HOOKER, Okla. (BP)–Seven-year-old Gabe Flanagan is Jon Marc Roebuck’s best friend. He makes him laugh. He loves to help him. People who know them are deeply moved by the unusual compassion that marks Gabe’s friendship with Jon.
Jon is the son of Jim Roebuck, pastor of First Baptist Church in Hooker, Okla., and Jim’s wife, Emily. The Roebucks adopted Jon from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma when he was 6 days old.
Jon was 3 weeks old when a doctor told them the baby suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. Jon’s mother drank alcohol during her pregnancy, which triggered a stroke in her uterus that destroyed two-thirds of her baby’s brain.
“The first specialist we saw told us Jon would be dead within a year,” Roebuck said. “Needless to say, we were devastated, but we began to pray and trust and seek the Lord. We knew it wasn’t over until God said so.”
The doctors at first thought Jon was blind in one eye, that perhaps he had cataracts and would have to have surgery, Roebuck said.
“Of course, we would have welcomed that diagnosis,” Roebuck admitted. “But the Lord has been so good. Jon is 7 years old now, and a real miracle. It’s a humbling thing to hear specialists say they’ve never seen a case of someone so severely injured who not only survived, but also is thriving.”
Jon has the mental capacity of a 6 month old.
“He has cerebral palsy, macrocephalus, hydrocephalus and epilepsy and is legally blind,” Roebuck said. “Basically, he has one-third of a brain. He has the brain stem that controls breathing and heart rate, but other than that, there is nothing in his head but fluid.”
When the Roebucks moved to Hooker, Jon was 4 years old. When another child his age, Gabe Flanagan, met Jon, he told his grandfather that Jon was new in town and had no friends, so he was going to be Jon’s best friend.
And that he has been.
“If I talk about Jon, I have to talk about Gabe,” Roebuck said. “If you’ve got one, you’ve got the other.”
Jon and his mother don’t get to go to church during the winter because of Jon’s compromised immune system, but when Jon does get to church, he loves it. And Gabe, who is the son of Courtney and Angela Flanagan, is right by his side.
“Jon squeals and laughs when I preach,” Roebuck said. “You’d think a 7-year-old squealing in church would be disruptive, but our folks love it.”
Two years ago, Jon nearly died with pneumonia.
“Gabe and his family had been at the hospital with us one night, celebrating Jon’s birthday,” Roebuck recalled. “When Gabe got home, his mother found him lying across his bed, crying. When she asked him what was wrong, he said he was crying because there was nothing he could do for Jon, and he felt so bad, he didn’t know anything to do but cry. So his mother lay on the bed and cried with him.
“Gabe is such a sensitive little boy to pick up on those things,” Roebuck noted. “He stays with Jon when he’s able to come to church, talks to him, takes care of him. I’ve never seen anything like it in the life of a little boy. I can’t express the special kind of child Gabe is, to be willing to be this way with Jon.”
Roebuck said that many times children pick up on the differences in others and it becomes a divisive thing, but Gabe took the situation immediately as a sign Jon would need someone to watch after him, and he’s determined to do that.
At Hooker, First, racing miniature cars is a big thing in Royal Ambassadors, a missions education and action group for school-age boys. Gabe, who is almost a year older than Jon, noted that Jon was old enough to enter a car in the race this year. So he decided to build Jon a race car, too.
Gabe selected a pre-cut car, and put as much time and energy into Jon’s car as he did his own, doing all the work himself, including selecting the design and painting the car.
The car he built for Jon captured a first-place trophy in the Lad Division and was awarded a ribbon. Gabe’s car didn’t place, but he did win a trophy for the best-looking race car. Gabe told his mother he was going to give his trophy to Jon because “he doesn’t have any trophies, and I’ve got three.”
Angela Flanagan told him he should keep the trophy he won, and they would find Jon a trophy that said “Best Friend” on it. Gabe agreed to that, but three days later Jon’s car won at the Panhandle Baptist Association race and he received another trophy.
The next Sunday morning, Gabe surprised Roebuck by presenting the pastor with Jon’s first-place trophy.
“I’ve preached since I was 14 years old, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve preached on the love of God in the last 25 years,” Roebuck said. “But I’ve never seen God’s love expressed any more or any better than when I look in Gabe’s face. Here’s a child who doesn’t just hear about Jesus’ love, but shows it.”
Roebuck said he believes Oklahoma’s Panhandle has some of the most exceptional people in the world, and Gabe Flanagan is just one more proof.
“I’ve never felt so much love for our family,” Roebuck said. “You can preach about the love of Jesus all day long, but when you see it in the eyes of a child, it touches your heart in a special way. It’s not often you see a lesson in Christian discipleship in the life of an 8-year-old.”
Dana Williamson is the associate editor of the Baptist Messenger (baptistmessenger.com), newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.