John Williams shares the remarkable story that led him to launch Enable, our latest creative mission team, which will empower children and young people with complex needs.
I was born eight weeks premature with cerebral palsy. My mother was told that I wouldn’t be able to walk or talk, that I would be wheelchair bound and looked after by the state for the rest of my life – basically, that I wouldn’t amount to much. Thankfully my mum didn’t accept those recommendations. She had just become a Christian and felt God say not to agree with this and that I would grow up living a full life.
When I was three, I had a number of operations to stretch and correct the tendons in my right foot. I took my first steps at the age of five. I also had difficulty with my speech – I could only say the words ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ – and I had a stutter that meant I struggled to string sentences together until I was six. As a result of this I needed years of physiotherapy and speech therapy.
I remember getting my first bike for my birthday and not being able to hold the handlebars because I couldn’t straighten my right arm (something I didn’t manage until I was nine, thanks to years of therapy, encouragement and prayers). I was the only pupil with a physical disability at my high school and I soon became a target of persistent and hurtful verbal abuse.
I always attended church with my mum during my childhood, but didn’t really have a relationship with Jesus. However, before I went to college, I prayed to God: ‘Do I believe what people have spoken over my life? Are you real, God? ’
I felt God show me a Bible passage for the first time: ‘“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”’ – Jeremiah 29:11
From that day on I started to believe in myself and no longer accepted the negative words people spoke over me.
When I experienced discrimination at college, I didn’t give up. At 18 my dream was to get married, have kids and get a job that helped me to support them. By the age of 33, all that had become a reality. I was married with a child and part of a management team for a wholesale company.
But I started to think – is this it for my life? I was working long hours and involved in ministry at my church in Wigan, but I began to wonder, ‘could I help people with disabilities find God for themselves?’
In the midst of a busy life, I didn’t have time to develop my thinking – until two years later when I joined The Message Trust as part of the fundraising team. I had no fundraising experience, but it felt like a door that God had opened for me. I remember Andy Hawthorne talking about his desire to allow people the space to think and dream big.
One day I was on a prayer walk and God gave me the word enable. I felt like those quiet thoughts from across the years all pointed to one thing: I wanted to enable people with complex needs to encounter Jesus. And so Enable was born!
Over the next few months I plan to start sharing my story in special needs schools. Some teachers have already invited me into their schools to do this. I’ll also work practically with churches, enabling them to provide for people with complex needs by using braille Bibles and sign language, for example.
There’s also a need to train staff and volunteers in churches to be more aware of people with mental health issues or unseen physical disabilities and to know the right way to support them.
I want to help people understand the challenges faced by disabled people and address the stigma around the word ‘disability’. It’s so important to encourage young people to reject negative words spoken over them, and instead know that God says no-one is a mistake. Everyone is born for a purpose.
I’m praying for many to stand with us and support Enable, so that with God’s help we can see a culture shift in the way young people feel about themselves. I know that God has his hands on this. I am able to spend more quality time with my beautiful family, more time at my home church and work towards a vision that truly makes me come alive.
Discover how you could partner with Enable at message.org.uk/enable.