Holding Tight to God’s Hand: Gregg and Dee Loner reflect on a year of struggle and faith

If someone’s world can flip in an instant, then Gregg and Dee Loner’s life-upending moment came nearly a year ago — even as relentless shock waves from that event continue to pound their family and reverberate through their church.

It was around 11 p.m. on Aug. 20, 2015. Dee, a kindergarten teacher at Honea Path Elementary School, was fretting over the hundreds of details involved in starting a new school year. Gregg, her husband, pastor of Princeton Baptist Church near Honea Path, was sitting with her.

Dee pressed her hand to her forehead and said she might pass out. She slumped to the floor. Gregg would learn a few hours later that an aneurysm in Dee’s brain had ruptured.

The next day, she was transported to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston for surgery. Over the next several months — until January of 2016 — Dee remained hospitalized in Charleston, and Gregg stayed by her side.

Their daughter, Abigale, then 15, opted to be home-schooled so that she could stay in Charleston with her dad and help care for her mom. Tenrice, her 14-year-old brother, moved in with relatives and played mellophone with the Belton-Honea Path High School marching band, where he found emotional support among his friends.

Ten days after her ruptured aneurysm, Dee suffered a series of strokes, followed by a life-threatening infection when her feeding tube became dislodged, and she developed blood clots in her legs and lungs. Things were touch-and-go, and Dee flat-lined twice, Gregg said.

It was a desperate time, and Gregg was loathe to leave his wife’s side.

Back home, Princeton Baptist Church, a modest congregation of about 50 souls, rallied around their pastor and his family, offering up prayers and financial support. The church continued to pay Gregg’s salary while he was at Dee’s side in Charleston, and a church-sponsored dinner and a benefit singing by local pastors and music ministers helped raise extra cash for the Loner family.

The church called on a former interim pastor to fill the pulpit during Gregg’s absence. Three months later, in November, Gregg started coming home on the weekends in order to preach and tend to his church family. Two months later, in January 2016, Dee was well enough to return to the Upstate for two in-patient rehabilitation stints. She is home now but requires transportation to Greenville four days a week for physical, occupational and speech therapy.

Dee is bound to a wheelchair and is working hard to regain her strength. The use of her limbs is coming back “very gradually,” said Gregg. Some learning deficits were recently diagnosed but are being addressed. The goal is for Dee to become as independent as possible, but rehabilitation will take a long time, her husband said.

“I still believe, in God’s time, she will do a lot of things she used to do,” he added.

To help with Dee’s rehabilitation, the church recently voted to build a new parsonage, one that will provide more space than the small, nearly 70-year-old frame house the Loners live in now. Dee has to sleep in a hospital bed in the living room, where there’s barely enough room for family members to maneuver the mechanical lift that helps them move Dee from her bed to her wheelchair. Because the current parsonage’s doorways are too narrow to allow a wheelchair to pass through, Dee is mostly confined to the living room and kitchen, although she can be wheeled out onto the front porch, where she enjoys sitting.

The church hopes to build a 2,000-to-2,500-square-foot modern parsonage, but doing so will be a financial challenge for the small congregation, according to deacon chairman Clyde Taylor. He said the church hopes to raise at least $100,000 in order to buy the building materials. The land for the new parsonage was donated, and outside groups, including South Carolina Baptist Campers on Mission, have offered to help provide manpower for the construction.

Gregg Loner has served as pastor of Princeton Baptist Church in Laurens Association since 2004.

Gregg Loner has served as pastor of Princeton Baptist Church in Laurens Association since 2004.

The church has already raised over $2,400, Taylor said. A fund-raising yard sale is planned for Aug. 20, the one-year anniversary of the night Dee collapsed, and a church cookbook is in the works. Also, the church has set up a bank fund to receive gifts from anyone interested in donating toward the new parsonage.

“The parsonage of a church also serves as a lighthouse,” said Amy Adams, a church member who manages Princeton’s Facebook page. “Like the church, it reaches out to the community, and it serves people — whether they walk, run or use a wheelchair. We want the parsonage to glorify God in every way.”

Last fall, when Gregg was away from church for weeks on end, it would have been easy for the congregation to languish. Attendance did drop some, and offerings fell off a bit, but “I can’t say it was anything real bad,” said Taylor. “It looks like a cloud has been over our little church,” he added, “but the Lord is moving that cloud off and down the road.”

Adams said the church “just held on” during the pastor’s absence. “It was a dark time, and we didn’t know how long we could handle our shepherd not being here with us,” she said. “It was a little bit scary, and I’m thankful we passed that. We’re moving forward.”

Gregg said he is “blown away” by his church’s compassion and “long-suffering through this with us.”

“I haven’t had to worry if they would be helpful or supportive,” he said. “They are the most compassionate people I’ve ever known.”

Dee says her church “means the world” to her, and she considers herself the pastor’s “biggest supporter.” She misses teaching her kindergarten students and says she particularly misses their kindness. While describing herself as someone who is “outgoing, self-reliant and confident” but with a gentle spirit, she admits that Aug. 20, 2015, “turned my world upside down.”

Her faith has been tested, she admits, but “you have to hang on tight to God, just reach out to His hand and grab on.” She said her husband, her “true friend and advocate,” has helped her remain strong in her faith.

But even if things are now better than they were, they’re still not great. Healing, for Dee, will be a long time coming, Gregg said. He is also concerned that his children’s lives have been affected by the stresses of helping taking care of their mom. He would like for their daughter, Abigale, to return to Belton-Honea Path High School this fall if she wishes, but that would mean increased pressure to find volunteers willing to help with Dee.

“We need prayer for lots of big decisions coming up,” he said. He also wants people to pray that Dee will walk again. “We haven’t given up on anything,” he said.

In the 11 months since his wife suffered a crippling brain aneurysm, Gregg has learned a lot about his faith, his family and his church.

He has also learned a lot about himself. There have been times when it felt like too much to bear. “You remember all those moments before — vacations, times of being together — just to know she’s not able to do that now is just crushing,” he said. In those times, Gregg has allowed himself to “drop my sword and cry for just a while” (a reference to a Twila Paris song, “The Warrior Is a Child”), “but then you get back up and go at it again,” he said.

“When you battle day in and day out, you get battle-weary,” he said. “Nevertheless, you stand on God’s promises, regardless of how bleak the situation seems.”

He has learned that “the Gospel works, the things you preach work, and the counsel and encouragement given at bedsides works.”

“I’d never given much thought before about me being in this kind of situation,” he added. “It has helped me better understand and relate to people going through difficult times.”

Gregg says he has also learned anew to see God in the beauty of His creation. Nowadays, when he hears a bird sing or a baby cry, he’s more apt to pay attention.

“I am able to slow down and get to know God,” he said, “to be at a place where you have no choice but to get to know Him and His heart.”