Writing mirrors tragedy and hope for minister

Jerel Law's new book, "Spirit Fighter," an adventure tale based on images and stories from the Bible, has turned in strong sales in a limited run through Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and is set for general release in March.

One editor at Thomas Nelson publishers, the international Christian firm that published it, calls Law, who pastors a church in Huntersville, "a truly promising, creative author with a fresh voice."

Law's son Christopher deemed it "awesome," and Law said he's signed autographs and taken pictures for kids in his neighborhood who have read it.

"I think kids will really respond to this book, especially in the Christian market," said Molly Hodgin, an editorial director at Thomas Nelson. "The story also has a great message for kids, but manages to feel genuine and authentic, avoiding the preachy vibe that religious fiction can be known for."

But "Spirit Fighter" is part of a bigger story, one of tragedy and hope, of a wife and mother who died too young and reached thousands with a story of her own.

Jerel Law's wife, Susan Bailey Law, died New Year's Day 2011 after three recurrences of cancer in three years. The Laws have three children, now ages 12, 10 and 7.

Susan and Jerel Law met as students at UNC Chapel Hill, where Susan was a music leader in a campus Christian group. They married in 1995.

They settled in Huntersville, where Jerel founded Connection Church.

When his children began reading books by J.K. Rowling and Percy Jackson, Law wondered why there was not a similar series with a Christian foundation.

"I wanted to write something for my kids and connect them with the Bible in a relevant way for them," he said. Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and entered remission after a round of chemotherapy and radiation. In mid-2009, Susan found a lump under her arm and doctors confirmed the cancer was back.

As the economic recession widened, Law decided to close Connection Church due to struggling finances.

He calls the fall of 2009 a "forced sabbatical," and in the midst of another round of chemotherapy Susan encouraged Jerel to write his novel.

In the meantime, Susan herself began writing. She started a blog to chronicle the life of her family and post updates about her health.

Law knew that publishing the book wouldn't be easy. In the spring, he emailed Robert Whitlow, a Charlotte-based author who has been called the "John Grisham of the Christian market" and asked if he'd look over a letter to a book agent.

Whitlow emailed back asking for the first chapter of "Spirit Fighter." He called Law the next day.

Whitlow connected Law with his publisher, Thomas Nelson, which immediately requested three chapters. Susan was in remission by the summer, but on a family beach trip her back began to hurt and she coughed a lot. Doctors found a spot of cancer on her lung, and her health spiraled downward. Law took over her blog when she was in too much pain to write.

On Jan. 1, 2011, Susan died in her mother's arms at the hospital. Two weeks after Susan's death, Thomas Nelson offered Law a contract for "Spirit Fighter" and a sequel.

Jerel is now the pastor of Lake Norman Community Church, which he started after Susan died.

The blog, Law says, is part of the manifestation of Susan's belief that God wanted to do something big with her life.

"She never would have wanted that to be because of cancer," Law said. "Yet God expanded his reach through her. "