By KATIE EUBANKS
Cindy Townsend picks up a plastic lemon and turns it over in her hands. At first glance, it’s just a lemon — one of many she’s used to adorn her kitchen table, where we now sit with her husband, as well as other surfaces in their home.
A closer look at the lemon reveals words like “provision” and “protection” written in black magic marker in Cindy’s cursive hand.
If you’ve communicated with Cindy lately, you’ve probably noticed other words, too. She’s taken to signing her emails and text messages “Cindy ‘Grateful for the Goodness of God’ Townsend.”
She doesn’t want to forget what God’s done for her over the past year and a half. She doesn’t want to forget the fall, the tumor, the multiple surgeries — or God’s presence through it all.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time God took a sour situation and caused it to bear sweet fruit in Cindy’s life.
‘I’m not going to put you in a box.’
Today Cindy serves as women’s minister at First Baptist Jackson. But many years ago, she was just a preacher’s kid who didn’t want to move to the capitol city.
“My dad said he felt called to be a voice for Jesus in Jackson,” she says. “When my family joined Daniel Memorial Baptist Church, I didn’t even want to stand with them to shake hands with people.”
When she did, she met Bill Townsend, another teen whose family had also just moved to Jackson.
“My dad asked me, ‘Did you not even find one person who could be your friend?’” Cindy recalls. “I said, ‘I found one. … he was really cute. And I’m going to marry him one day.’”
She and Bill dated off and on for 14 years, through high school and college. Whether they were actively dating or not, Cindy would call Bill every Sunday night at 10 or 10:30. If they were seeing other people, she’d tell him about the dates she’d been on.
“I wanted to live my single life to the fullest. And I think God wanted that,” she says. Also, because she’d been called to ministry at age 13, “I wanted to make doubly, triply sure (Bill) was the one.”
Cindy’s dad was fully supportive of her calling.
“At that time, women played piano at church or married the preacher. And my dad said, ‘I’m not going to put you in a box. You just go where God leads.’”
Where He led was initially youth ministry at First Baptist Jackson. “I enjoyed being a single adult youth minister,” Cindy says. When she and Bill finally married, “they played the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ when we walked out,” she says. “We went on our honeymoon and came home early and took the (youth group) on a youth retreat.”
Meanwhile, Bill’s career took him through various roles in higher education, many of those at Mississippi College, where he has worked in several different departments and is currently vice president and general counsel for the university.
“I love students, especially college students, and I wanted to impact their life,” Bill says.
As a youth minister, “I loved what God had called (Bill) to do,” Cindy says. When they moved to Louisiana for a time, “our house was open” to young people, she says.
By the time the Townsends came back to Mississippi, they had lived in Louisiana and Texas and had two teenagers of their own, Taylor and William. Back in the Jackson metro, Cindy founded the Global Leadership Institute at Jackson Prep, where “I was allowed to base the curriculum on Jesus and the Bible,” and later served at two different local churches before returning to First Baptist Jackson.
In 2021, Cindy and her family spent Christmas in Illinois. After returning home, she fell off a ladder onto her kitchen floor while taking down holiday decorations.
The fall would hurt her knee — badly. But it would also reveal a bigger problem. “The fall may’ve saved my life,” she says.
Tangerines and lemons
Cindy’s knee appeared to be the worst of the damage from her fall, but doctors still conducted standard protocol to make sure she didn’t have a brain bleed, Bill says. That’s when they discovered that she had a brain tumor the size of a tangerine.
After consulting with a local neurosurgeon, Cindy and Bill finally told their daughter, Taylor, about the tumor. “She said the minister’s wife at their church (in Illinois) had the same type of tumor I had — that’s how we got in with Dr. Lanzino (at the Mayo Clinic),” Cindy says.
Dr. Giuseppe Lanzino had done about 10,000 similar brain surgeries in his career and advised the Townsends to wait six months to see if the tumor was growing — and then if it was, get it out immediately. Otherwise, it could cause hearing loss, walking difficulties, vision problems or worse, even if it turned out to be benign.
“I couldn’t imagine telling this story over and over for six months,” Cindy says of the waiting period. “I only told a few people.”
Meanwhile, she underwent a painful knee surgery and physical therapy regimen, but the knee didn’t get better. Finally, she saw a doctor who said she’d have to redo the knee operation — after that other little procedure on her brain. He said simply, “Brain comes before knee.”
“That was the only day I wept,” Cindy says.
It was also one of the only appointments Bill missed. “I didn’t miss many,” he says.
“I told you to (miss it),” Cindy reminds him, “because I thought it was no big deal.”
That’s when the lemons came into play.
“I said, ‘This is such a lemon, Lord. Show me how to bring You glory (in it),’” she recalls.
Soon after praying that prayer, she was at Kirkland’s in Flowood, and “the whole front display was lemons,” she says. She bought a bunch.
“And we went back and got some more,” Bill quips.
Cindy decorated with the lemons at home but also printed out a one-page devotional and attached it to the lemons with ribbon. She wrote attributes of God on the plastic fruit and gave them to anyone who was involved in her medical journey or who was going through a tough time.
“God gives us things (when we’re in hard seasons). When my dad passed away, that was the same year (my nephew) Dawson was born,” she says. “When I found out I had a brain tumor, I kept dreaming of holding (my new granddaughter) Daisy.”
She also threw herself into her work at First Baptist. “Work was wonderful,” she says. “I thought, if this is my last six months (potentially), I’m going to make the most of it.”
Oftentimes, she found herself silent. Not a trait for which she’s known. “I got to the point where I couldn’t verbalize a prayer. I would just pray and hold my hand over where the tumor was.”
When people asked about her knee, she’d tell them how that was going, and sometimes they could sense there was more to the story. So that’s what she’d say — “There’s more to the story” — and leave it at that. Folks simply nodded and assured her they’d be praying.
Finally, the brain surgery drew near. Cindy still hadn’t told many people about the tumor, even at First Baptist. She planned to let a colleague tell the women’s ministry leaders at their monthly meeting, which fell the day before the surgery.
“I told my friend Dottie my plan and she said, ‘That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard in my life. You need the power of prayer,’” Cindy recalls. So she recorded a short video explaining her situation and sent it out to the women’s ministry.
On August 3, 2022, as she was being wheeled back to surgery at the Mayo Clinic, Cindy could hear women praying for her via Zoom. “They got up at 6 a.m. to pray for me,” she says. “I was so humbled.”
‘He has this!’
Cindy’s surgery went as expected, she was back at work in a few weeks, and the tumor was benign. She also underwent knee surgery again and has recovered well. She’s grateful for all of that. She’s also grateful for how God showed up — whether through Bill taking care of her, neighbor Joyce Miskelly bringing her food, a friend getting her in to see a neurologist at UMMC, or her kids, who were both present at the brain surgery.
Another friend reminded Cindy of an illustration she used to use when speaking to women: Cindy would say that if she had a ladder to stand on and proclaim a truth about God, she would shout, “He has this!” Ironic that God would let her fall off a ladder in order to learn that truth through experience.
Cindy didn’t find the memory quite as funny as her friend did, but she can say with certainty, “Whether you’re on the top of the ladder … or you’re halfway down the ladder, or lying splat on the cold tile floor waiting for an ambulance, He does have this, and He is with us no matter what.” y