WEST POINT — The Rev. Judy Johnson could throw herself a pity party and question the whereabouts of God in her life.
Instead, the West Point resident and pastor of St. Paul Lutheran and Elim Lutheran churches in rural Hooper has chosen to count her blessings, which she says far outnumber the challenges she faces as she struggles with multiple sclerosis.
“I have a lot of talks with God,” she said. “I used to use a lot of my driving time just to think things through and so forth. I guess God never promised us that we wouldn’t have to go through stuff. He promised he wouldn’t ever leave us, and we have to take his word on that. I do feel like he’s beside me.”
Johnson recently marked her first decade as pastor of the St. Paul and Elim churches, a ministry she once feared might not happen at all because of her diagnosis.
Johnson said she liked the idea of ministry but didn’t consider it an option until later in life. Growing up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Johnson said she accepted that ordination would not be possible for her.
She opted for a bachelor’s degree in secondary education in English with a minor in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She taught at schools in Weeping Water, Lincoln and Nebraska City before moving to West Point with her husband, Dick, in 1979.
In West Point, Johnson opted to take a break from teaching and began writing features part time for the West Point News and, later, started a home-based public relations business. Both of those jobs, she said, provided great opportunities for getting to know residents of the area.
But in 2000, Johnson accepted a job as a college relations director for Wayne State College and, soon after, learned about a program called Theological Education for Emerging Ministries offered by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).
Johnson had transferred from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to the ELCA in the late 1980s, and the new program helped provide pastors in areas that were short of clergy.
“One of the groups they were hoping to reach out to was the elderly and rural ministry,” Johnson said. “I applied for that program and went through a series of tests.”
To start seminary, the candidates for ministry first had to be accepted and placed in a congregation. A challenge arose for Johnson, however, because she was dealing with extenuating circumstances.
While in physical therapy to rehabilitate from a broken ankle in 2003, Johnson was made aware of an anomaly with the big toe on her right foot. That anomaly was the first indication that she had multiple sclerosis, in which the immune system erodes the protective covering over nerves and results in the loss of mobility. In 2005, she received the official diagnosis.
“I felt like somebody just punched me in the stomach. I didn’t know what to do,” Johnson said.
Unsure of what the future would hold, Johnson said her husband told her they would get through the diagnosis and disease together.
“There’s no way I could do anything without him,” Johnson said. “He has been nothing but supportive.”
The diagnosis led Johnson to ask the bishop if the new challenges she faced would keep her from ministry.
“He said, ‘Don’t you even worry about that. That’s not going to keep you from becoming a pastor,’ ” she said.
In 2006, the bishop’s assistant told her the “perfect spot” for her ministry had opened up, but she still needed to be accepted by the congregations.
Johnson said her meeting with the people at both churches was pleasant, but she worried whether members of St. Paul would take a chance on her, as some of its members had relatives who had struggled with multiple sclerosis.
“The question came up in our little question-and-answer session if I thought I would be mobile,” Johnson said. “I said I can’t promise you that I’m going to be walking in five years, but you can’t promise me that you will, either, but I promise you that I will give it my best effort and if my health changes and I don’t feel like I can do the job or you don’t feel like I can do the job, then let’s talk about it.”
Johnson learned later that day that the church council at St. Paul’s unanimously voted to have her serve their congregation.
But her ministry has not been without its challenges. By 2009, she began relying heavily on a walker. Now, she uses a wheelchair and has a communion table on the same level as the congregation at the church, utilizing an assistant to deliver communion. The church buildings since have been modified for accessibility on multiple levels, as well.
Johnson said her physical challenges come with the frustration that arises out of impatience with herself, but those moments of frustration always lead to a re-evaluation of her blessings, especially the helpers she feels God has put her life.
“It’s just a nuisance,” she said of the limited mobility. “But yet it doesn’t take long either for me to look at another situation and think I don’t have anything to complain about because many people have much greater challenges than I do.”
Two years ago, Johnson switched her therapy protocol to a chemotherapy-like infusion that she undergoes twice a year. Johnson said the therapy is meant to eliminate the cells that are believed to cause the disease.
“The biggest purpose of this treatment is so that you don’t get worse,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t promise to restore any function.”
That doesn’t keep Johnson from hoping that a cure might be on the horizon. In the meantime, Johnson said she hopes her attitude in dealing with her illness offers a blessing for others.
“I would never, ever call MS a blessing. Every night I still pray that if there was some way I could walk, I could do a whole lot more,” she said. “It’s also a way of being able to let our light shine. Maybe people can see me and go, ‘You know, if she can handle that, I can handle what I’m dealing with.’ All in all, when you weigh one thing against another, I have so many more things to be thankful for than to complain about.”