COLUMBIA, Mo. (BP)–Dennis Thompson was very angry as he drove his motorcycle away from the bar. That’s all he remembers, and even that is only a half-memory.
The only thing Thompson clearly remembers from that night in 2001 is “going to sleep” — dreaming that God banished Him from heaven and waking up in a hospital bed.
Thompson’s right arm, right leg and eyesight were gone.
A co-worker had been getting on Thompson’s last nerve, to the point that he couldn’t take it anymore. He had stormed out of the workplace in St. Louis, Mo., telling his boss that he had to leave or he would beat the co-worker “to death.” Thompson had jumped on his motorcycle and gone barhopping to blow off some steam, leaving the last bar at about 10:30 p.m. When he drove the wrong way through a construction zone, a car hit the motorcycle head on. The impact threw Thompson 175 feet. When the paramedics reached Thompson, they thought they were looking at a dead body.
“They were calling for the body bag when I started breathing again,” Thompson said. “It was just like I was sleeping. I had a dream that a big hand came down, picked me up and was holding on to me. When I woke up I was in the hospital and they told me I had been in an accident.”
Thompson had awakened two months after the wreck. During that time, Thompson’s heart stopped four times. He went through 156 units of blood — more than 18 gallons. His internal organs were so bloated and swollen from the trauma that they had to open his chest to give them more room. The doctors put his chances of surviving at less than one percent.
“Twice they called my family in to take me off life support,” Thompson said, “but my mom couldn’t do it. The Lord was protecting me.”
His weight down from 180 pounds to 110 pounds, blind, weak and facing a major physical handicap, Thompson began the year-long process of physical therapy and moved in with his younger brother in Columbia, Mo. After a year or so, he bought his own place and moved out on his own.
“I knew that God was there at that time,” said Thompson, who had grown up in a “very Christian” Lutheran family in Minnesota. “And I knew He had saved me and given me the strength to make it this far. But there was something more God wanted.”
Enter John Ellis.
Ellis had met Thompson a few years before the accident, when he was a pilot based out of Columbia and Thompson was the technician who kept his plane in the air. They shared a common love for aviation and motorcycles. Thompson soon left Columbia for St. Louis.
While Thompson was in rehab in Columbia, Ellis heard about his accident and decided to go pay him a visit.
“I didn’t know the extent of his injuries,” Ellis said. “I didn’t know how he would act. When I walked in he recognized my voice and the first thing he asked me was about my motorcycle. He wanted to talk about motorcycles! Before the accident, I’d say Dennis was pretty typical of the worldly young man, but when I walked out of there that day, there was something different. He was excited about life.”
That excitement was contagious, and God began to work on Ellis to disciple Thompson.
“I was going through a change in my life,” Ellis said. “I felt God was talking to me about something I needed to do in my life regarding discipleship. The first thing that came to my mind was Dennis. So I called and asked to see if we could have lunch.”
“He wanted me to start coming to this church in Jeff City, this Baptist church,” Thompson recalled. “I’m like, you know, I’m a Lutheran. I don’t really want to be a part of these crazy jumping-up-and-down Hell-and-damnation Baptists.”
Every week Ellis came by to visit Thompson and invited him to Concord Baptist Church in Jefferson City, where Ellis had been a member since 2006. Ellis gave Thompson an audio New Testament, but he wasn’t interested. Finally, he agreed to go to church with John, “just to get him off my back.”
“At first I was a little shaky, but I started feeling at home pretty fast. That made me think that maybe I should give this audio Bible a shot, you know?” Thompson said. “Once I started ‘reading’ it, I couldn’t get enough. I was reading it eight hours a day, over and over again. I was going through the whole New Testament in less than a week. It really convicted me. I knew it was the truth.”
Thompson was baptized at Concord in 2007, with Ellis by his side. He and Ellis met one-on-one every week for 16 weeks with an aim toward discipleship, both men growing deeper in the Word in the process. Ellis and Monte Shinkle, Concord’s pastor, looked at the material from their study and determined it would be a good program for the older Christians in the church to come alongside new or younger believers. That program began in January.
“This is the first time I’ve seen our people really grab on to something like this,” Shinkle said. “We need more disciplers, but I think it has the greatest possibly to succeed, largely because of John’s passion and experience with Dennis.”
Thompson and Ellis still meet, even though they finished the 16-week study months ago, Ellis said.
“He has helped me immensely. I can’t tell you who the mentor is, I learn so many things from him,” Ellis explained. “We all judge people by their appearance, car, clothes. Dennis can’t see their face, but looks at their heart the way God looks at us. Everybody whose life he touches seems to be inspired by him.”
Shinkle agreed, saying “Dennis is a joy to his pastor.”
“He lost his eyes, but he hasn’t lost his vision,” he said. “I sense in him a growing disciple in love with the Lord.”
It sounds cliché, but Thompson hasn’t let his injuries or the ever-present pain stop him from living his life, not by any stretch of the imagination. He is married, works full-time with his brother in Columbia and is an avid sportsman, picking off his latest turkey this season from 160 yards out (with the help of some specialized equipment and a spotter). He still uses his mechanic’s skill to restore classic cars. Since the accident he has rebuilt a ’67 Mustang, a ’23 roadster and a ’53 Willys pickup. He and his brother even rebuilt the crashed motorcycle, which sits in his garage today.
“I still ride on the back of it sometimes,” Thompson said.
He admits that there were times after his accident that he wasn’t so joyful, that he was angry with God — but not necessarily for the loss of his limbs or sight.
“When I first woke up, I thought He’d kicked me out of heaven,” Thompson said. “I thought I was so bad a person He booted me out. There’s not much worse feeling than that. It wasn’t until later that I realized that wasn’t the case.
“It’s not such a bad sentence, being here,” Thompson continued. “It’s not the body, the things we can’t do or even the things we can do that matter. When you feel that the Lord is walking with you and know He’s carrying you on His back, how can you be sad? I realized that there was something that He had planned that I didn’t know about. Maybe I still don’t. Maybe He just wants to show His power and grace through me.”
Brian Koonce is a staff writer for The Pathway (www.mbcpathway.com), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.