'This is life'
South Pasadena priest sees rare cancer diagnosis as learning, teaching opportunity
By Sara Cardine 12/12/2012
By most people’s accounts, if there’s anyone who should not have gotten cancer it’s Jon Dephouse.
Physically, the 32-year-old South Pasadena resident is a paragon of fitness. In addition to participating in 15 triathlons, including the grueling Ironman Triathlon, Dephouse is an avid cyclist who used to teach spinning classes with wife Sarah Lynn at Cycle Annex on Meridian Avenue.
Spiritually, Dephouse has devoted his life to serving God and his fellow man. An associate priest at St. James Episcopal Church, he gives sermons and officiates weddings and funerals. He counsels parishioners in need and serves as chaplain at the church’s Parish Day School. Inside and outside the church, he tries to maintain what he and Sarah Lynn describe as an “open-handed” approach to life — they will go wherever God’s will leads them and accept whatever life may give them.
So when, in late October, the discovery of a lump in his left gluteal muscle led to a diagnosis of Pleomorphic Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer found primarily in children, instead of asking “Why me?” Dephouse kept his heart open, hoping to receive a message about how he might use this experience to be a role model for parishioners and draw closer to God.
“Jesus came to teach us how to live with integrity, to walk in truth in the face of all circumstances. I do hope and pray that God will accomplish greater things through this,” he says.
It’s been nearly two months since that awful discovery, but some of those greater things seem to be already developing, as members of the church rally to take care of Dephouse, his wife and his young sons, 5-year-old Caleb and Josiah, 1½. Through their acts of kindness, he is learning that allowing himself to be vulnerable and open to receiving care is sometimes just as vital as extending it to others.
Life gives back
The belief that life gives back what you put into it was engrained in the Dephouses from the time they were children, growing up in separate small Midwestern towns. Sarah Lynn’s mother was a teacher, while her father was a director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“We didn’t have a lot of material things, so I found riches elsewhere,” she says.
She trained and worked as an engineer, but spent time in the African country of Lesotho, Africa through the Peace Corps before deciding to attend divinity school.
“I had never been part of a church, but I had these big questions I wanted to know more about. I thought, ‘Well, why not go to the seminary and explore this?’”
Sarah Lynn was pursuing a master’s degree in cross cultural studies at Pasadena’s Fuller Theological Seminary in 2004 when she met Dephouse. They were married 15 months later.
“We have one of those stories,” she explains. “You know how certain people, when they meet, could attribute it all to coincidence? It felt like a pretty orchestrated, this is sort of meant-to-be thing.”
Perhaps that was because Dephouse himself grew up in Muskegon, Mich., also learning from his family the value of public service and working with those less fortunate. His grandmother was a special role model, working in the food pantry and becoming the first female deacon in her church. A young Jon studied communications and English at a small liberal arts college in West Michigan before also pursuing cross cultural studies at Fuller.
When he met Sarah Lynn, he envisioned himself doing urban missionary work in an inner-city community. She saw herself working in Africa as an engineer and giving her time and attention to those badly in need. But life had other plans.
In 2007, the couple attended a Wednesday night service at St. James and was attracted in by the church’s emphasis on a spiritual approach that encouraged questions about life and the nature of God. The Episcopal Church’s acceptance of people from different theological backgrounds and its focus on matters of social justice appealed to them both. Less than one year after that first night, Dephouse says he felt called toward ordination, a process that involved further training and preparation. He came to St. James as an associate priest in 2009.
South Pasadena was a far from a poor, urban community, and even more so from a Third World African nation, but it’s where the Dephouses were called, and so it was there that they served.
Since then, they’ve learned there is no place on earth where God’s work is not needed, that all humans are broken, and that fragility is part of what makes life precious.
A rare diagnosis
From a medical point of view, the exact causes of Jon Dephouse’s sarcoma are unknown. Pleomorphic Rhabdomyosarcoma forms in skeletal muscles. Typically, it occurs in fewer than 5 of every 1 million children in America under age 14, manifesting in half of patients before age 10, according to the National Cancer Institute.
In adults, there are thought to be fewer than 200 cases nationwide, making it difficult for the Dephouses to learn more about Jon’s particular case and possible prognosis.
Tracy Larsen, a friend of the Dephouse family and a parishioner at St. James, says she was shocked to learn of Dephouse’s diagnosis.
“I was right there in the pews when our [Rector the Rev. Canon Anne Tumilty] made the announcement — you could just feel the mass of emotion in the whole place,” Larsen recalls. “It was so surprising, because he is certainly the least likely person you’d expect to have this illness. He does all the right things, and there’s this horrible diagnosis. We were all stunned.”
Meanwhile, the Dephouses try to explain to young Caleb what’s happening in terms he can understand.
“We use the analogies of weeds,” Sarah Lynn says. “We tell him Daddy has weeds in his body and we have to give him medicine to kill the weeds.”
Today, little more than one month into a rigorous treatment regimen — six rounds of high-dose chemotherapy, radiation sessions five days a week for five weeks and a surgery to remove a hopefully dead sarcoma — Dephouse walks in a world of ambiguity, guided only by his faith and the power of human connection.
His admits the cancer has robbed him of things humans cling to as definitions of success, such as the security of a clean bill of health. But if it has taken away, it has also given him certain spiritual gifts.
He and Sarah Lynn have watched parishioners at St. James rally around them in support. In their offerings of meals, company and prayers for healing is a reversal of the usual priest-parishioner relationship, he says.
“There are hundreds of people here, just an outpouring of people who are being ministers to me,” Dephouse says. “It really challenges the roles we have, that this is the priest and what he does. We are ministers together.”
While many people in positions of authority would hide their vulnerabilities from those they lead, Dephouse is a firm believer in being open and honest about what he’s experiencing, according to friend and parishioner Matt O’Connor.
“Most of us would say, ‘This is horrible, I want to hide and keep things to myself,’” O’Connor says. “But he’s kept everyone abreast. He’s open, and that really requires vulnerability.”
That vulnerability is an important part of Dephouse’s theological approach, because it fosters human connection and demonstrates that trust and honesty is a two-way street. If priests want parishioners to be open with them, it is a favor they must repay, he explains.
“I get a front row seat to the most vulnerable and profound parts of people’s lives,” he says. “At the end of the day, nearly every human being longs for that kind of safety and protection with another.
“My hope is to consciously and unconsciously draw people into this life together with greater levels of transparency and greater levels of intimacy and support through this thing we are going through together,” he continues. “That’s what church is all about — that's what the presence of God looks like in the world.”
That’s not to say his experience is not fraught with the usual hallmarks of a cancer diagnosis — fear, frustration and pain.
About a week earlier, Dephouse had just finished his second round of chemotherapy and was recovering when he contracted a severe stomach virus. The pain he endured was almost unbearable but eventually passed.
The young priest thought about how he’d overcome and was now able to see things in a larger perspective. It was as if suffering had expanded his understanding of God’s grace and the role it plays in everyday life.
With each passing day, Dephouse strives to remain honest about his journey, whether sharing with parishioners or in his own daily prayers.
“If I’m scared, I express that to God,” he says. “Through my honesty, I can learn to trust God with my life and learn to live with some level of wholeness or integrity through these circumstances — this is life.”