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Church goes bald for cancer patient

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
May 6, 2013 at 12:06 a.m.


Amanda Montez held the the hair clippers in the palm of her hand and stared into the bathroom mirror. She grabbed the ends of her long, strawberry blond strands and contemplated what she would look like with a shaved head.

For days, her locks had been falling out in clumps.

She was warned the chemotherapy and cancer treatments might cause hair loss. But she thought she'd be one of the lucky ones.

Montez, 24, switched the buzzers on and felt the vibration in her hand. With one slow motion after the next, she shaved her hair down to the skin, a row at a time.

Standing in a pile of her own hair, her eyes began to water.

"I didn't look at it at first," said Montez, who was diagnosed in February with a rare stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer. "I loved my hair and wanted to be a beautician. I loved to style it. It was a big part of who I was."

With her husband, Justin Montez, near, she sank into his embrace - and cried.

Even with him beside her, holding her, weeping, she felt helpless. She felt alone.

What she didn't know was that on the other side of town, her pastor was making a similar decision to shave his head, so Montez wouldn't have to feel alone.

Support through shaving

The next morning, on the other side of town, the Rev. Bobby Rivera, lead pastor of Victoria's Covenant Life Center Church, was standing before his own bathroom mirror, contemplating shaving his thick, black hair.

Rivera didn't have cancer, but he remembered how difficult it was for his brother, Rick Rivera, to fight through cancer before he died.

Montez had been a longtime member of Rivera's church. He knew she was hurting and struggling and needed support.

"That morning, I woke up early and felt strongly impressed that I needed to shave my head and support Amanda. It was a different kind of persuasion that morning," Rivera said, mentioning that he felt God was leading him to shave. "I thought about the impact it would have on her and that I could show her she wasn't alone."

Without hesitation, Rivera committed to shave his head.

He walked in the bathroom and buzzed off his hair.

"My wife was surprised. She didn't think I'd do it," he said.

He called Montez shortly after the haircut and invited her to his home.

Montez, who was already out driving, agreed to stop by for a quick visit.

Rivera walked out of his house wearing a ball cap. Montez came to greet him on the lawn, wearing a head scarf.

"How you doing?" Rivera asked.

"Not good," she responded. "I had to shave my hair last night."

That's when Rivera removed his ball cap. They were both surprised to see the other with no hair.

"I just started crying when I saw him," Montez said. "It was the nicest thing anyone could do."

A church of bald heads

When Rivera showed up at Covenant Life Center on Easter Sunday, congregational members had questions about Rivera's new look.

He explained his buzzed hair was an attempt to support Montez and demonstrate how members in the church might love each other.

"I knew as a public figure, it would have a big impact," he said.

Others in the church decided to follow suit.

Daniel Berry, 22, of Victoria, said he, too, wanted to support Montez.

He's been attending Covenant Life Center for more than two years and knew the gesture would be significant for his friend.

"I just love Amanda, and I knew it had to be hard for her to shave her head. If I had cancer and someone shaved their head for me, it would mean a lot," he said.

On Easter Sunday, Berry shaved his head and committed to keep it buzzed until Montez's hair grew back.

Women, too, also decided to shave their heads on Montez's behalf.

Sarah Garcia, Montez's friend and a Victoria stay-at-home mom, said as much as she loved her friend and empathized with her situation, her decision to shave was somewhat more complicated.

Women are expected to have hair.

That's when Garcia knew she had follow through. She finally understood how difficult it was for Montez to make the decision to shave.

"A woman is supposed to have hair in our society. I worried what other people were going to think of me if I didn't have hair. Are they going to think I'm sick? Am I going to be ugly?" she said.

Garcia said in time, she began to love not having hair. She gave up blow dryers, straighteners and washing her hair every day.

But there are tradeoffs to her kind gesture.

"It's kind of hard because some people stare at me and think I'm sick," she said. "But it's a great way for me to share my reasons for shaving and talk to them about Amanda and about our faith."

Since Rivera's announcement in church about a month ago, almost a dozen men and women in the congregation have made the decision to go bald.

The fight, the future

Montez isn't sure how much longer she has to spend with her husband, Justin, and their three children, Haydin, 5; Holdyn, 2; and 8-month-old Holyce.

Justin hasn't shaved his hair, but Montez said she won't let him.

"He is not allowed. He is my eye candy," she said.

Justin quit work to take care of his wife, who is receiving treatments from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Montez said her physician, Dr. Robert Wolff, is a Christian and has been giving her positive feedback about a comprehensive treatment plan that includes prayer and faith in God.

She knows there is a possibility she might die. But she's hopeful and confident the Lord will heal her.

And in the meantime, she has a church of faithful friends who have joined together in solidarity - and baldness - to support Montez's long life.

"God is going to take care of this," she said. "It's terminal. But we don't talk about that."

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