November Feature: The Unexpected Blessing
Story by Debra McKinney Banks / Photos by Matt Hazlett
It’s been more than six years since Van and SaMonna Watts prayed earnestly for a child that God could use in a mighty way. They desired for their youngster to grow strong in faith and resolute in their dedication to God, like Moses, Joshua or Daniel. God gave them a beautiful baby boy they named Brayden, a little soldier for the Lord.
It was when Brayden turned 5 that God sent that little soldier to war, and his family into the spiritual battle of their lives.
“I learned early to accept God’s will, even if it was contrary to mine,” SaMonna says. She believed the Lord had already exercised her faith muscles over the years through life’s tests and that He had prepared her for difficulties ahead. But, when the Wattses had to rush Brayden to the emergency room due to excruciating headaches, they were crushed by the scan results. There were two masses on his cerebellum.
On her knees on the floor of a nurse’s office, SaMonna cried out to God. But, in the midst of the tears, she heard Him say: “SaMonna, what makes you think I won’t bring you through this victorious?” Grasping to this sliver of hope, she praised God with a heart full of thanksgiving and claimed His promises for healing.
Diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, little Brayden underwent surgery to remove the growths. The surgery was successful, but he required intense radiation treatments in hopes of removing all traces of the disease. During the next four months, the Wattses rode a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows, twists and turns that stretched their trust in God to the limit.
Finding Hope in God’s Word
SaMonna says she found strength and solace in Bible stories of people with incredible faith that led to incredible miracles. One such story was of King Jehoshaphat who turned to God for help during a crisis (see 2 Chron. 20). To trust in his people’s strength would mean immediate defeat. Instead, Jehoshaphat prayed, “We have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You” (verse 12).
After being encouraged that God would fight this battle for the Israelites, the king commanded his people to meet the enemy led by a choir (verse 21). With the words, “Praise the Lord, for His mercy endures forever,” the people went out in battle claiming in faith the victory God had given them.
SaMonna also determined to go into battle against the enemy with praise to God, claiming in faith that He would heal her son. With the help of friends and church family, Allegheny East Conference’s Breath of Life church in Ft. Washington, Md., the Wattses held a “praise party” that mentally and spiritually prepared them for the long journey ahead. That evening, SaMonna says, “Every concern and heart-gripping worry that was trying to weigh me and my family down was loosed when we sent up a corporate praise to our God.”
Although the couple had readied for battle, it soon became a day-to-day of wondering if it was going to be Brayden’s last. The Wattses endured months of “torture and fear” as the cancer continued to spread through his body. Waves of frustration and helplessness washed over SaMonna as she watched her son grow weaker and smaller.
In a blog she maintained, she chronicled her frustrations, fears, praise, faith and perseverance. One particularly stressful day after learning about the potentially harmful effects the radiation treatments would have on Brayden, she wrote:
“My stomach was twisted in knots. Then the Lord stepped in. He reminded me of the harmful flames that the [three] Hebrew boys were exposed to and the boiling oil John was thrust into and yet they were unharmed. God has the power to protect us from every harmful thing if it is in His will. If it’s His will for some harmful effects to manifest themselves, I’ve got to trust Him. He knows what He is doing! … As I sat there, a memory verse song I had taught the kids came to mind, ‘Let us trust in the name of the Lord, and rely upon our God’ (Isa. 50:10). God put that song in my head at the right moment. God knew this was going to happen. He knows what Brayden needs and He’s got it all. I was at peace.”
Prayer Warriors Add Strength
The Internet and social media served as powerful tools to get the word out about Brayden’s illness. Prayer warriors rallied and SaMonna’s Facebook page flooded with an outpouring of support and well wishes from people following their story.
“There were times when I couldn’t do anything more, then I would get on Facebook and find tons of encouraging messages! The support I got from others often helped me keep it together,” says SaMonna.
Even total strangers whose hearts were touched by this young family’s struggle said they were sending up prayers for the boy. Faculty and students from Parkview Junior Academy in Syracuse, N.Y., had committed to praying for Brayden every day of the school year. While on a class trip to Washington, D.C., the academy’s seventh- through ninth-graders got an opportunity to meet the family and minister to them. The students visited and played with Brayden and little sister SaVanna, age 4 at the time, and presented a special program with songs and skits that blessed everyone.
Discovering Peace in the Darkness
Throughout the trying months filled with prayer and claiming God’s promises, SaMonna never lost hope that God would defeat the devil and heal her son. “For a while, I felt pressure that I needed to have enough faith for God to heal Brayden, but it was God’s decision to make. I learned that real faith means trusting His decision,” she remembers.
She continues, “I prayed every promise; I thanked Him in advance for healing. I know that God is not a liar.” SaMonna ultimately learned that when God heals, it can sometimes take on a deeper, more eternal meaning. “Healing in the here-and-now is simply a Band-Aid to the real problem. The healing He desires comes when He restores us to perfect health at His return. Brayden is sealed for eternity in Jesus, thus, he is healed.”
It’s been one year since Brayden’s death. SaMonna continues to be encouraged by the words of the upbeat praise song “We’re Blessed” by gospel recording artist Fred Hammond: We’re blessed in the city. We’re blessed in the field. We’re blessed when we come and when we go. We cast down every stronghold. Sickness and poverty must cease. For the devil is defeated. We are blessed!
As expected, all Watts family members continue to process feelings of grief, each in their own way. But, the trial helped the whole family experience God in a deeper way. Although SaVanna prayed daily for her big brother to be healed, SaMonna and Van did their best to help her process the sad reality of death. SaMonna shares, “One day, SaVanna came in and said, ‘I’m angry, sad and happy.’ When I asked her to explain, SaVanna said, ‘I’m angry at the devil, sad that Brayden is gone, but happy that I’ll see him again.’”
Before Brayden’s diagnosis, SaMonna had prayed for God to reveal His purpose for her life. Knowing that her spiritual gifts were faith and exhortation, she desired to know how to use these for advancing His kingdom. “God showed me that He wanted me to speak for Him,” she says.
Because of her new, deeper faith in God, she has learned to turn this tragedy into a triumph and is often called upon to use her gifts to help those who have experienced all types of loss. SaMonna desperately wanted her son to live, and would have been beyond ecstatic if God allowed that to happen. Looking back, she now understands the more far-reaching impact his death is having on people’s faith.
“Most people have not had a miracle healing. Many have to deal with the pain of losing that loved one and have a hard time handling it,” she explains. She now has the compassion and testimony to help people see God’s grace and mercy, even in times of sorrow. “God needed someone to encourage people in their faith. … So many people have come to me after hearing my testimony saying, ‘Thank you! You helped with changing my perspective about God,’” she says.
SaMonna has no bitterness or anger toward God for not healing Brayden. “I refuse to let the devil get a reprieve,” she says. “I tell people, ‘Don’t charge God falsely for what the devil is responsible for. Instead, focus on what God has designed for us to experience in eternity, not what the devil is causing us to experience in the here and now.’”