Two years ago, Pastor Jeff and Ellrena Ortner of Cornerstone Assembly of God in Meridian, Texas, felt God leading them to support the 28 missionaries presented to them during the North Texas District Council Fall Missions Tour. Yet, their small church couldn't even afford to support them beyond their small salaries much less help support 28 missionaries on a monthly basis. But trusting in God, the two took a step of faith and personally pledged to support each of those missionaries for $10 a month - and God has provided to enable the couple to meet that pledge.
"I like to think that that might be the salary for 30 minutes for each missionary," Ellrena says, "and what if during that 30 minutes each month, someone was saved? What an investment!"
But this past December, the Ortners and their church received some very difficult news. The doctors could do no more. The cancer, now at Stage 4, had spread to various places throughout Jeff's body . . . he was given just three months to live.
At about the same time, Scott Lansing, the University of Texas at Austin Chi Alpha co-director, and Campus Minister Dave Giles were struggling to determine their third Supreme Home Makeover project. Through Chi Alpha students and many other volunteers, they had completed two incredible makeovers the previous two years, but this year, it didn't seem as if God was confirming any particular direction to them.
"We had some ideas," Giles says, "but nothing that was saying, 'This is the one.'"
Then through the district newsletter they learned of Jeff's terminal illness. The light clicked on as both Lansing and Giles knew this was the project God had for them.
The men contacted Ellrena and Jeff, letting them know they had been chosen to receive the makeover. Was there a need? Absolutely!
For his entire tenure at Cornerstone (22 years), Jeff had been a bivocational pastor - working a job as a substitute teacher and for 11 years as an in-school suspension teacher in order to pay bills and still pastor the 30-member church (plus 25-30 kids), which began more than two decades ago when the Ortners felt God's call to pioneer the church.
But Jeff had been battling cancer for more than a year now, unable to make repairs to their home, and Ellrena was working at the post office as well as caring for Jeff. And when you live in a mobile home approaching 25 years old, things are bound to go wrong.
"We ordered this mobile home new 24 years ago," Ellrena says. "It was built cheaply and has been in constant need of repairs to keep it together." How cheaply? Just a few days before the makeover team arrived, Ellrena fell through the floor of their bathroom, just outside of the shower, where the floor had gotten wet and weakened.
So, when the Ortners received the phone call from Giles and Lansing, it was truly a moment of divine intervention.
About 5 weeks from the makeover date, Lansing and Giles visited the Ortners and the city of Meridian - a community of about 1,500 - to not only fully understand the need, but to see what kind of community support might be available.
It didn't take long for the men to see the extent of the Ortner's need - and when it came to making the right connections in town, it was as if God was their escort.
In fact, when they stopped for lunch at Bunkhouse Barbeque in Meridian, they were able to strike up a conversation with the owners, who would end up helping to provide a meal for the volunteers. Then they met two ladies at the restaurant who just happened to work at the Bosque County courthouse . . . they knew just about everyone there was to know. And when the men later explained their Supreme Home Makeover mission to them, they started making phone calls - bringing the state park director, a bank president and the county judge (to name a few) on board.
"They didn't really know us," Giles says, "but it was God who established a relationship, a rapport and trust. The judge, Cole Ward, and the bank president, Tom Henderson, were hugely instrumental in bringing the community together. We literally had tons of community people step up to help make this makeover happen."
As the date drew nearer for the makeover to begin, two things weighed heavily on Giles and Lansing's minds - they were unsure if Jeff would live to see the makeover and whether or not they would have the money to complete the project.
"Jeff was given three months to live back in December - we didn't know what would happen . . . he could die before we got there, while we were there or sometime after, we just didn't know," Giles says. "We are continuing to pray and trust God for a miracle in his healing."
"And just two weeks away from the start, we only had a $2,000 grant to work with from McCoy's Building Supply," Lansing says. And even though there is no overhead (no one gets paid for their labor - in fact, the Chi Alpha students pay $75 to participate) and all the money goes to the makeover, $2,000 wouldn't make much of a dent in the needs the Ortners' home had.
But then God stepped in and doors began to open in domino fashion - when Giles, Lansing and the 60-some Chi Alpha students from across North Texas arrived in Meridian on March 17, they had $17,000, contractors on board, additional volunteers and businesses opening their doors offering free or greatly discounted materials for the project.
And it didn't stop there.
"We saw miracle after miracle after miracle take place throughout the makeover," Giles says. "When we had a need, God would provide the answer." In fact, the community provided the volunteers with so much food that Chi Alpha students were sent out into the community every day not only to pray with people and tell them about the project, but to give food to needy households.
"We were able to transfer blessings on to others - including the Methodist church food bank," Giles says. "One of the themes that came out of this was serving those who have served others."
And the impact the makeover had with the Chi Alpha students and volunteers?
"They were just blown away to see how God made things happen," Lansing says. "A lot of things happened behind the scenes, and the students were just blown away by it all."
But just because God was coming through in miraculous ways, that didn't mean there weren't challenges to overcome.
"When it came to weather, we had it all," says Giles. "Wind, rain, snow, cold, severe thunderstorms, heat, sunburn . . . the students about froze the first night at the state park. It was so cold, we had to move them to new locations."
Yet even in the frigid conditions, God was working as two local churches opened their doors for the students to sleep in warmth.
"That was a miracle in itself because now we not only had a warm place, but enough showers as the local high school opened its doors for use of their showers," Giles explains. "The park only had two showers - and we were worried about how that was going to work - and the school's locker rooms had eight showers each, for men and women."
For Jeff and Ellrena, when the team arrived, they handed off the keys and headed out to her parent's home. Her brother, Anthony Sullivan, and a church member, Jeff Hibbard, had cleared out their home - placing most things in storage, so the volunteers could have easy access to all areas.
"The spectrum of the makeover grew from day one," Giles says. "In addition to the home makeover, we also worked on their church and held a benefit yard sale for the Ortners . . . along with going out into the community to minister to people."
The complete list of jobs accomplished may never be fully known as the community continued to bless the Ortners even after the Supreme Makeover Team had left. Judge Cole Word would later say the makeover not only transformed the Ortner's home, but changed the community. "It will never be the same," Word said to Lansing.
Although the Ortner's were only hoping for the bathrooms to be repaired and updated and maybe a new bed, what they got was what Ellrena called a home made "better than new." The house and storage building foundations were leveled, the porch was raised, a back deck and pond deck were built, woodwork on the house was replaced, broken glass in windows was fixed, two bathrooms were completely repaired and remodeled, plumbing was repaired, entire house's exterior was painted, a custom red cedar fire place mantel was built, new carpeting installed throughout the home, new lighting throughout the home, new linoleum put down, ceilings painted, the yard landscaped, the natural spring pond was cleaned out, a work area for Ellrena's wedding/cake decorating business was created, stripped and stained their gazebo, new walls and doors, new skirting on the exterior of the home, an entertainment center and new beds were purchased, the sheds were organized and repaired and the list goes on . . . .
Meanwhile, the district FCF (the Royal Rangers Frontiersman Camping Fellowship) president and brother of Ellrena, Art Sullivan, helped with many projects including the church makeover group. The group, headed by Mineola (Texas) First Assembly volunteer Michael Labarba, spent the days repairing and organizing both the Ortner's and the church's storage buildings, cleaning out and organizing classrooms, power washing the siding, tending the flower gardens and sanding and painting all the playground equipment. Of course, no one should forget the students who held a huge yard sale at the city pavilion - in 30 degree weather - and raised nearly $600 for the Ortners.
Repeatedly, both Giles and Lansing praised the students', contractors' and other volunteers' hard work - some who pulled all-nighters to get the job done - but they also could not stop making mention of how the community responded and became involved in the project.
After three days of nearly non-stop labor by volunteers, the Ortners returned home. At first, they couldn't see much of anything as a strategically positioned school bus, volunteers and signs obscured the home.
But when the "reveal" finally came, so did the tears.
"We both cried when we saw our new house," Ellrena says. "Jeff walked inside and cried against the wall - we were both just so overwhelmed and amazed at the miracle we were seeing . . . we were in shock over it all. Each room had new surprises."
"Jeff kept saying, 'Thank you, Lord,'" Giles recalls. "You could see their appreciation for God's faithfulness in their lives."
And the next morning, Ellrena says she woke up and re-lived the entire walk thru in amazement. "It was definitely a God-ordained project," she says, reflecting. "Jeff is so happy with the changes and clean up . . . you just can't outgive God!"
But even after the team departed, Ellrena says the spirit of love, giving and helping continued. For three consecutive days, community members - many who the Ortners didn't even know - continued to show up to help put finishing touches on projects and move all the Ortner's belongings back inside their home, unpack boxes and set things up.
Giles and Lansing say their dream is for the Supreme Home Makeover is for it to become "contagious" and for other churches, Chi Alpha groups, districts and groups to do similar outreaches.
At least one person couldn't agree more. "I feel God is calling Meridian to do an annual thing right here, and I want to be a part of it," Ellrena says.
Leah Bass, last year's Makeover recipient also gave a day in a labor of love and a financial gift to the Ortner's project. The gift continues to give.
Although this story may only be the beginning of something far greater, one circle of God's faithfulness has been completed . . . for among those missionaries God called the Ortners to support two years ago for $10 a month, there was a U.S. missionary named Tim Ware - a former contractor who played a key role in the decision-making process of the Ortner's home makeover - and a Chi Alpha missionary. His name? Scott . . . Scott Lansing.
". . . serving those who have served others . . . ."
Editor's note: Jeff Ortner has outlived the doctor's original timeline, however, he is still "terminal" and in desperate need of a healing touch from God.Addendum: Just more than two weeks after this story was first posted, AG News was notified that Jeff Ortner, after a heroic battle with cancer, passed into the presence of Christ on May 1, 2010.