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Her Faith Was Strengthened by a Friend’s Courage in Coping with ALS

A surprise phone call from a former high school classmate forged a friendship based on faith and forgiveness.

Tonya May Avent; photo by Jim Graham
Credit: JIM GRAHAM 2021
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“Hello, may I speak to Tonya May?”

I didn’t recognize the voice on the phone. Must be a telemarketer. They even used my maiden name, and I’d been married for more than a decade.

“Tonya, this is Jen Haas from Highland High School.”

I thought for a second, then remembered. Jen and I had been members of our school’s chorale more than 20 years earlier.

Jen went on, “I don’t know if you remember me, but recently I was diagnosed with ALS. I have three to five years to live. I’m reaching out to people I need to make things right with before I die. I feel terrible about what happened between us.”

Before I could respond, Jen hurried through the memory of a time when she had called me a racial slur at school. She apologized profusely. “I hope you can forgive me.”

I was momentarily speechless. “I appreciate you telling me and apologizing, Jen,” I said. “But honestly, I have no memory of that incident. Of course I forgive you. I hope you’ll forgive yourself.”

I didn’t know much about the degenerative neurological disease ALS. But I knew enough to feel nothing but compassion for this woman struggling to come to terms with a grim diagnosis. I couldn’t simply say a polite goodbye and hang up.

“Jen, do you believe in Jesus?” I blurted out.

My heart skipped a beat. I am a committed believer, and God has been at the center of my life ever since I was a child. But back then, I was not one of those people who goes around sharing my faith with strangers. I had no idea where those words had even come from.

“I do believe in God,” Jen answered, sounding hesitant but not offended. “But I don’t go to church much. Maybe I should.”

I felt a wave of relief. I asked some questions about ALS, and Jen told me how she would progressively lose the ability to walk, move, eat and even talk. She was married with three kids in middle school and high school.

“I’m afraid for my kids,” she said. “And my husband. I feel as if I have no future.”

“Don’t say that!” I said.

The same boldness about sharing my faith came over me, and I told Jen that God loved her. Recently at church, a discernment exercise had shown me that I had the gift of strong faith—unquestioning belief in God’s sovereign and even miraculous power.

God can do amazing things,” I told Jen. “He can heal. He can comfort. I want you to have hope for your future.”

“Do you think God would heal me?” Jen asked.

“I know he would.”

That’s how my friendship with Jen began. We talked on the phone for a while longer, and I promised I would visit her soon. She lived about 40 minutes away.

I had high hopes for that first visit. I wanted to share not only my faith with Jen but my confidence that God would be able to heal her. I wanted her not to despair.

“You really believe God can heal me?” she asked. Jen was in her bed, the place where she was already spending much of the day, though she could still get up and walk for short distances.

“Absolutely I believe. The Bible says all things are possible for the one who believes,” I said.

Jen and I spent the afternoon talking about God and faith. She said she wanted to believe but found it hard to understand why God would allow something as cruel as ALS to exist.

“That’s a tough one,” I said. “Let’s pray about it. I have a strong feeling God is going to come through for you.”

Back home, I typed out some of my favorite Scriptures about faith, God’s power and healing. I printed them in a large, pretty font and took them to Jen the next time I visited.

“You can put these on your wall,” I said. “They’ll be there for you when you’re feeling down.” Jen asked me to tape them above her bed.

For a while, it seemed as if God was answering my prayers for Jen. After we had spent several afternoons together, she posted on Facebook: “Even though I had no earthly reason to believe it and my body continued to worsen, I’ve thanked God in advance for healing me and making me whole again…. And just FYI, in the last few days I’ve been able to move my legs more than I have in ages, and I rolled onto my back by myself, which was previously impossible.”

There it was—Jen’s healing was beginning! She had started reading the Bible, listening to sermons and speaking more openly about her growing faith.

God knew what he was doing when he prompted Jen to call me out of the blue that first time.

And yet—the hopeful moment of regained strength was followed by a sudden reversal that left Jen even weaker than before. Her husband began feeding her. She stopped getting out of bed. Each time I visited, speaking became harder for her.

A few years after that initial phone call, I arrived at Jen’s house one day to find a whiteboard in her room covered with letters of the alphabet. Jen communicated by nodding when I pointed to a letter until together we formed a word. It took an hour to talk through a few topics.

I kept praying for Jen. I waited for the healing I had encouraged her to believe in.

Months, then years, went by. Jen’s condition steadily worsened. Doubt crept into my mind. Had I steered my friend wrong? She asked hard questions, and I had to admit I didn’t always have answers.

Jen’s husband died after a long struggle with his own health problems. Jen moved in with her parents. Her kids graduated high school. Her mom worked overtime caring for Jen and Jen’s ailing father.

I struggled to make sense of all of this. Where was the miracle? Where was God doing all things for the one who believes? I dreaded the moment Jen told me her faith was fading.

Yet, as time went on, I noticed something. If Jen experienced doubt, she sure didn’t show it. If anything, she became more confident and grateful. She spoke openly about God’s presence in her life.

She got a special computer that enabled her to communicate by moving her eyes across a digital keyboard. She sent emails and launched a blog. Her kids started families of their own. She enrolled in an online program for creative writing.

Doctors had told her she had five years to live. Nearly a decade later, she was still going.

One day, I checked Jen’s blog and saw she had written about our friendship. She told how she had called me to make amends shortly after her diagnosis. “After speaking with Tonya, I learned that she not only didn’t remember the incident but was a Christian. She showed me, through Bible verses, how God had not left me. I felt so alone without my Lord. But he was with me all along. My spirit was renewed!”

Jen wrote those words almost 10 years after I first told her I believed God was going to do great things for her. In the next paragraph, she showed how God had already done it.

She wrote that she had learned not to say, “I have ALS,” but instead, “‘I’m living with ALS.’ That phrase implies that I’m living not with ALS but alongside it. ALS doesn’t define me, because I walk in divine health.”

Healing had come not to Jen’s body but to her soul.

When Jen first called me, I saw an opportunity to share my faith with a friend in need. God had something richer in mind.

Through our connection, Jen and I discovered the true meaning of healing—spiritual healing that goes beyond the mere improvement of physical symptoms.

Our friendship has changed my life—and faith. God does indeed do all things for the one who believes. Sometimes in ways you’d never expect.

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