Erin Tharp of Corona preached a powerfully inspiring sermon Nov. 20 at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church without uttering a single word.
The 28-year-old former straight-A student, who has been in a wheelchair and unable to speak for nearly half her young life, inspired the congregation to meet an “Advent Challenge.” They promptly and overwhelmingly responded by raising funds to purchase one hundred wheelchairs for the disabled poor in developing countries, reaching their goal just two weeks into the Advent season.
Tharp had already donated about $630, enough to purchase ten of the durable, inexpensive wheelchairs through the Free Wheelchair Mission, a ministry Bishop Jon Bruno has encouraged all congregations throughout the diocese to embrace.
She was just a teenager, about 14, when a bout with viral encephalitis taught Tharp the difference wheelchairs can make in the lives of the disabled. Positioned near the front of the church, she listened Nov. 20 along with about 180 others at two services as the Rev. Karen Chavez read the sermon Tharp wrote, typing with one finger, a single keystroke at a time, on an I-Pad that has become her voice.
“As you know, I pretty much need help with everything I do, whether it’s turning the pages in the prayer book or visiting after church, where I have an I-Pad as my voice,” she wrote in the sermon. “The assistance I need is from the time I wake up to when my head hits the pillow again at night. The most obvious form of help I receive is with my wheelchair.”
The sermon recalled Tharp’s first wheelchair. “Seeing the purple manual wheelchair for the first time devastated me. I knew then I would probably never walk again. Because of the neurologic damage I suffered, I couldn’t communicate at all in those days, so all I could do was scream to express my anger and disappointment,” she wrote.
As part of the sermon, the congregation viewed a DVD detailing the need for inexpensive, durable wheelchairs throughout the world. They also watched a ‘before and after’ video slideshow of Tharp as her sermon described reconciling the dreams she’d had for the “wheelchair-less Erin” — such as being an astronaut — with her recovery and rehabilitation after the encephalitis.
But not even the deadly disease could diminish the effervescent Tharp’s enthusiasm or sense of purpose and desire to reach out to those in need. Though she nearly died and was hospitalized for about a year, she can’t imagine her life now without a wheelchair and is reaching out to help others who need them.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” she wrote in the sermon. “What’s hardest for me is that I haven’t always been in a wheelchair. I used to be able to walk, run, skip, you name it.” Now, the wheelchair is “a gift and with it I’m sitting in God’s hands,” she wrote.
“It has allowed me to take family vacations, ‘walk’ with my [Centennial High School] class at graduation and pick out my canine daughter, Maggie. I can also do the little things with the family. I never thought just eating dinner, as a family, would be so special.”
Which led to “thinking about people less fortunate than me. They deserve the same feeling of freedom I enjoy. Where they were born or their economic situation shouldn’t hinder that.”
Which led to her enthusiastically supporting the Free Wheelchair Mission (FWM), a nonprofit, nonsectarian ministry that has already supplied more than 600,000 wheelchairs worldwide. The agency aims to send 2,750 more from the Southland to people with disabilities in developing countries by next June.
This Christmas, Episcopalians in the Diocese of Los Angeles are encouraged to consider buying a wheelchair in honor of a loved one. Each wheelchair costs about $63.94 and is manufactured from existing components, like plastic lawn chairs and bicycle tires, according to Mike Kenyon, pastor of church development for FWM.
“We work with local partners and once the wheelchairs arrive at the country of choice, the partner receives, assembles and distributes them on our behalf,” he said during a recent telephone interview from his Irvine office.
FWM was founded in 2001 after Don Schoendorfer, a mechanical engineer and inventor who was vacationing in Morocco, witnessed a disabled woman narrowly evading traffic as she struggled to drag herself across a dirt road. He developed the wheelchair, especially designed for use in rugged terrain, Kenyon said.
He estimated that there are 100 million disabled in the world; most will never have access to wheelchairs without the kind of assistance FWM offers.
“Bishop Bruno has a real passion for this ministry,” Kenyon said. “The idea is that, if we all came together, we could send five containers to a designated country in the summer of 2012.”
FWM has also developed a curriculum of prayer and study for congregational use at Christmas, Lent and Easter and other times to help engage the ministry. Gift donation cards are available through FWM’s website, at //bit.ly/drr43g. A DVD is also available.
The wheelchairs have been shipped to 77 countries across the globe, from Afghanistan to Belize, China to Cuba, from Ghana to Kazakhstan, from Jamaica to Sri Lanka.
A few years ago, congregations located in diocesan Deaneries 9 and 10 collaborated and raised more than $28,000 to help send a crate of 550 wheelchairs to Iraq, according to the Very Rev. Canon Peter Haynes, rector of St. Michael and All Angels Church in Corona del Mar and Deanery 10 dean.
“The wheelchairs were sent to Iraq and distributed there by our military, since there was already a delivery system in place there,” he said. “It seemed to be a great win-win, because people in Iraq needed the chairs and it gave our military a gift to give them to help the relationship with the people of Iraq.”
Haynes said his congregation has been involved in fundraising for FWM for several years and keeps one of the wheelchairs on hand in the sanctuary.
“That way, people will ask, what’s that and we can tell them. We talk about it all the time here,” Haynes said during a recent telephone interview from his office.
Tharp may continue to tell her story, according to the Rev. John Saville, St. John’s rector since 1985.
“The neat thing is, the organization (FWM) has asked Erin, if she’s able and has the time, and wants to help them, to continue to spread the word about the organization,” he said during a recent telephone interview.
He added that hearing Tharp’s story and her sermon made for “one of the most, if not the most, powerful services I’ve witnessed since I’ve been here” at St. John’s.
It also inspired others as far away as England to contribute, he added. “A parishioner’s family member heard the story and donated a chair.” And an anonymous donor from Temecula, inspired by a local newspaper report about Tharp’s sermon, donated 15 wheelchairs.
St. John’s initial goal was to raise money for 100 chairs, about $6,000. At last count they’d raised enough to purchase 122, according to the Rev. Karen Chavez, a vocational deacon at St. John’s who organizes the yearly Advent Challenge.
Serving as Tharp’s “voice,” Chavez said, “was a great personal gift.
“If you can just imagine being a young woman who’s mute and basically paralyzed and not having any means of doing anything, and yet having this calling that you have to help others. How helpless that must feel and yet she made it happen. To be part of that was overwhelming,” she said.
As for Tharp, she is more focused on additional outreach than her own health challenges.
“It’s Free Wheelchair Mission’s desire to ‘provide the transforming gift of mobility to the physically disabled in poor and developing countries, as demonstrated by Jesus Christ,’ allowing them to sit in God’s hands as well,” she said in her sermon.
“Advent is the perfect time to shed light on the extreme giving Free Wheelchair Mission does for God’s forgotten children, liberating them from the yoke of bondage,” she wrote, echoing the Galatians 5:1 reading for the first Sunday in Advent.
“In many places around the world, the disabled truly are the least of his brothers … Let’s take time out of the busy-ness of this Christmas season to remember those who are often forgotten, if not ignored. At the risk of sounding corny, I think that’s the perfect birthday gift for Jesus.”