John Hayes was different.
A condition called hemifacial microsomia, caused by a blood clot before he was born, kept parts of his face from developing properly. He was legally blind and deaf. He had a cochlear implant attached to his skull. He could be difficult to understand. You noticed these things about him right away.
But eventually you stopped noticing … because you saw him all the time.
John was a Journeyman. That’s what we call the adult helpers who corral the kids in Journeyland, our ministry for elementary age children at the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. I’ve served as a Journeyman in six-week increments. It’s tiring.
John did it constantly, even when the kids asked brutally honest questions about his condition. He also helped out in the audio/visual booth in the auditorium. (Yes, the A/V booth.)
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He rode his bike everywhere, or he walked at a quick pace. He always seemed to be in a hurry.
On June 6, while crossing the street to get to a doctor’s appointment, John was struck by a minivan and died. He was 61.
He had been hit by cars at least three times before. People just didn’t seem to see him.
I regret that I didn’t know him better. I’m thankful for my brothers in Christ who did, including Nathan Ison. Nathan and his wife, former Christian Chronicle digital news editor Chellie Ison, co-direct our church’s Celebrate Recovery program. Nathan was John’s sponsor.
“His entire life seemed to be defined by tragedy,” Nathan said of his friend. John’s father served in the military and died when John was a year old. John endured abuse from his mother and stepfather. Social services removed his sisters from their home.
As a teen John endured multiple surgeries and went months without seeing or hearing from his parents as he recovered. His attempts to cope with the trauma led to addictions.
Nathan could say a lot more about John’s tragic circumstances, “but I want you to know about John’s courage,” he said. Friends guided John to the church. He gave his life to Christ, “even though the concept of God wanting to be his Father was incredibly difficult for him to accept.” After his conversion, “John had the courage to reach out for help when he was hurting, struggling or feeling overwhelmed, which, for the trauma he had endured, was often daily or weekly.”
Tim Herbel was a brother in Christ who became like a flesh-and-blood brother to John. Tim is executive director of Not Your Average Joe, a nonprofit coffee shop that employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. John worked there and became known as a “kitchen ninja.” He used the skills he earned in college to set up the point of sale systems for the business. He set prices and coordinated inventory.
John was fiercely independent and extremely funny, Tim said. He also was “the best worshiper on the planet.”
“Because he was deaf, John could not sing in tune,” Tim said, “but his was the most beautiful worship I’ve ever heard. He came to the cross broken and found healing.”
John had plenty of reasons to be mad at the world. Perhaps he was at times. As I ponder this latest wave of insanity, I try to comprehend the darkness, the evil that drives people as young as 18 to commit the all-too-common unthinkable.
John didn’t let that darkness define him. I appreciate these words from Dan Lovejoy, another of his friends from the recovery ministry:
“John had a chosen family — that he chose, that chose him. He was loved and he loved. John was rescued from hell on earth by that family and by the church — the embassy of heaven. And once he was rescued, he joined the work — every work he could. He quickly became a rescuer.”
In so many ways, John didn’t “conform to the pattern of this world,” as the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12. He lived a life of sacrifice and service — “true and proper worship.”
John Hayes was different.
This story first appeared in The Christian Chronicle.
Erik Tryggestad is president and CEO of The Christian Chronicle. He has filed stories for the Chronicle from more than 65 nations.