Living Above Life's Circumstances
Over six decades ago, a mother living in poverty, with eight children and an abusive and alcoholic husband, remained committed to faithful prayer, worship, and church attendance in spite of her circumstances. Although Bertha Cornish died from cancer in 1969 at just 44 years old, the legacy and impact of her prayers is still unfolding.
Even with harsh memories of a difficult childhood, several of Bertha’s children and some of their own adult children are serving the Lord in ministry. One of those is U.S. Missionary Sharon L. Thomas, who with her husband, Tim Thomas, ministered in urban Chicago for many years. They now mentor other urban missionaries. Sharon shared some of her story in a July 2018 AG News article.
Sharon’s mother, Bertha Zielke was the fourth of thirteen children and was raised in an Assemblies of God family in Corn, Oklahoma during the Great Depression. After serving in WWII, John Cornish stopped at the Union Station in Wichita, Kansas, where Bertha worked, and she fell for his charms as he talked about Christianity. They were married in 1943, but harsh reality soon set in, as Bertha’s marriage took a devastating turn.
John’s struggles with alcohol and anger made it difficult for him to keep a job. The family soon found themselves living on welfare and as children arrived, they learned to expect the unexpected. The family eventually moved to a Whitewater, Kansas, farmhouse without indoor plumbing or other conveniences.
Despite his unhealthy behavior, John did not object to Bertha’s faith, although he did not share it. In the evenings after chores, Bertha gathered the children for prayer and singing from old hymnbooks. Sharon, the second oldest, recalls her father even driving them to an Assemblies of God church, now Family Worship Center, in nearby El Dorado, “if we had a car he hadn’t wrecked yet,” she recounts. The family filled an entire pew, and Bertha enjoyed singing with other believers saying, “I’m at home here.”
If the family needed a ride to church, members made sure the family was picked up for services. Among those helping regularly were the Browns, whose grandson happened to be Tim Thomas.
Sharon is thankful for her mother’s example of faith. “She never complained,” says Sharon. “We were scared, but Mom didn’t sow bitterness into us. Family worship was peaceful and we prayed for our dad. We also got strength from Sunday night altar services at church.”
Bertha taught the children to live in and through adversity as a family, says Sharon. This has helped inform the Thomas’ ministry and the ministry of Sharon’s brother, Dan, who has also ministered in Chicago. Sharon and Dan state that they understand teens who cling to familiar context, no matter how unhealthy it may be.
Bertha died when her youngest child was just three years old; John died eight months later. Years after his death, the children learned more about their father’s history, along with more signs of God’s faithfulness.
A few years ago, a woman reached out to Sharon via DNA testing. Comparing stories, it was clear the woman’s father, Bob Silverthorn, was Sharon’s half-brother. Sharon flew to Pennsylvania to meet her new-found sibling; they visited family graves together and found yearbook photos of the deceased half-siblings.
Things got even more interesting as Bob and Sharon shared about their own families. Bob was adopted in New Jersey and raised in an Assemblies of God church, where he accepted Jesus at age 12. His four children have all served the Lord in AG or Pentecostal contexts, as have Sharon’s three children. Bob’s son in law, Rich Johnson, also attended Central Bible College with Sharon’s daughter Andrea. After time in pastoral ministry, Robin and Rich Johnson moved to Missouri where they were involved at James River Church in Ozark, as well as with Convoy of Hope, until both died from cancer. (Their story is shared in the book Through the Valley.) Their sons, Rich and Jason Johnson—Sharon’s great-nephews—attend and serve at James River Church, and great-niece Heather Borchers and her husband, Josh, live in North Carolina where she is a project manager for Elevation Church. With many mutual friends and ministry ties, Sharon’s and Bob’s families enjoyed getting acquainted via Face-Time.
Sharon has often thought about scripture verses in Psalms and Proverbs and the faithfulness of God prevailing despite obstacles. For years she had also wondered why, despite her mother’s prayers, her father never gave his life to Christ. Then, her brother, Daniel, shared a memory he had long been hesitant to voice.
At 12, Daniel was the oldest child still living at home when John moved the family to El Dorado after Bertha’s death. John did not take the children to church or welcome visits by church people, but one night in January, 1970, Daniel saw his dad kneeling with their mother’s worn Bible open in front of him. The next day, John died of a heart attack.
As chaotic as the story seems, learning more of it has given Sharon some personal closure about her mother’s prayers and even the possibility that her dad is in heaven. “Mom lived above her circumstances,” Sharon says, “and I don’t think it would have been possible without the power of the Holy Spirit.” It even seems that as she prayed for her own family, Bertha’s prayers somehow encompassed step-children she didn’t know about, with several landing in Christian environments and even ministry.
“It makes no sense,” says Sharon, “except with God! We won’t know the full story until heaven, but just look at all that came of it.”