Focused on faith, not fear

Published 10:52 am Wednesday, September 3, 2014


It’s been more than a year since East Side Elementary Principal Josh Wandell was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Although the disease has attacked his body in numerous ways, making it difficult for him to walk and talk, he boldly shares his message of “Faith Over Fear” every day and at every opportunity.
Wandell, who still goes to work daily, shared his story of faith during the first convocation of the fall semester at Milligan College Tuesday
Wandell fielded questions from Milligan College professor Curtis Booher, who asked Wandell about a variety of topics, ranging from his diagnosis to his faith.
Booher took Wandell back to the moment he was diagnosed with ALS. He asked Wandell if the statement that finding out about an ALS diagnosis was really like being hit with a bucket of ice water, the viral movement, which has been the rage for the past few weeks.
Wandell recalled the doctor visit when he was diagnosed. He said the doctor spent 35 to 40 minutes going over all of the diseases and conditions that he did not have.
“I became a little impatient, and I asked ‘what is wrong with me’? The doctor looked at me and said ‘I’m afraid you have ALS’,” Wandell said.
Wandell said his uncle, Kelly Geagley, got up and left the room, and his wife, Tabitha, started to weep.
“When the water hits, it takes your breath away,” Wandell said. “I sat there for a moment, not sure how to breathe, what to think, what to say. Finally, I asked the doctor what we were going to do.”
Wandell said his doctor told him they were going to fight the disease, but said that a average prognosis was a two-to-five-year survival rate.
He said he noticed that on the way home from the doctor that the “world was still going on.”
“For me, I had just received what felt like a death sentence,” he said. “(But) there were people still playing ball and running down the street. I felt that the world should weep and mourn with me.”
The educator shared that he did become angry after he got home, and that he prayed for a misdiagnosis. He said that changed one day after he was working alone at East Side School and the song “Blessings Come Through Raindrops” came on the radio. “My heart was convicted and I decided I would no longer pray for a misdiagnosis, but would instead pray for peace and acceptance,” Wandell said.
Booher asked Wandell how he came to live the phrase “Faith Over Fear” that has come to be the catchphrase for Team Wandell, the name of his support group.
Wandell confessed he did not always live with the level of faith that he now has. He said that it took a terminal diagnosis to lead him to that path, and he referenced Bible verses that call for Christians to only serve one master, and to not be afraid for God will not leave or forsake them.
“I know that if my focus is on my ALS and the state of my health, then I will be nothing,” Wandell said. “Instead, my focus is on my faith and to proclaim what God has done for me. My faith has exponentially increased through this. This ALS, instead of being a curse, has been a blessing. What Satan intends for evil, God turns to good.”
Wandell said that while everyone has a limited number of days to live, most people will not be given a set life expectancy, as he received with the ALS diagnosis. He said that led him to start thinking about the way he lived and the kind of witness he was leaving for the people he came in contact with during his day to day life.
Booher asked Wandell what gave him hope and what kept him going every day, and if he was hoping that a cure could be discovered.
Wandell replied by saying that he did hope that a cure could be discovered for ALS, but that he himself had “zero hope” in medicine.
“I never hope for a cure,” he said. “I live my life each day. My hope is how God will use me each day.”
Wandell said that having ALS had not been an enjoyable experience, but that he had moments of hope in a day when he seen a roomful of people coming to hear about his experience, when he saw a “Faith Over Fear” sign in the community, or when a student told him that they were praying for him.
“My hope is in the security I have and the peace that I have,” Wandell said. “Someone who does not have that wouldn’t understand it. My joy and my hope comes from this platform to share how God is using me to share his word. That is the greatest commandment for all of his believers.”
Wandell said he continued to go to work as principal at East Side to continue his daily routine, and to share his experience so that it might make a difference in the life of a student or a parent. He said everyone was battling their own “giant” and that his giant of ALS was more visible than something a family might be dealing with.
He said it was his mission to share his testimony because God had sustained and carried him through the hardest moments of his diagnosis.
“It takes Him to get me going,” Wandell said. “We are not supposed to pray in school, but it is like the speed limit sign that says 10 miles per hour. Nobody is doing that. I pray everyday. I share my faith and I hope that I will have the opportunity to continue to share it.”
He continued that while he relied on his faith, God had also granted him a “band of warriors” who helped him through each day, especially his wife, Tabitha. He described her as a “valiant warrior” and “a rock.”
He encouraged the public to send cards of encouragement and support to her instead of himself.
“What she does every day is a testament,” he said. “It affects her more than it affects me.”
He said the outpouring of community support helped to keep him strong.
“It is hard to quit and feel sorry for yourself when people are watching you,” he said. “People want to see what faith over fear is. I feel that everyone is watching to see how I handle things, and that drives me to be the best I can everyday.”
For his final question, Booher asked Wandell what wisdom he would share with the college students on living and dying.
Wandell said he would ask them where they draw their happiness from. He said before his diagnosis he was in the best shape of his life; a runner and an avid Crossfitter. He said now he cannot run or do any of the physical things he used to enjoy.
Wandell said that while there is a lot he cannot do, he can always pray and can read the Bible or have it read to him.
“Ask yourself if what you draw your happiness from can be taken away,” Wandell said. “If it can, then what? If it is something you can lose, prepare for that because it can happen. It did to me. It is better to draw your happiness from the one thing that never changes and that is God Almighty.”
Team Wandell is now preparing for the annual Race for Wandell on Sept. 20. Registration can be completed online at or at the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce.

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