by Emily Raley
Benjamin Heatherly was born with half a heart. It’s called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. Before he reached his first birthday, Benjamin went to be with Jesus, where he was eternally healed.
Benjamin’s mother is Anna Heatherly. She graduated from Truett-McConnell in 2002 but when she entered as a freshman, she had no idea then what God had in store for her future: a husband, a ministry, and a heartbreaking trial which would lead to opportunities to share the Gospel.
As she entered her freshman year after only applying to one school, Heatherly anticipated a typical collegiate experience. “I loved TMC,” she said. “I loved that it was a small school and everyone knew each other. I jumped in with two feet and got involved in everything I could.”
“One of my fondest memories of TMC is sitting on the front lawn with friends in the evenings,” Heatherly said, a tradition which many students still participate in today. “Sometimes it was singing while someone played the guitar or playing kickball or ultimate Frisbee. Just spending time on the lawn surrounded by friends.”
That’s when Anna met Eric, a young man who would eventually become her husband. “I chose TMC for all the wrong reasons,” Eric admitted. “I was not a follower of Christ at the time, but because my parents owned a home not far away from the campus in Cleveland and were willing to let me stay there alone, I thought I had the setting for the greatest college experience ever. Fortunately, God had different plans for me.”
While Eric was running away from God, two TMC freshmen befriended him and invited him to church on Sundays and Baptist Student Union on Wednesdays. “I was constantly hearing the Gospel,” Eric said, “but possibly just as importantly, I was seeing Ryan and Kristi live out their relationships with Jesus.” After only a few months at TMC, Eric realized Jesus was the missing piece to his life and made a commitment to follow Christ during a BSU service.
Two fellow students discipled Eric. “They were my peer-mentors, so-to-speak,” Eric said. “They made great investments in my life: specifically the first two years after my new birth. They took me under their wings and discipled, mentored and held me accountable. I was in many ways Timothy and they were in many ways like Paul.”
Things seemed to be going well for Eric. In the spring he met Anna, and the two immediately began dating. However, the enemy began to attack Eric and he wandered from God; he didn’t return to campus the following semester.
“At the last minute, I changed my mind and went to work. I got into some pretty awful habits during that time. I was such a babe in Christ and I got in a cycle of one bad decision after another. I was fortunate enough not to get into any real trouble, but I created a hard life for myself,” Eric said.
So others may see Jesus
In 2001, Anna and Eric were married. “We struggled to remain obedient to Christ,” Eric said, “but God stirred Anna’s heart to recommitment before He did mine. Once we both recognized that we were missing the mark by not having Christ at the center of our relationship, God really began to grow our relationship both vertically and horizontally.”
God began blessing the Heatherly’s with children, and in 2009, He called them into vocational ministry. “I went back to school and earned my undergraduate and master’s degree,” Eric said.
Not long after answering the call to ministry, Anna became pregnant with their third child, Benjamin West. Undetected by doctors, Benjamin was born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome which meant he only had half a heart. The Heatherly’s were told their son would not make it through the night, but God had different plans. “Benjamin had an eight-hour open heart surgery at 10 day’s old,” Anna shared. “He was in the hospital for 58 days before coming home.” After another surgery, Benjamin was taken home to be with Jesus where he was eternally healed.
What Satan meant to harm the Heatherly’s God planned to use for good. “This was a very tough time for our family,” Anna said. “However, we have seen God work in so many ways. We’ve been able to share the Gospel with people through Benjamin’s story, and we’ve been able to minister to others who have had children in the hospital for long times or even lost a child.”
Echoing his wife’s sentiment, Eric shared how this period of testing challenged their family in every way possible: “It was the greatest test I have ever experienced as a follower of Christ, as a husband and a father. My family and I literally saw God perform miracles, answer prayers, hold and carry us when nothing else would or could do so.”
“We wouldn’t want to go through anything like this again, and we most certainly would rather have Benjamin with us,” Anna shared, “but we said from the beginning that if one person has seen Jesus through this situation and one life was changed, it was all worth it.”
In the midst of this tragedy, the Heatherly’s recall how God used their time at Truett-McConnell to encourage their hearts: “I look back at the time at TMC and I’m thankful for the friendships I made back then,” Anna shared. “After Benjamin was born and died, there were so many people at TMC who rallied behind us and prayed for us and just encouraged us through the rough days. It makes me thankful for the friendships and relationships we made there.”
Salt and light
While seeking the Lord’s call on their lives, the Heatherly’s became aware of a church planting internship in Cleveland, Ohio. A part-time position, Eric knew it would not be enough to support his family. With a piqued interest and curiosity, Eric sent in his resume anyway. Not long after, the Heatherly’s were invited to come and learn more about the position and a local church in desperate need of a part-time associate pastor, Painesville Baptist Church.
“After meeting with both groups on a Saturday, Anna and I knew God was calling us to Ohio. As we left our meeting with the pastoral search team at PBC, I recall Anna and I getting into our car, looking at each other and both saying, ‘Uh-oh, we’re moving to Ohio.'”
Eventually, Eric’s part time associate pastor position turned into a full-time pastor position of youth and family ministry. But it hasn’t been a breeze, Eric shared. “Roughly 90 percent of northeast Ohio, particularly the Cleveland area, is believed to be unsaved or unreached with the Gospel. Those numbers were earthshattering,” Eric said. “They were and remain numbers that crush my heart.”
While many Christians are unaware of the large number of American’s who have not heard the Gospel, Eric is determined to persevere toward the calling God has placed on his life and ministry: “My calling is to share the Gospel – to be salt and light – no matter the circumstances. Knowing that God is in control and that He is going to be glorified takes all the pressure off of me. I am but a bondservant and my labor is to exalt my King.”
Reflecting on their time together in college, the Heatherly’s smiled as they recalled the fond memories of Truett-McConnell. “TMC is an amazing school, and I am thankful for what it means to me,” Anna said. “While I was at TMC my relationship with Christ was challenged and grew.”
Adding to Anna’s praises, Eric said: “It gets me so pumped to know that God continues to bless and use TMC for His glory. Not only did God radically change my life because of my time at TMC, I had a blast being a student there.”
Emily is the Director of Marketing and Communications.Return to News Archive