Mary Jane Ponten was born in Chicago in the early 30s. The beginning seemed bleak. “This baby is too weak to survive,” the doctors told the parents. “You better give her a name right away for her gravestone.” But even doctors can be wrong. At ten days old, they let Mary Jane’s parents take her home “to enjoy her as long as she lives.”
At age of thee, Mary Jane was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Her doctors agreed she would live, but she would never walk, talk or think. Wrong again. Mary Jane’s parents raised her like any child. Her disability did not define her nor did it change her parents’ expectations. Sure, the were obstacle – such as the teacher who forced her to attend the school for the handicapped starting in the fourth grade – but Mary Jane would always meet every challenge thrown her way.
Mary Jane graduated from Chicago public schools and went on to attend Northwestern College in St. Paul where she studied the Bible. Her dream was to be a missionary in China, but no mission board would let her serve. First, she was a woman. Second, she had a disability. It’d be impossible. Still, Mary Jane never gave up. It would be 50 years before she realized her dream.
She went on to work at a Chicago department store as a bookkeeper. She eventually married, raised two children, served her community and church with her husband, Bud. They moved to Colorado in the 1970s where they served on staff at the Navigators as well as other community organizations.
That was the first of many times our paths crossed. My mother first met Mary Jane at a Cerebral Palsy Association picnic. Years later, Mary Jane recalled their first meeting. “Your mother cried her eyes out,” she told me. “She didn’t understand how God could give her a baby with special needs. I told her that, with the Lord’s help, she would make it. I’d be there for her.”
That’s exactly what Mary Jane did. She helped my mom raise me, and spent long hours on the phone listening to Mom’s worries. “He will never go to college or live on his own,” I can imagine her saying. Mary Jane would calmly comfort her and let her know it would be okay. She taught Mom and I that I had to learn to do things by myself, look better than the average person, and go beyond what is expected. I have followed that advice to this day, and it has served me well.
Mary Jane came to my school one day to speak to my class about cerebral palsy. I started to cry because I realized I was different, but Mary Jane wouldn’t have it. She just looked at me and said, ”Tait, stop it!” You never disobeyed Mary Jane.
I’d see Mary Jane maybe once a year during my teenage years, but she always kept up with me. Came to my high school graduation. Her husband died that same year, leaving Mary Jane with time on her hands and a mission in her heart. The Lord wasn’t done with her yet.
While she and one of her friends were talking one night, they discovered they had something in common: Jesus Christ. John had two daughters with cerebral palsy and felt the church wasn’t accepting of his daughters’ disabilities. Like the church just didn’t get it and that it had no place for them. Mary Jane had felt the same way over the years, and Mephibosheth Ministry was born.
Mephibosheth Ministry was named after the son of Jonathon in the Old Testament. Jonathon was David’s best friend, and they had made a promise that if one should die the other one should care for his family. When David looked for Jonathon’s family, he found Mephibosheth who had become disabled as a child. David could have left Mephibosheth to die, but instead he brought him into the kingdom and made him one of his own.
Mephibosheth Ministry mission is to train churches to not only accept people who have disabilities but also help them understand how people with disabilities can serve. After all, the Bible says it is better to serve rather than to be served.
During the last twenty years, Mary Jane has worked to make Mephibosheth Ministry’s mission become possible. She has written Bible studies for people with mental challenges, trained pastors, spoken at national conferences, and traveled to seventeen countries. She founded a school in Ghana, taught about disability ministry in Kenya, and, yes, realized her dream of being a missionary in China.
I am blessed to be a small part of Mary Jane’s ministry.
After graduating from community college, I received my call to ministry. I’d been following Mary Jane’s ministry, and I emailed her for advice. She was excited to hear that I had given my life to Christ and that I felt called to ministry.
My simple decision changed my entire life. I graduated with a degree in journalism and now the Lord brought me to Mary Jane to fulfill His purposes in both of our lives. Mary Jane invited me into her home weekly to learn about disability ministry. We started with God’s love for people with disabilities, why it matters, and our role in it. Mary Jane helped me put my disability in perspective and sent me on a lifetime adventure in God’s Kingdom.
We’ve been to conferences, taught workshops, traveled together. Mary Jane pushed me to get my Bachelor of Arts in Ministry and serve as the Church Relations Director at Mephibosheth Ministry. What she had started with my mother over forty years ago has grown into something only God could have planned.
For Mary Jane and me, having a disability is a blessing. Would we wish it on anyone? No, but we’d rather know God with our disabilities than not to know Him at all.