3.24. Mark Johnson-Called to Community (after SCI)
Called to Community
by Mark I. Pinsky
Like many children growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mark Johnson went to church because that's what his family did, he wrote in his memoir, I Love Today, from which this chapter is adapted. His parents were volunteer Sunday school teachers at Sharon Presbyterian Church. His dad served in leadership positions, and his mom sang in the choir and planted flowers and maintained the gardens. Johnson and his brothers attended Sunday school and worship services. They participated in youth group activities and played basketball in the church gym. It was all part of life.
"In the midst of this life, we developed some sense of who God is and what he expects," Johnson recalled. "We learned that God is good and that he likes boys and girls who are good. That meant respecting our parents, doing our chores, and working hard in school. Only now they were coated with theological meaning and injected with an extra powerful shot of motivation, since God, like Santa, could see everything."
Mark realized that fear was not an ingredient in this spiritual recipe. The Johnson boys weren't raised to believe that God would strike them down in a bolt of lightning or otherwise punish them if they were bad. It was just that they didn't want to disappoint God. Somehow, they knew God loved them and wanted the best for them. And much as in the relationship they had with their parents, the thing they feared most was letting God down or being undeserving of his love. They did their best to earn the love of God and their parents, even if it meant sitting quietly through some dry church services.
Everything changed just two weeks before Mark's twentieth birthday, when he sustained a spinal cord injury in a diving accident. Although the Johnson family had endured trying times in the past that had tested their faith, this event brought them to their knees, spiritually speaking. Their church at that time, Carmel Presbyterian, immediately rallied around them. The pastor visited, and church members prayed incessantly for them and sent a steady stream of hot casseroles and pecan pies to fill their stomachs. As Mark's parents sat vigil around his bedside, their friends ran errands, fed the dog, and shuttled news and people back and forth from the hospital.
"Yet in the midst of these outward signs of Christian love and concern, my parents were beginning to lash out at the God they had served for so long," he said, "feeling that he had betrayed them. My dad, in particular, was furious at God. More than anyone, he had believed that if he did everything right and worked hard in the church, God would protect him and his family. My mother's anger was not as concentrated. She knew implicitly that God had not causedor even allowedmy injury; however, she still wrestled with her sense of loss and grief. Together, they agreed that they would not return to church, at least for now."
While Mark did his best to put on a brave face for his family and friends, during the night, as he lay alone in his hospital bed, he wrestled with his own spiritual questions. He grieved over his injury and a life that was quickly being defined by chilling phrases such as "permanently paralyzed," "confined to a wheelchair," "take him home until you can't take care of him anymore," and "he won't live past forty."
"Like my mom, I knew that God had not caused my injury, but still I wondered where God was during this time," he said. "I was still very much afraid, but gradually I began to have a sense that God was with me. God was starting to become personal."
In 1972 Johnson was still wrestling with his new identity. After five months spent in hospitals, he'd had time to settle in at home and begin to navigate the world as a person with a disability. Not surprisingly, he was starting to feel aimless and restless, wondering what he should do next in life. During that time Billy Graham returned to Charlotte to hold a crusade in his hometown, and the visit piqued Johnson's interest. He asked his father to drop him off at the Ovens Auditorium that Friday eveningthe crusade's youth night. As Mark's father drove away, the young man wheeled himself through the entrance and toward the front of the auditorium, where an area had been set aside for people using wheelchairs. After singer George Beverly Shea warmed up the crowd with his renowned baritone voice, Graham began to tell the story of Daniel, a devout Jewish boy who was captured by the Babylonians, taken from his family and homeland, and forced to serve the Babylonian emperor's royal court. Though traumatized, Daniel didn't give up, but instead went on to develop a successful career interpreting dreams. Neither did he give up his faith in God, even when his captors insisted, on pain of death, that he worship their pagan gods.
"As Billy preached, I understood that it was no longer adequate for me to rely on my parents' faith in God," Johnson said. "While they had done a great job raising me in the church, it was time now for me to make my own personal commitment to God. I was being challenged to finish the process that began in those dark nights in the hospital. More so, I recognized that God was with me, not just in the time of my accident but also as I was developing my new sense of self, and that he was calling me to lead a full and active life, with or without a disability."
Within four years of Johnson's accident, his parents had also reconciled with their faith and returned to churchhis mother with a sense of peace, and his father with a mixture of wariness and hope. Because Mark was still living with his parents, he attended church with them. The congregation welcomed them warmly and did what they could to accommodate Mark and his wheelchair. Among other things, they built a beautiful ramp for the church's entrance and approved the use of their gym for the local wheelchair basketball team.
At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in education, specializing in guidance and counseling. He took a job as a counselor at Charlotte Rehabilitation Hospital, providing support to current and former patients who were also adjusting to life with a disability. Although many of the patients' problems involved physical barriers, which often left them feeling angry and depressed, more fundamental issues arose from social attitudes about disability that supported segregation and promoted paternalism. These attitudes said that having a disability was a negative thing. When couched in spiritual terms, these were the same attitudes that told Johnson he needed to be healed, as if he wasn't good enough for God's love the way he was.
Twice after his accident, Johnson met this frustrating belief face-to-face. The first incident took place on a summer evening a year after his injury. He was lying in bed when a friend visited. "His name was Tommy, and he was here to heal me," Johnson recalled. "Earlier that evening, Tommy had attended a worship service at his church, where a visiting healing preacher was praying over people. After the service, Tommy invited the preacher to accompany him to my house and pray over me, but the preacher declined. Undaunted, Tommy decided that he had the same faith and could do the same things that the healing preacher had done, and he headed directly to my house."
Knowing Tommy to be sincere in his desire to heal him, Johnson agreed to let him try. "I could tell it was important to him. He read a passage of Scripture, prayed over me, and then grabbed my arms and commanded me to stand up. But I didn't. Although I shifted a bit from the force of his actions, my body otherwise continued to rest comfortably on the bed. Tommy was both embarrassed and devastated and quickly retreated from my room, never to come around again."
More than ten years later, after marrying and having a child, Mark was vacationing with his family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. His wife and daughter were playing in the water while he sat poolside, watching them and enjoying the warm summer sun. Eventually, a woman approached him. Sitting next to him, she smiled and asked if she could pray for him. "I understood that like Tommy, she was sincere in her offer and thought she was doing a good deed. She may even have thought that she was doing the will of God. I smiled back at her and answered, 'Sure, as long as you know that I'm happy.' I could tell that my response startled her. Her smile vanished, and she awkwardly stood up and walked away without saying anything else."
In retrospect, Johnson thought that his friend Tommy and the woman by the pool represented a lot of people in the church, and to a degree he understood their motivation. Disability is frightening to many people. It generally comes from injury, illness, or aging, and it always means that some part of the body, whether the brain, the legs, arms, eyesight, bodily functions, or a combination of partsdo not work the same way they do in people without disabilities. "In a society that places a high value on ability and being independent, we don't want to think that it's possible that we, too, could lose that," said Johnson. "I understand that, and yet I see, too, how pity is promoted when people focus solely on what a person can't do, rather than what they can. When we do that to people, we miss out on the opportunities to see them as partners in ministry."
Johnson learned this lesson from his friend and mentor Wade Blank, whom he met while living in Denver, Colorado, in the early 1980s. Blank was a Presbyterian minister who had worked in the civil rights movement before dedicating his life to working with people with disabilities. Blank especially singled out people with severe disabilities, and as he did so, he witnessed the ways in which society shunned and pitied them. But the minister saw the value and dignity in each person and treated him or her as a colleague and partner. Blank, Johnson, and others organized a group they called ADAPT and successfully fought for accessible transportation, first at the local level and later at the national level. Working with Blank, Johnson learned how communities are strongest and most effective when every person is valued for his or her contribution.
From Denver, Johnson and his family moved in 1986 to Atlanta, where he began volunteering at Shepherd Center, a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research, and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord and brain injuries. In 1987 he was hired as the facility's advocacy specialist, and later he became its director of advocacy. Over the past twenty years, Johnson has earned more than a dozen state and national awards for his advocacy for people with disabilities.
After Johnson and his wife, Susan, were married, they did not attend church regularly. But like many other couples, they agreed, once their daughter Lindsey was born, that it was time to start going again. They wanted Lindsey to be exposed to the Christian faith and brought up in the church, so they soon joined Alpharetta First Presbyterian Church and began to get involved. The church had all the necessary physical accommodations in place, so Mark was able to be as involved as he wanted to be.
Over time, Lindsey found her own place in the Christian youth group, Young Life, and Susan and Mark began to attend church less frequently. Although they very much believed in God, "we weren't spending much time with him at church beyond Christmas and Easter," Johnson said.
That all changed during a return trip from a Florida vacation in 1996, when Johnson lost his wallet at a roadside fruit stand. Four months later it was returned by mail by a stranger, who had found it and then misplaced it. In his letter accompanying the wallet, the man apologized and included a copy of The Daily Word, a booklet of daily devotions that he said he had found to be meaningful. The man wrote that he hoped the devotions might also be useful in Johnson's life. Johnson was touched. He read the devotion for that day and was glad that he had, for it gave him a sense of peace and reinvigorated his faith.
"What was most meaningful was that this Good Samaritan offered this gift without knowing anything about me," Johnson said. "He didn't know who I was, or what I did, or whether I was already a Christian. And more importantly, he didn't know that I had a disability. He offered this gift simply because his love for God compelled him to do so. It was not a gift of pity, but one of pure Christian love."
Over time, reading The Daily Word became a vital part of Johnson's morning routine, laying an uplifting foundation for the rest of his day and reminding him continually of God's presence in his life. He later gave copies of the devotional book to his wife, his daughter, and several of his family members and friends. In 2001 Lindsey introduced her parents to North Point Community Church, which they still attend.
Toward the end of 2008, Mark began to feel restless. His work was going well, his family was fine, and he and his wife were learning to slow down and enjoy life. Still, he felt a spiritual uneasiness. Despite all that he had accomplished in his advocacy work, he worried that he wasn't doing what God wanted him to be doing. He wondered if he was losing focus or doing too little. He continued to read his daily devotions and attend church, and he tried harder to listen to God.
The title of the Daily Word devotion for Friday, February 13, 2009, was "Healing," and the lead sentence was "Divine love heals and restores me. I am alive, alert, and enthusiastic about life." Mark read the devotion as usual and then began his day. But as the day progressed, he started to feel sick, and Susan took him to the hospital emergency room. His appendix had ruptured, but because of his spinal injury he had been unable to feel the pain. During several periods of nighttime delirium, he experienced a deep sense of awe and peace, as well as a spectrum of visions, some from his early life.
Several days into his recovery, Mark asked his nurse to give him his laptop computer, and with great energy and clarity he began to write about the visions he had just experienced and the messages that seemed to emanate from them. "The word that kept coming to me was 'love,'" he said. "God created us because he loves us and he wants us to love each other." Mark felt that the visions were confirming the work he'd been doing but added a spiritual component that had been missing. "I think God wanted me to see his hand in my work and to share that message with others." This he has done since then, faithfully living out that calling, using a faith that has become personal, he said, "to share the good news that God loves us and calls us to community just the way we are."