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Missionary loses ALS battle, dies at 43

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an update to a set of stories about the Harpers* that appeared Dec. 17, 2013, in Baptist Press: https://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=41684, https://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=41685,

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (BP) — Mary Harper* didn’t want to fight anymore. For months, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) had gradually robbed her body of muscle and strength. She resisted with exercise, dietary supplements and prayer.

But now, sitting in a wheelchair in the family’s kitchen near Springfield, Mo., the 43-year-old mother of two was ready to yield. The disease had won. ALS had finally crushed her spirit.

“I’m tired,” Mary told her husband, John,* as tears began to stream down her cheeks. “I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of y’all seeing me suffer.”

Until that moment, there had been hope for a miracle. That God would heal Mary, or at least, stop the disease’s progression. But as John listened to the weariness in his wife’s voice, suddenly he knew — the woman he had loved for the past 21 years was going to die.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Eight years ago, the Harpers uprooted their family and moved to a spiritually dark corner of Central Asia to spread the Gospel as Southern Baptist missionaries. By 2012, they were entering the prime of their ministry. That’s when ALS changed everything.

Forced to return to the United States, Mary was given three to five years to live. But she worried she wouldn’t last that long. Instead, she asked God for a single “good year” — enough time to transition her family back to America and teach her teenage daughters, Lindsey* and Jessica,* how to make a home without her.

Cruel disease

ALS is a cruel disease. It attacks the nerves responsible for muscle movement, gradually paralyzing the body while sparing the mind. Many ALS victims eventually become “trapped” in their own bodies, unable to move, eat or even speak.

Mary’s symptoms began with twitching in her arm and shoulder. By April 2013, she had lost the use of her right arm completely. She was growing weaker, too, and tired easily. Even small tasks, like putting away dishes, were a challenge. Soon, cooking, cleaning and laundry were all handed over to Lindsey, Jessica and John.

“She had such a servant’s heart,” John said. “But she wasn’t able to serve. She had to be served.”

Mary’s condition continued to deteriorate rapidly. It was November 2013 when she told John she was tired of fighting. By then Mary could no longer dress, bathe or even use the bathroom by herself. She wore a scarf to hide the dramatic muscle loss in her neck and chest.

“She didn’t want to go some places because I would have to feed her,” John said. “It was embarrassing to her. She didn’t want people to remember her that way.”

ALS even took away simple pleasures. When they went to bed, Mary would often fall asleep with her head on John’s chest and her arm across his waist. But her muscles were now too weak to hold that position without straining. So they held hands instead.

“It just killed me. It really hurt [to see her suffer],” he said. “She never complained about her inabilities. She got frustrated at herself … [but] not mad at God.”

Mary’s homecoming

On the morning of Jan. 20, 2014, Mary was having trouble breathing. She couldn’t seem to get enough air and felt like she would faint. She began choking sporadically. John was frightened.

“I asked her three times, ‘Do you want me to call you an ambulance?'” he said. Each time she answered, “Why?”

“I think she knew she was going to die that day,” he said. Mary’s parents were already at the house; John’s brother rushed to school to pick up Lindsey and Jessica. John was worried they wouldn’t make it in time, but Mary held on.

Family and close friends came to say goodbye, too. They held Mary’s hand, kissed her forehead and cried as she struggled to breathe. Ahsan* and Iman,* the Harpers’ closest friends and ministry partners in Central Asia, called to pray with her.

“Go be with your God,” John remembers telling Mary through his tears. “Quit fighting. Quit struggling.”

As more time passed between breaths, her eyes closed. “Heaven is such a beautiful place,” she said. Those were Mary’s last words. She lost consciousness and died soon after.

“Blessed be the name of the Lord. Though He slay me, I will trust in Him,” John cried out as he wept over her body. “And I kept saying, ‘My sweet Mary. My sweet, sweet, Mary.’ Because she was so sweet. Everybody loved her. She was easy to love.”

People filled the church in Ozark, Mo., for Mary’s funeral. Many shared stories with John of how Mary had personally impacted their lives, often with the truth from the Bible.

“Great is Thy Faithfulness” was sung at her request. “That was her testimony through all of this; that God had been faithful,” John said. “Even in death, she is still sharing the Gospel.”

Looking ahead

Today, the Harpers are learning to live with the hole left by Mary’s absence. It’s hard, but they’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they’ve received. People they barely know have brought meals, helped clean their house, even given special “love gifts,” like a box of shotgun shells so Jessica could go hunting. Not to mention dozens of cards and letters from believers across the country offering encouragement and prayer.

John said some of the changes just feel weird — like sleeping alone or not knowing whether to mark “married” or “single” on the visitor’s card at his new church. “I just left it blank,” he said.

He misses Mary’s “beautiful green eyes,” practical wisdom and ability to “straighten him out” with a single look. “Every weakness I had was her strength, and every weakness she had was my strength,” he said. “And I will miss her until the day I die.”

What will be hardest, he thinks, will be watching his daughters grow up without Mary by his side. “She won’t get to see the godly young ladies they are going to become,” he said.

But he can’t dwell on his grief. He’s got a family to raise and a new job to find. He doesn’t know whether he’ll ever return to Central Asia, but that won’t stop him from sharing the Gospel. That calling has not changed.

“I have absolutely no idea what the future holds,” John said. “I think everybody is going to be amazed at what God can do with a hillbilly like me…. Our story isn’t over.”
*Name changed. Don Graham is an International Mission Board senior writer. To view additional photos and a message by John Harper, go to:
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    About the Author

  • Don Graham