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Husband-and-wife pastors in need of help
After lifetime of giving, ministers find it hard to ask for help
Greg and Renee Wood turned their ministry, Word of Life, over to their son as Greg battles colon cancer and Renee fights breast cancer. The two pastors, who are dealing with financial difficulties, were able to meet their monetary needs with help from Hopelink. - photo by Marcus Yam

SEATTLE — Throughout their married life, Greg and Renee Wood have always been the ones who take care of other people.

As Christian pastors for nearly 20 years, they tended to the spiritual — and temporal — needs of their congregation.

As parents, they raised six children of their own while taking in dozens of abused youngsters.

As active members of their community, they organized a program to provide backpacks filled with school supplies for students in need.

So when the Woods found themselves sick, unemployed and on the brink of being evicted from their home earlier this year, asking for help didn’t come easily to them. After all, they had coped with misfortune before.

Two years after their oldest son died from a seizure in 2004, Renee was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her first rounds of treatment went well, though, knocking the disease into remission.

Even after the cancer came back with a vengeance and Renee was forced to stop working, she and Greg kept their heads above water.

But when Greg was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in June, their financial safety net evaporated.

With the main breadwinner too weak to work — and uninsured — the family fell behind on rent and utilities and even had a hard time buying groceries.

“It felt like we’d been hit with bombs — one after the other,” Renee said.

Then a friend told her about Hopelink.

With centers across North and East King County, Wash., the organization provides a range of services aimed mostly at helping people cope with crises and get back on their feet. Like many of the 60,000 people Hopelink serves each year, Renee’s first contact came through one of the group’s five food banks.

There, she discovered Hopelink also provides emergency assistance to keep people from being evicted.

“They paid our utilities. They helped pay our rent,” Renee said. “They were the answer to a prayer.”

Founded in 1971 by laid-off Boeing workers who banded together to help each other find jobs, Hopelink continues that mission with programs to help people improve their resumes and job-hunting skills. The nonprofit provides transportation services along with temporary housing, adult education and advice on money management.

“We’re trying to help people get back to self-sufficiency,” spokeswoman Kris Betker said.

For Greg and Renee Wood, rent assistance helped solve their most pressing financial need. Ongoing visits to the food bank keep groceries in the fridge while the husband and wife undergo physically draining chemotherapy.

“This is a difficult time for them,” said Kay Hockeiser, an emergency services specialist at Hopelink’s Kirkland, Wash., center. “They have been hardworking all their lives, and they really do want to work, but because of these unfortunate events they can’t.”

It’s particularly tough on Greg.

“As head of the household all those years, I feel like I’m supposed to be taking care of everyone else,” he said on a recent Sunday, as family and friends gathered at his home for a Bible discussion.

Greg, 60, and Renee, 58, passed the leadership of their Lynnwood, Wash., ministry, Word of Life, to their son Sheldon a couple of years ago. Making a living as a pastor is rarely a lucrative business, Greg said. After he gave up church work, he took a job at U-Haul, and was two months away from being eligible for health insurance when he received his cancer diagnosis.

Though he and Renee eventually qualified for coverage through Medicaid, they still owe thousands of dollars for medical expenses.

But they refuse to let their financial and health woes take over their lives.

“I’m very optimistic,” Renee said. “I feel like this is just another part of our journey, that we’re going to grow and learn from.”

This fall, Renee, Greg and several family members set up housekeeping together in Snohomish. Their children pay the bills and assist their parents with their medical regimens.

“I feel so loved and protected,” Renee said. “We’ve always been a very close family.”

But she and Greg also fret about imposing on their children.

“I’m used to saying to them: What do you need?” Renee said.

Greg and Renee hope they’ll be able to work again soon. That would be the best possible outcome, Hockeiser said.

“We want people to be stable in the future, and hopefully not need our services,” she said.