Faith Matters: Glorifying God despite debilitating disease

The familiar voice that for so many years allowed Clydette Rispone to pray and speak blessings and encouragement over her family, students and others has been silenced.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, also has robbed the 54-year-old Greenwell Springs woman of her ability to walk or eat. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, according to the nonprofit ALS Association.

Rispone’s body has grown weaker and weaker since she was diagnosed two years ago.

Yet her faith seems to grow stronger and stronger.

“The ALS diagnosis was hard to hear. Though I am declining, I have the hope of Christ. He never leaves me,” she said, using her right hand across a Boogie Board writing tablet, her primary form of communication since December.

“It is a very horrible disease that leaves you trapped in your body, knowing everything,” she said, seated in her wheelchair.

Rispone, a member of Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, said she professed Christ as a teenager and that experience has served her well during her illness.

“I was saved at 15,” she said. “Over the years, my faith has grown as He taught. It was those years that prepared me for this.”

She has her bad days, but still declares God is good.

“He didn’t put ALS on me, but He has worked through me to bring glory to Him,” she said. “I never ask why. The Bible says every man (is) appointed to die. I have, of course, gone through the grief process.”

The ALS Association reports that about 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease each year. About 20 percent of patients live five years or more, up to 10 percent will survive more than 10 years and 5 percent will live 20 years. There are also people in whom ALS has stopped progressing and a small number of people in whom the symptoms of ALS reversed.

Rispone has read up on the disease and the statistics, and still sees herself in a no-lose situation.

“I pray (God) is glorified through healing. I believe I will be healed here or in glory. I win either way,” she said.

Not only are Rispone’s words from a board a testament to her faith. It’s also evident in her home where visitors are greeted with “To God be the Glory” on a glass above her front door.

A sign on a wall in her home shows an anchor that symbolizes Rispone’s resolve. It reads:

“In the midst of the storm

the anchor holds

The Ship is battered, the sails are torn

but the anchor holds

Christ is the anchor.

Many times, the night is stormy —

Lots of rain,

but the anchor holds.

Written below that is Hebrews 6:19: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain.”

A few feet outside her back door is a gazebo where in August, Rispone — still able to speak and sometimes wiping away tears — shared her testimony of faith with the world in a 22-minute video. The video earned Rispone some Internet notoriety and a host of well-wishers inspired by her story. One of Rispone’s former students shot the video.

“I spoke from the heart. … When it first hit YouTube or Facebook, people who did and didn’t know (me) responded that it put their life in perspective. They had turned back their life back to God. … It was uplifting to see God use me and see his hand at work. I’ve also spoken in churches where there were professions of faith,” she said.

Rispone’s foray in ministry is nothing new. She said she would often pray with and for students and their families during her 21 years as a teacher. She retired as a second-grade teacher from Central Community Schools.

“There’s no better field of ministry,” she said.

Father and Son Conference

The Rev. Houston A. Stevenson has a love and concern for the 70805 ZIP code — a notoriously crime-ridden area in north Baton Rouge — and is trying to do all he can to show it.

“I’ve talked to so many people who said nobody seems to care about the 70805 area, and I said I care,” said Stevenson, pastor of True Holiness Ministries at 6265 Gurney St. “I care mostly about the children. … I’ve seen kids running around with no supervision. And the Lord spoke to my heart and said something needs to be done.”

One of Stevenson’s latest ideas is the Father and Son Conference set for 8 a.m. to noon June 27-28 at the Delmont Service Center, 3535 Riley St. The event will feature free food, special gifts, roundtable discussions and special speakers. Among the speakers will be co-sponsor and Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards; state Rep. Pat Smith; Councilmen Trae Welch and Chandler Loupe; the Rev. Donald Baptiste; and Stevenson’s son, Navy Lt. Commander Gerald Hall, of Maryland.

Strengthening the bond between fathers and sons is key to improving life in the area, Stevenson said.

“I wanted to have the roundtable for the fathers and sons for discussion of things that would make their relationship better,” he said. “When they get that mutual respect for one another, we won’t have all these crimes and all those killings and all these young men going to jail.”

Stevenson, 64, said his church is active in the community, having offered free food and programs for children and cleanup during his 12 years as pastor.

“Kids are dying. The family is dying. I do a lot of things in the community, and people don’t care to come. It seems like they’ve lost hope, and I am trying to bring hope back to them,” said Stevenson, a Navy veteran who also retired after 32 years as a master carpenter at LSU.

For more on the conference or other information, call Stevenson at (225) 954-1460 or (225) 634-1181.

Shining lights

“Why would a Christian want to conceal the fact that they are a Christian?”

The Rev. Melvin Rushing presented the challenging question last week during the Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association’s Congress of Christian Education at Scotlandville High School.

“The world needs a light,” he said. “The world needs to come out of darkness, and the only hope for the world are Christians who are willing to let their light shine.”

Rushing, pastor of Progressive and Mount Pilgrim Baptist churches in Baton Rouge, based his message — titled “The Ridiculousness of Preventing the Light from Shining” — on Matthew 5:14-16 when Jesus said: “Ye are the light of the world. … Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

Rushing listed three reasons why too many Christians purposely conceal their light — popularity, positions and persecution.

Christians who want to be popular with the world are not anxious to let others know their beliefs, he said.

“If you are desirous of the popularity of the world, you justify hiding your light. If you are a person living his or her Christian life conspicuously, you’re more likely to be jeered and mocked and persecuted than popular,” he said.

The desire for positions keeps some Christians from revealing their Christianity, Rushing said.

“There are some positions in the world that you will not be qualified for, you won’t be able to contain and even if you get them, you won’t be able to keep them if you’re living faithfully for Jesus Christ,” he said.

The fear of persecution is a final reason some Christians conceal their identities, Rushing said.

“We all want to go to heaven; nobody wants to suffer on the trip. We all want to sing the songs of joy, but nobody wants to sing the song of agony,” he said. “In this life, I’ll have some tribulation, and the brighter my light shines makes me an easier target for the enemy.”

The theme of the five-day conference was “Solidarity With the Saviour Through His Works.” It drew 1,122 students representing more than 78 churches in the region.

Faith Matters runs every other Saturday in The Advocate. Terry Robinson can be reached at (225) 388-0238 or trobinson@theadvocate.com.