BRISTOL, Va. (July 9, 2019) -- Nate Roark was sleeping in the same room when his father died from renal failure.
"I woke up to hear him coughing his last few breaths," says Roark, who was 12 at the time.
Five years later, the 17-year-old survivor of a broken home is an aspiring preacher and recent winner of the Denman Evangelism Award.
Roark was surprised by the award on June 11 at the Holston Annual Conference, when his name was called out in front of an audience of about 1,800 in Lake Junaluska, N.C.
As an active United Methodist, Roark was already attending Annual Conference as a member of the Conference Council on Youth Ministries. After he accepted the award, Roark received a big hug from his district superintendent, the Rev. Sandra Johnson.
His guardian, the Rev. Caroline Hawthorne, was also ready to hug him. Then Roark got another surprise.
“I looked over and I saw Caroline and my mom standing together ... ” he says.
“Nate broke down,” says Hawthorne.
The teenager has not lived with his mother for a few years. But when Hawthorne invited her to North Carolina to see her son receive the award, Roark’s mother said, “I want to be there.”
Sitting in the fellowship hall of Hunt Memorial United Methodist Church a week after Annual Conference, the pastor and the boy she took under her wing shared their remarkable story with a combination of tears and joy.
ESCAPE AT CHURCH
Hawthorne has been Roark’s legal guardian for two years, “but he’s been part of my life for seven years,” she says. Appointed to Hunt Memorial as a part-time local pastor in 2012, Hawthorne immediately encountered the little boy who was at the church – and other local churches – whenever they were open.
“I was 100 percent in all of the churches,” Roark says. “It was an escape.”
Roark’s parents suffered from addictions. He and his sister bounced between living with their parents and other relatives.
At Hunt Memorial, the pastor and the little boy connected through the weekly Chief’s Kids ministry. Started in 2008 by Bristol’s police chief, the program offers a hot meal, games, and Bible study for children in nearby public housing.
While Hunt Memorial has about 15 to 20 in worship attendance, the church serves about 30 children each week through Chief’s Kids and another 20 in the youth program.
“I got very involved in Chief’s Kids. Nate immediately clung to me ... It caused some tension because Hunter had never shared me before,” said Hawthorne, referring to her biological son who is four months younger than Roark.
“She just gives off kind vibes,” Roark says.
The pastor worried about the Roark children and helped them as best she could. By the time Nate was in 7th grade, his 36-year-old father was under hospice care.
When his father died, Roark's mother was working on her own recovery and his older sister struggled with other challenges. The boy was sent to live with his aunt, where he was given a closet to adapt into a bedroom.
“I was grateful for it,” Roark says. “It was mine. I got to paint the walls.”
“It was the first time in his life that he was getting some stability,” Hawthorne says.
In early 2016, Hawthorne’s husband, Stacy, was diagnosed with a rare adrenal cancer. Churches from the Bristol area jumped in to pray for and reach out to the Hawthorne family.
“Stacy was definitely the man of the church,” Roark says. “He was the only man I was willing to talk to.”
Seven months after the diagnosis, Stacy died at age 45.
Stacy and Caroline were married 20 years. Suddenly, the part-time local pastor was struggling with not only grief but supporting her young son. (“Stacy was definitely the breadwinner,” she says.) Arrangements were made for her to work full-time with the appointment of a second church, St. Luke United Methodist, while living in its parsonage.
The decision for Nate Roark to join the Hawthorne family happened one day as they were all driving back from a youth gathering. “We had a heart to heart,” Caroline said.
During the drive, Roark confessed his aunt’s home was beginning to present some challenges. Hawthorne immediately realized the St. Luke parsonage would make a good home for Nate.
“It was very spontaneous,” the pastor says. “I felt God speaking to me and saying, ‘You need to take this boy in.’”
Hawthorne had heard those words before. Noticing how much she worried about Roark, her husband Stacy had once said, at the height of his illness, “Why don’t you just get that boy and bring him here?”
When Caroline asked Nate if he wanted to live with her and her son, his response was emotional.
“It was one of the first times I had cried in a hot minute,” Roark says. “The amount of compassion that was allowed ... It was definitely a switch for me. I didn’t get to see all the things that were happening behind God’s curtain.”
Roark's mother wanted a better life for her son and quickly agreed to let the pastor become his legal guardian, Hawthorne said.
Roark is a veteran of Holston Conference ministries, including Resurrection, Youth Assembly, and camp. At Annual Conference, he added another United Methodist milestone to his experience: He was elected a delegate to Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in July 2020. Youth members are rarely elected as United Methodist delegates.
Hawthorne noticed years ago that Roark has a strong connection to his faith: “He does know so much about the Bible, coming from a broken home that didn’t focus on the Bible.”
Roark said he learned about scripture by spending a lot of time in church. As an eighth grader, he preached his first sermon on Youth Sunday at Hunt Memorial. He began to recognize a call to full-time ministry, which others have affirmed, according to Hawthorne.
Since that first Youth Sunday, Roark has preached at several churches in the Clinch Mountain District. He’s received training in advanced lay speaking and participated in Defining Moments (now known as Engage), a discerning ministry at Emory & Henry College. This week, he’s the vacation Bible school storyteller at Reynolds Memorial United Methodist Church.
"Nathaniel is always up for serving in whatever way he is asked, and he reaches out on his own initiative through Christ in his heart," said Monika Surcey, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Roark to receive the Denman Evangelism Award. "There are always all sorts of peers and adults around him, kind of like Jesus himself."
Roark says he has adapted to having rules in his home (“He never had rules before,” Hawthorne explains) and to feeling accepted and loved, even when he makes mistakes. He once spilled paint on the carpet and fully expected to be sent away.
“All Caroline said was, ‘Just help me clean it up,'" he said. "For a long time, I was wary of trying not to get sent back ... I’m definitely comfortable now. I have a full sense of foundation and security.”
He works at a movie theater and is getting ready for his senior year in high school. He fantasizes about attending college in faraway places while his surrogate mother hopes he will attend Emory & Henry.
Roark says he’s grateful for the “power of a small church ... This church was the one that nurtured me, which turned into Holston Conference nurturing me.”
Contact Annette Spence at email@example.com.
Photos below: (1) Hunt Memorial UMC. (2) Nate Roark with other Denman Evangelism Award winners.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.