The pleasantness and good nature Barbara A. Grass exhibits belie the series of medical ordeals she has endured the past four years.
In 2018, at the age of 46, after a series of migraine headaches, Barbara went to a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, doctor’s office, accompanied by her husband, Aaron. She failed a battery of neurological tests. After a computerized tomography scan, the physician ordered an ambulance to rush her to Portsmouth Regional Hospital immediately.
Barbara had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, which is fatal to half the patients with the condition. Of those who survive, only 12% recover fully. Bleeding in Barbara’s brain resulted in a loss of vision in her right eye and immobility in her right side. She endured nine months of physical and occupational therapy to help regain her balance, coordination, and strength. As with many stroke victims, she lost feeling on the right side of her face and body, as well as her tongue. She also underwent six weeks of speech therapy to regain cognitive skills.
The following year, 2019, Barbara’s daughter Jordan Craig lost 40% of her blood volume during an emergency Caesarian birth and nearly died. Both mother and baby William, who live in Berwick, Maine, survived.
In 2020, Barbara’s sister, Diana Elwell, died of stomach cancer. That same year, Aaron and Barbara’s son Jacob received a diagnosis of testicular cancer. After aggressive chemotherapy, Jacob, who now is on worship and creative arts staff at Phoenix Dream Center, completely recuperated.
The year 2021 brought further medical trials for Barbara. Although tests found no medical reason for her earlier hemorrhagic stroke, an angiogram revealed she had a brain arteriovenous malformation, a cluster of abnormal blood vessels that had been a birth defect. She underwent a craniotomy to reduce the risk of another stroke.
But the health troubles didn’t stop there. In August 2021, an exam revealed Barbara had breast cancer. A lumpectomy didn’t stop the tumor from spreading. In April this year, Barbara underwent a double mastectomy.
Barbara, a Pentecostal pastor’s daughter who spent her teenage years in Portsmouth, has recovered from all the crises, with the only lingering effect being a loss of peripheral vision. She no longer has headaches, difficulty in speaking, or immobility issues.
Through all this, Barbara and Aaron faithfully served on the staff of Connect Community Church in Portsmouth, Aaron as assistant pastor and Barbara as youth director and worship leader.
Aaron and Barbara met at Connect Community Church in 1996. Aaron, who is originally from Maine, found salvation in Christ at 24 and it changed his life. He quit his construction job and began studying for the ministry.
Despite Barbara’s recent health challenges, she agreed to help her husband restart an Assemblies of God church in Exeter, 15 miles southwest of Portsmouth, that the Northern New England Ministry Network closed in August. The house of worship, to be called Riverside Church, officially will relaunch Jan. 8 — two days before their silver wedding anniversary and four days before Aaron’s 50th birthday. Although he has been involved in ministry for a quarter century, it will be the first lead pastorate for the 49-year-old Aaron, a graduate of Global University and a credentialed AG minister.
In September, the Grasses attended a Church Multiplication Network Launch Training event in Seattle. While most of the prospective church planters at the gathering wouldn’t be opening for another year or so, Aaron and Barbara had just over three months to prepare. They believe the CMN crash course, with training from a variety of experienced mentors, will make the difference in making it work.
“We learned a lot of valuable information at the conference,” Aaron says.
Leaving a thriving church to reopen a struggling one is taking a step of faith. But the Grasses, who have four children and six grandchildren, possess more trust in the Lord than ever before.
“God has prepared us for this the last four years we’ve been in ministry,” Barbara says. “We’ve never wavered in our faith.”
“Barb has had a lot of stress emotionally and physically, but she feels God is leading us for what is ahead,” Aaron says. “God has done miracle upon miracle.”
Such an onslaught would deter many from staying in the ministry — or even in the faith at all.
“We realize the devil has had us in the crosshairs and has used every trick in the book,” Aaron says. “We don’t take that lightly. But we have no reason to be bitter and walk away from God.”
Chad J. Lynn, lead pastor of Connect Community Church in Portsmouth, has no doubt that the Grasses will thrive. Connect is sending money as well as eight congregants willing to be a part of the congregation until it gets on its feet. The Northern New England Ministry Network also is providing funds the first year. Lynn has known the couple for 19 years and they are friends. They’ve lived adjacent to each other the past four years because the church has a pair of parsonages.
“They have remained faith-filled, and they didn’t fall into a pit of depression and desperation,” says Lynn, 55. “It would have been easy to shrink back. They certainly didn’t sign up for that four-year stretch where they went through one difficult thing after another.”
Lynn commends the couple for maintaining a positive attitude. He sees God’s hand in priming them for the road ahead. Lynn says Aaron’s strengths — sociability and administrative organization — are the quality a lead pastor needs.
The Grasses hope the church especially will attract young families with children. Exeter, a city of 16,000 residents, has a storied history as well as a contemporary flavor. Exeter hosted the last sermon preached by Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield before his death in 1770. It is the birthplace of Dan Gerhard Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. Alumni of Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in the city, include Daniel Webster, Howard Hawks, John Irving, and Mark Zuckerberg.
PHOTO: Aaron and Barbara Grass plot their church planting strategy as Table Coach Beth Backes looks on.