer was angry that she had called the police, but later said he would have done the same thing.

“What that church has done for me is unbelievable,” Farmer said. “I was in a bad place. She saved my life. I don’t know if I would have actually taken my life, but I was certainly on the edge. I think it gets harder when it gets quiet. You’re sitting there all alone. It’s terrifying.”

Farmer said a counselor has helped him work through his grief, and his life has taken a hopeful turn. He has a job offer in Georgia, has lined up a house and will soon be joining his son.

“Zane likes it up there. He has cousins to play with,” Farmer said. “It’ll be good to get a fresh start.”

To someone who finds themselves in similar circumstances, Farmer says, “Don’t let your pride get in the way. Mine did. Reach out to whatever community organizations you can find. When a person offers you help, tell them ‘yes.’ ”

—Lilla Ross is a freelance writer in Jacksonville.


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