By Howard Nikkel

My particular journey began seven and a half years ago when I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The journey has included many visits to the cardiologists, medications to help the heart function better, a procedure called ultrafiltration done in a Venezuelan hospital, an implant that contained a pacemaker, defibrillator and a resynchronizer, and ending up with an LVAD (left ventricular assist device, or heart pump) installed in my heart.  I am currently on the list for a heart transplant.*

The first six years were difficult in many ways.  I was limited in the amount of activity I could handle, plus the heart failure was slowly increasing. We had several friends in Venezuela, which helped, but we didn’t have those who would seriously walk by our side during this time. By the time we arrived in the United States, I was hospitalized almost immediately. I had very swollen legs, very little stamina (even going up a flight of 12 stairs was difficult), and not much of an appetite.  In short, you could say I was in a bad way.

It was at this point that we began to receive the spiritual and emotional support that we  didn’t have in Venezuela. We made the choice to attend Oak Grove Mennonite Church in Smithville and are currently seeking membership. At Oak Grove, the first Sunday we were made to feel welcome. One couple in particular made it a point to greet us, introduce themselves, and make sure we knew where they lived and that they were neighbors.

While I was in the hospital (over 10 weeks between June 22 and Oct. 16, 2014), I received several visits from Oak Grove people, making the trip to Columbus to see me.  I was on the Oak Grove prayer list, and I was assured over and over that people were praying for me, both while in the hospital and continuing to this day. We received gifts of food after our return in October, as well as offers to help us with anything we needed to have done around the house or yard. This support in prayer, fellowship and assistance is still ongoing.

In addition to the congregation’s support, we have received a lot of support from an accountability group that we asked to walk with us more directly. I gave them five areas where I would need encouragement and growth in my life preparing to receive someone else’s heart. I gave them permission to “meddle in my life.” This group has been a blessing that is hard to describe in terms of holding me accountable, giving me direction, and stretching me to grow outside of myself. They have given me assignments for the next meeting. For example, I have in the past composed some songs, so one assignment was, “Write a song.” Trusting in God’s inspiration, I did. They suggested I write my journey in a book form, which I am in the process of doing. One observation they made was that I should get out of the house and do things with people, so I volunteered to work with MCC Connections in Kidron, and my wife and I are available as substitute teachers at Wooster Christian School. Writing this article to share how Oak Grove has helped us in a major journey was my latest assignment.

Not everyone has a journey like mine, but in every congregation there are many who need people to walk with them in their needs. What can a congregation do? First, pray diligently for them. Ask the Lord to show specific ways to pray that go beyond human understanding to know.

Second, when they are in church, show yourself friendly in greeting them, taking time to ask how it is going, and in general let them know that you care for them. Depending on the need, extend offers of work around the house or transportation to appointments to show you care.

Third, consider forming a group to walk with them just as our group has walked with us. Such a labor requires a commitment to be there when needed, to prayerfully consider what they need and how you can “give assignments,” so to speak, that will help them move forward toward the goal of a close relationship with Jesus that will carry them through many a tough moment.

*On Feb. 20, Howard received a new heart and is recovering well. The journey is by no means over, but a great milestone has been reached, and the congregation, along with his support group, rejoices with this new lease on life for Howard.

Howard served for many years as a missionary in Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela. He and his wife, Ellen, returned to the United States about two years ago.