January 2015 Feature: Unlikely Hero
Every so often, a human being defies great odds to impact the world. We found such a woman—a modern day Dorcas—and the comrades who complete her band of prayer warriors
Looking at Elizabeth Theis, with her dark blond hair and engaging smile, some may not readily see the makings of a hero. Diagnosed at birth with stage-four spina bifida (the most severe form of the disease), Theis’ spinal cord and neural elements are exposed through the opening in the spine resulting in partial or complete paralysis of the areas below the opening. Her body bears the “battle” scars from 45 surgeries, untold pain and discomfort, and countless infections and hospital stays.
Yet, if you were to ask the numerous foster children and homeless individuals and families who have found solace in the simple house Elizabeth shares with Mark, her loving husband of 42 years, they would tell you that she is more than a hero—she is God’s hands and heart.
Born in 1953 into a large family with six brothers and sisters, to a mother who struggled with her own issues, Elizabeth’s childhood was less than pristine. “When mom was well, things went well. When mom was sick, things went very unwell,” remembers Elizabeth, a member of Ohio Conference’s Wilmington church. “We were often abandoned. My mom and stepdad would leave me and the smaller children alone for weeks on end. There were many times of hunger and loneliness,” she recalls.
With so many other pressing matters plaguing her mother, caring for a child with disabilities was not often very high on the list. “One wintery day, I sat for a long period on a floor [heating] register while my older sister read stories to me and my younger siblings. Due to the lack of feeling in her lower extremities, I didn’t even know until the next day, when my mother was bathing me, that the skin on my bottom had blistered and was hanging off,” Elizabeth explains. Suffering third-degree burns, she ended up in the hospital for 14 months with constant infections, fevers and ulcerations.
A Seed is Planted
Most of Elizabeth’s childhood was spent in one of two Rhode Island hospitals: the naval hospital or the Shriner’s Hospital for Children, both in Newport. She visited them with numerous illnesses, corrective surgeries and infections of the bladder and kidney. When she was 10, she developed osteomyelitis, an infection in the bone, which troubled her for the next 35 years. Elizabeth was often isolated and alone. “I would meet children younger than myself who, like me, week after week didn’t have any visitors,” she reminisces.
During this time, a young resident doctor took interest in this young girl and often stopped by after his rounds to visit, play board games, read or work on puzzles. “While talking to me, he asked, ‘So, what do you want to do when you grow up?’ I think it was then I knew I wanted to help other children—other hurt children,” she shares. “But how, especially in my condition?”
Elizabeth fondly remembers one of two paintings of Jesus in the hospital’s playroom. One was of Jesus blessing the children. The other was Jesus giving a drink of water to a little boy with this Scripture printed below: “And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water … verily I say unto you he shall in no wise lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42). “I remember thinking as a child, ‘Well, anyone can give a cup of water! Even me!’”
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Building a Home
By the time Elizabeth turned 18, the osteomyelitis had spread to both of her feet. Very sick and frustrated with conditions at home, and after a severe beating, she ran away. It wasn’t long before she was back at the naval hospital. This time she met a young Navy sailor on disability working there while he awaited discharge.
“He knew there was a possibility of no children, but he saw something in me to love,” Elizabeth shares. “I had no bladder or bowel control. He knew the lifespan of a spina bifida patient was not a long one, yet he chose to marry me.”
The Theises eventually married July 28, 1972, then moved to Dayton, Ohio, to attend the Dayton Bible College. While there they were blessed with a son, David Israel. Seventeen months later, despite Elizabeth requiring a leg amputation, they welcomed their second child, Heather Merrie.
“Both pregnancies were pretty hard on me and my husband, who had the extra burden of carrying me around, plus cleaning up after me,” Elizabeth recalls. “Being a disabled vet, Mark had a hard time gaining permanent employment with any medical benefits. It took years to pay off the hospital bills. He worked two minimum wage jobs for years. However, no matter what, our Anchor, Jesus Christ, held.”
Elizabeth is interacting with husband Mark in their Kitchen.
Photo credit Chris Cone/ AP Images
Running a Full House
Despite limited resources, the Theises considered themselves extremely blessed to have two children. They soon felt the Holy Spirit prompting them to consider adopting a child. After completing classes through the local social services agency, they soon learned that God had an immediate need. Daniel*, a local neighborhood boy, came to stay with them after his mother and the man she was living with abandoned him.
“We called Children’s Services and found out that he had been in foster care previously but had been returned to his mother who was addicted to heroin,” Elizabeth explains. They realized the boy had nowhere else to go, so the Theises filled out emergency placement papers for a foster care license so Daniel could stay with them over the Thanksgiving holiday.
“We couldn’t say no,” Elizabeth adds. “When you have held a child whose body is racked with sobs, who has been beaten, his bones broken, told he is ‘illegitimate trash’ by his stepfather over and over again—if Christ is truly the Lord of your life, it is very hard to even think of turning your back.”
For the next 15 years, the Theises opened their hearts and home to a total of 58 foster children and they adopted four. Kristen Taylor, their first adopted child, rescued from an abusive stepfather, moved into the Theis home when she was 8.
“It was my first and only foster home; thank you, Jesus!” exclaims Taylor. “Mom and Dad loved everyone. Dad was so patient and easy to get along with. They were simply good people who loved God.” She fondly adds, “We had kids around all the time. The cool thing about my parents was that they were invested in kids’ lives even if they didn’t belong to them. That’s just how they were.”
Eager to help their children learn the importance of helping others, the family became involved with a homeless ministry in Dayton. “Over the years, we opened our home to many different homeless families,” Elizabeth recalls. “We had some ups and downs. Did we get hurt sometimes? Yes! Did we stop? No! Because living for Christ, loving like Christ means we have to be vulnerable to be hurt. Will you get taken advantage of? Definitely, yes! But, just when we think we need to stop, God sends more people. We get to see His miracles every single day, changing lives.”
*Daniel is a pseudonym
Praying in Unity
Elizabeth knows she and Mark could not possibly do any of this alone. “We could not do what we do without our church family. We are not ‘Lone Rangers,’” she laughs. They especially depend on the help of Roy Lewinsky, their hardworking, dedicated pastor, and several of Wilmington church’s loyal prayer warriors. “God has united us with a likeminded pastor and brothers and sisters who don’t mind getting out of their comfort zones,” she says.
“I have been to many churches in my lifetime,” Elizabeth continues, who converted with Mark into the Seventh-day Adventist Church about 12 years ago.
“I thank God for my pastor who does so much to care for people.”
Pastor Lewinsky says Elizabeth is the impetus behind their efforts. “Elizabeth is just such a go-getter! She has a way of finding people and gathering them in,” he says.
Pastor Lewinsky, Elizabeth and their church warriors are currently reaching out to a family Lewinsky quietly worked with for several months. The congregants are sharing resources, time and talents, intermingled with intense prayer sessions—even around the clock—to help the parents through addiction recovery and get the entire family back on their feet.
For a time, the family’s two teenage daughters stayed with the Theises while their mother went away for treatment. “They needed personal things and my budget is a tight one. God sent others to give food cards for the girls and money to purchase things they needed. There is something for everyone to do,” says Elizabeth.
Heidi Miller, another Wilmington prayer warrior, believes the motivation to continue doing more comes from the church’s active prayer life. “Prayer has helped soften all our hearts,” she says. “In fact, many of us have added fasting. I’ve personally seen where fasting has made me more sensitive to other’s needs. It is also teaching me to listen more and speak less.”
Nelli Osborne, another warrior, adds, “Helping people and praying together for them has brought a different spirit into our church. We have more unity because we are focusing more on helping others, not ourselves. We are seeing that each person counts in God’s eyes. Most of all, no situation is too hopeless with God.”
Defining a Hero
A hero can take on many forms. Heroes don’t have to be big and physically strong. They don’t even have to leap tall buildings in a single bound. In fact, a hero can be someone who prays fervently for a mother battling drug addiction. It can be a pastor sitting through a recovery meeting and offering moral support. It can be a woman with one leg, scooting around in a wheelchair serving the Lord despite pain and limitations. It can be a man or woman who may not be able to see through walls, but can break down walls built up by hardships, abuse and poverty with the most powerful weapon of all—unconditional love.
Debra McKinney Banks writes from western Maryland.