James and Karen Garlock are devoted to God and to each other. Yet when they wanted to get married 17 years ago, their parents and siblings objected strongly.
In part they didn’t understand, and even resented, the couple’s walk with Jesus. But the marriage was especially unthinkable to them because both James and Karen are seriously disabled. James suffers from a post-polio-like condition and other serious health problems. He walks with a cane and frequently uses a wheelchair. Karen has cerebral palsy and is a quadriplegic as a result. James says, “Our families couldn’t see how two people who are handicapped could take care of each other and how we could get by financially.”
Those are legitimate concerns, and getting by financially is a struggle. (They’re praying for a replacement for their 1990 van, one that doesn’t drink up their meager $15 a week gas budget in a day or two.) But James and Karen clearly see God’s hand in bringing them together.
The couple draws strength from each other and are profound friends and confidants. James is unable to work, but he definitely has a job: caring for his wife. He jokes, “Karen’s the only wife who has never gotten her hands or the bottom of her feet dirty.” Her gift to him is laughing at his humor, and she’s a good listener. They met when they were each ministering in the same nursing home in Holland, Mich., where they live. James would pray and read the Bible with residents. Karen talked with people, “ask[ing] them how their day was going.”
“I lived about a mile from there,” Karen explains. “I visited [my good friend] Shirley for many years there. Then one day when I was sitting outside with Shirley, I saw James pull up in his Mazda pickup truck. I asked who he was. She asked if I wanted to meet him. I said that would be great. She introduced us. The Lord took it from there.”
They found out that James loves music and Karen likes to paint (using her mouth). Most important, “We found out we both loved the Lord,” she says. “James asked me on a couple dates. I would take Dial-a-Ride from my home to his apartment. From there we’d go out in the truck. James would put my wheelchair in the back. His was in there too.” Dial-a-Ride drivers later helped James and Karen elope, since the couple’s families wanted no part in the wedding.
The Garlocks are members of Park Christian Reformed Church in Holland, though they both came from other denominations (James held a preaching license in the Wesleyan Church). They worship at Park’s Sunday-evening service, and Karen enjoys the mid-week Bible study. Since James prepares meals and dresses both Karen and himself, getting to morning services is difficult.
But the evening service isn’t the church’s only attraction for them. Park’s one-floor building with its easy access and handicapped restroom big enough for two people in wheelchairs suits their needs well. And they’re even happier with the preaching and fellowship. “This is the best church we’ve ever been in,” they say together. Karen adds, “I like the way the pastor delivers the message. All his sermons are down to earth. The people are very friendly. They speak to us; we feel accepted there.” James cites a small but important bit of thoughtfulness: He and Karen sit near the back in case Karen has one of her coughing jags and needs to leave. Because she must remain in her wheelchair, the seats directly in her sight line in the several rows in front of her are kept empty.
They’re also thankful for church members’ willingness to help, even coming over to wash windows. In their previous large congregation, “Everybody wanted to organize; nobody wanted to do the work.” They were even told, “You must have been disobedient in some way because you’re handicapped.” At Park CRC, “a few members maybe aren’t quite sure how to relate to us,” but no one has ever been unkind or hurtful, the Garlocks say.
Growing up in Holland, James “got the impression that the CRC is rich and that I would never be able to afford to go to it.” He now sees that was a misconception. For Karen and himself he sums up the reality: “We wanted to be told, ‘Come and be one of us.’ And we are.”