Mentoring with Mary Jane
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Mentoring with Mary Jane

My mentor traveled the world.  She traveled the world sharing the Gospel and teaching about disabilities in more than twenty countries and will be remembered for bringing thousands to Jesus Christ. One story about her impact is the time when Mary Jane was on the first Wheels for the World team in China.

The team met with some of China’s communist leaders. As the story goes, they went around the room where each member gave his/her reasons why they needed to be in the country. Mary Jane was the last to speak.

”When I was twelve, ” she began, ”I wanted to be a missionary to China. I was told that I couldn’t go because I had a disability. No way, no how. Now, over fifty years later, I am a missionary because of my disability. I want your people who have disabilities to understand that there is a God who loves them and to give them hope.”

The room was deathly quiet after Mary Jane spoke.  Sensing that there was an opening to ask if Bibles could be given with each wheelchair, someone popped the question. The communists circled up for a couple of seconds. When they turned around, they smiled and said it would be alright to pass out Bibles.

Joni and Friends is still giving out Bibles on its missions in China thanks to Mary Jane Ponten.

Mary Jane, the woman who spoke to China’s communist leaders, is my friend and mentor. Someone who I first knew as a child. The one I watched working the room at the annual cerebral palsy banquet. Or when she spoke to my fifth-grade class about her own disability, and when she came to my high school graduation party.  This woman who I’m fortunate to have as a mentor, is the same woman who has visited China and introduced Jesus to thousands of people. I’m blessed to have sat with her in her kitchen getting private lessons.

The thought gives me chills…

Mary Jane lived in an average-sized house, in an average middle-class neighborhood in Colorado Springs. I’d show up on her doorstep every two weeks. I certainly didn’t realize this at the time, but I think that going over to MJ’s house showed that I was serious about my training. I wanted to be under Mary Jane’s leadership.

Her small kitchen table was our workspace. Pepsi was always the drink of choice. Every once in a while, she would offer a cookie. A joke or two always had to be cracked and small talk started our meetings.

One time, Mary Jane was under pressure to find someone to travel to  her beloved Ghana with her. She asked if my mother might be interested. Mom was out of town at the time, but we called her cell phone and left a message.

Mom called me that evening. ”It wasn’t enough for you to get me out of town?” Her voice was upbeat. ”You had to get me out of the country, too?”

Unphased by Mom’s questions, I asked, “So are you going?”

“Of course I’m going!”

No one could say no to Mary Jane. It wasn’t that she had to beg or promise something in return. No, Mary Jane had a Jesus perspective. She knew her mission, that others must be included in that mission and therefore God would be glorified during the mission. Saying yes to MJ meant saying yes to God.

Back at the table, MJ and I got down to business. I needed to learn the business of ministry, how to present myself, and especially how to represent Mephibosheth Ministry and Mary Jane. She had met with world leaders, after all, and she had to be certain that I would be able to represent her well. After all these years, I still hope I’ve done well in this area.

Both MJ and I had speech difficulties and MJ’s hearing got bad in later years. Unlike popular opinion, cerebral palsy doesn’t have its own language! I always had my iPad ready to type an unclear word or two, and MJ used it too! Our beginning prayer asked the Holy Spirit to be in the midst of us and help us communicate with each other.

But every once in a while, our lines got crossed.

MJ was preparing me to meet with other ministry leaders one time, and I thought she was saying something about hosting an event at a local family entertainment center. What was it called? Big something? Well, it turned out that I was thinking about Mr. Biggs Entertainment Center, but at the time I kept thinking two things: first, how did MJ know about Mr. Biggs? Second, and more importantly, why would she suggest this place for a ministry gathering?

I kept staring at her trying to figure out what she was saying — much like what people do to me sometimes. Finally, I figured it out. MJ was saying “big wigs”… that I might be hosting ministry executives one day and that I had to be on top of my game when I hosted them. I don’t think MJ ever caught the humor of it all, but it’s one of my favorite memories.

Mary Jane was a tough but a fair mentor. She reminded me time after time that looks were important. When you have a disability, she used to say, you have to go over and above expectations. Dress the part. Keep clean. Eat simple when you go out. Minimize the drool and messes. Keep a handkerchief with you at all times.

Mary Jane’s rules for success.

One day, MJ handed me some papers — the outline of the workshop she had written. ”We are going to do this together, ” she said. ”It’s time for you to teach what you have been learning. You take some parts. I’ll take the others.”

This wasn’t the first time I had seen the outline.  The topics were all things MJ had hammered into me through the years. My challenge was to make it my own, to put my personal touch on it. There was plenty of room to do this. For example, MJ focused on three scriptures for devotions. I use four adding the verse that has helped me understand my disability.

As it turned out, I killed two birds with one stone with this project. First, I used the presentation as part of my capstone project for my bachelors degree in leadership and ethics. I used my skills to plan the workshop, delegate details (like promotion and planning food) to other people, and provided leadership.  Second, it fulfilled Mary Jane’s requirements of me to finish my training with her.

MJ always had one rule when she spoke, and I have adopted it myself.  ”If you can’t understand me, please raise your hand and stop me, ” she said to her audience. ”We are only wasting each other’s time if you can’t understand me.”

Just to watch and listen to MJ present was a lesson in itself. She always asked for a chair to stand behind, and so she could steady herself so that her speech could be understood. She commanded the room and people hung on her every word. This was MJ in her element. I may have heard the same stories a thousand times, but it never mattered when Mary Jane spoke.  I was in the presence of a master,  and I learned something every time I listened to her.

I have presented at MJ’s side many times since that first workshop. They have ranged from a two-day workshop to meeting with a church staff, to ninety-minute presentations at various locations. I set up an evening at my mom’s church and MJ and I each talked on separate topics. MJ did her thing and I decided to do a devotional type of message using Great are You Lord as the centerpiece of my message.

As it turned out, that presentation was the last one we did together. My mom mentioned that MJ seemed to be off that night. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but things did seem to be different with MJ after that night.

I considered MJ a colleague now, and I’d often email her for advice or to bounce ideas off her. Her emails back to me seemed to be incompetent at best or completely ignoring my questions at worst. Looking back, I was probably in denial and didn’t want to say what I knew in my heart…age was catching up with MJ.

It turned out to be not far from the truth. MJ had developed dementia. She retired from Mephibosheth Ministry in June 2020. She moved in with her son, and Covid has made it difficult to visit.

I finally got to see Mary Jane a couple of weeks ago. It was bittersweet. She recognized me but not my wife. She asked about my mother and a young man I’m mentoring but didn’t seem to be interested in my current projects.  I understand that recent memories are the first things to go when people get dementia, but it still stung to realize that MJ couldn’t celebrate my recent successes. I’m able to have these successes, after all, because of what she taught me.

Mary Jane lit up like a Christmas tree when I told her I’m starting seminary in the fall.  She never settled or wanted me to settle when I reached my goals. Celebrate my successes, yes, but reach higher and make a new goal as soon as I can. MJ challenged me to go to seminary many years ago and somehow knew I’d be going when the time was right.

On my way home, I began to feel sad. I wasn’t even thinking about my time with MJ and how dementia is taking her away from us, but my body was telling me something different. My mood had changed. I didn’t want to go home. Perhaps I didn’t want to sit in my sadness. Kelly took notice of this and pointed out that I was reacting to seeing Mary Jane.

It made sense. The days are gone where I can bounce off ideas on MJ or sit at her kitchen table and have a Pepsi. I can’t email her to ask a question or just to say that I love her. I’m sad and miss her terribly.  But I remember another conversation at her kitchen table many years ago.

Mary Jane was aware of her mortality and wasn’t afraid to talk about it. She knew where she was going, always keeping her eyes on Jesus. She even had her memorial service all planned out and often reminded me that the work would continue even after she went to be with her Savior. People would need to hear the Gospel and churches would need encouragement to include people who have disabilities. My job would continue even after she went to heaven.

MJ’s gift was to point people to Jesus, and she was pointing me to Him that day in her kitchen.  She wanted me to understand that she wasn’t the reason I worked in disability ministry. It was Jesus. I take a sip of my Pepsi. I couldn’t have known how Jesus would use MJ’s mentoring in my life, but I knew Jesus would use her teaching and that I’d carry on her work.

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