13 December 2017

JILL’S STORY

WHEN LIFE LITERALLY IS A MARATHON

Jill was brought up, one of three daughters of a minister in rural Co. Antrim. This story tells of how the Lord has led her and the struggles and trials she has had to face as His servant. Her dad is currently the minister in First Presbyterian Church, Newtownards.

Jill Hamill is a runner. She is also a thinker, a talker, a missionary, a wife, a mentor, a cafe manager and a fine cook (or so I’m told). Jill Hamill is many things. What defines her at the start of this year as we sit and talk, however, is none of those things particularly. As she tells her story, musing in parts, fiery in others, she’s simply herself trying to make sense of the events and memories that have shaped her life so far.

Along with her husband, Jonny, she has been living and working in Phnom Penh for the past six months as part of Care for Cambodia (CFC) – a ministry/NGO which supports over sixty orphaned and rescued children at a home in the city and provides humanitarian care and educational support for 61 rural villages throughout Cambodia. In a former life, she worked as a secondary school teacher in Northern Ireland. Jonny was a successful banker and as they approached their 30s, life seemed pretty sorted and set for a steady and comfortable future. Then they travelled to Asia and along the way, found Cambodia.

It was an experiment, or rather, a conscience appeaser, as Jonny would say, that came out of an increasing conviction about money. Here he was with plenty and way over there so many lived on less than a dollar a day. So he made a deal with God. He and Jill would go for a few months, do their bit and then afterwards, God could leave them alone. However, God had other plans. Cambodia had its effect. Within ten months they were back, first for a short visit, then for a long summer and finally, for good.

Since then, life has had its moments. Two weeks in and Jill ran the Phnom Penh half marathon, notching up an impressive time and coming first in the women’s event, a victory shared and celebrated by the CFC family with videos, songs, games and a huge order from Lucky Burger. Then, a six week stint as overseers at CFC whilst the founders, Norman and Fi, were back in the UK. A baptism of fire as it turned out………..

More recently the biggest trial came, however, when Jill was knocked down by a car when she was out running early one morning. How it happened she can’t say for sure. All she can remember is running along a sideroad towards the Riverside listening to a sermon on her iPod and seeing two motos on the corner of the street. The next thing she remembers, she was back at the flat, blood pouring from her head, being sick down the loo.

As she recalled later, she’d managed to get a moto home but had no idea of the state of her injuries until Jonny saw her coming in and immediately phoned Norman and Fi’s adopted son, Khemera, to take her to hospital. When the diagnosis came, it was not good – two skull fractures, three internal brain haemorrhages and a very low heart rate. With one of the haemorrhages deep in her brain, the next 48 hours were critical. She needed specialist treatment fast, so within an hour she was on a private jet with Jonny and two doctors bound for Thailand.

Once there, after various tests, the main concern was the bleeding and swelling on her brain. Her condition was no longer critical but things were still serious and she needed constant care and attention. So, for over a week it was full bed and board, courtesy of the Bumrungrad hospital, along with visits from close friends and family.

Apart from the food, the fractures, the torn ligaments, the huge headaches, the sensitivity to light, the tiredness and confusion, the biggest trauma for Jill was her plan of running the Bangkok marathon that week being scuppered. Her tirade at Jonny for not bringing her trainers is now a Facebook legend, but she meant it. She was sure she could do it: “I’m strong. I can do this! I’ve done hard things before!” It would be an act of defiance for her to get out there and run. The advice of others and diagnoses told her otherwise and instead she just had to sit back and give in to the healing process.

Bangkok then, was a frustrating time and Jill admits to being a difficult patient. However, after scans showed there was still bleeding in her brain and she couldn’t fly for another week, she was thankfully allowed to go to a nearby hotel to rest and wait it out. Whilst there, her Dad read her the story of Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad, and one line in particular stood out: “I never knew that Jesus was all I needed until He was all I had left.” Having come to Cambodia to tell people that Jesus can meet them in their helplessness, it seemed ironic that only a few months later, here she was, having to find the truth of that for herself.

And it was a tricky truth to say the least. Once back in Phnom Penh, the reality of her helplessness sent Jill into an unfamiliar depression: “So much of who I am has been based on my functioning capacities, the things I can do well, the things that define me. After the accident, those things – work, running, being a wife – had all gone. The sense that Jesus was all I needed was there but the commitment to live in that fully, I realised, was not.”

What was most galling to her though was that this was not a new lesson. History, it seemed, was repeating itself and memories of breaking her neck in a car crash seven years ago came flooding back. For months, she endured hospital life in a bodycast and then, whilst recovering at home, her family all went through various crises too. First, her younger sister contracted malaria whilst volunteering in Africa and after visiting her, her Dad came down with a serious tropical disease. Then Jill’s youngest sister gradually became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome and finally, to cap it all, so did her Mum after valiantly trying to support everyone else.

And yet, in all of the trauma and turmoil, what stands out for Jill as she speaks about it now is the value of family and the sense of being held through it all. In her helplessness, God was there. Now, seven years on, He was still there, gently reminding her whilst holding her in His strong arms.

Growing up as a minister’s eldest daughter in a small parochial church, Jill’s default setting was always to do more. With everyone watching and expecting things of her, she would push herself and work hard to try to win their approval. Although outwardly she was successful and seemed to have it all together, inside she never felt it was enough. Now, years later, Jill admits to similar struggles and still wonders if she’s ever doing enough.

And yet since she’s been here, so many lives have been changed. Young people leaving CFC are finding their feet through her support and the securing of funds for their studies. The women at Cafe Eden are growing in confidence as she mentors and encourages them and business is beginning to boom. Not bad for six months.

But at the heart of all this, what really matters to Jill, is Jesus. “It’s nothing if it’s not with Jesus” she says. “I may be a missionary, and there’s a certain expectation that comes with that, but all I have really is Jesus. And all I want is to enjoy the gifts He’s given me and relax in them.”

So it seems that lessons are being learnt and huge corners are being turned. In her weakness since the accident, a new strength is emerging and as she sits back with a wry smile and a cup of tea in hand, Jill-the talker, the overcomer, the friend – is a sure testimony that life in this particular corner of the world is blooming.

Read more about Jill and Jonny’s work with Care for Cambodia in the April issue of Rejoice Always.

Jill Hamill