By Wes Bartel and Scott Harrup
Pastor Freddy Brown of New Life Community Church (Assemblies of God) in Shelby, Mont., decided that a phone call to Rich Skerbitz was the next logical step. Skerbitz’s resumé seemed to fill the bill for what Brown was looking for in a youth pastor, but there were a few things he wanted to verify.
“Do you have any experience working with people with disabilities?” Brown asked.
“My educational background is in vocational rehabilitation,” Skerbitz said. “But,” he continued, “I guess I ought to tell you that I’m disabled myself.”
“I’m missing a leg.”
Brown smiled. Nothing like a little personal identification with people who are in need to energize a ministry. “I see.”
“Well, I’m actually missing both legs.”
“In fact, I only have one arm.”
By this point, Brown wondered if the man on the other end of the phone line was joking.
Rich Skerbitz’s physical anomalies are no joke. He would never be able to prove it in a court of law, but he firmly believes his biological father’s tour of duty in Vietnam created the conditions for his unusual birth. Skerbitz Sr. was in the field when Agent Orange was released. Soon after his father’s return home, Rich was born with only one limb on his torso.
At 12, Rich, the second of five children, lost his parents in a car accident. Miraculously, his youngest sister — only 4 months old when she was with her parents that day — was thrown clear of the wreck and survived. With a range in age from infant to early teens, the Skerbitz children represented a huge commitment for anyone willing to take them in. Ron and Joanne Running, who were already at retirement age, made that commitment.
“Basically, they were dedicating 18 years of their lives to raise us,” Rich says.
The Skerbitzes’ new parents were also committed to nurturing their children’s souls.
“Our biological parents had not taken us to church,” Rich says. “Our new parents were very involved in church. We also went to Sunday School regularly. Mom would invite the neighbors’ children over each week for a Bible study. She has had a powerful influence on our lives. She just passed away last year from cancer.”
Where his mom focused on Rich’s physical needs, his dad lovingly prodded him to greater levels of independence. Rich became used to his mom lifting him into a chair or being ready to open the door of the house when he came in. He remembers the day that changed. He knocked on the door and his dad looked out an upper window.
“What do you want?” his dad asked.
“I’d like to come in.”
“Well, figure it out yourself,” came the reply. No animosity, but no offer to open the door either.
Rich thought for a while. “I’ll need some equipment.”
“I’ll give you whatever you need,” his dad replied.
In time, with a requested wagon, rope and stick, Rich developed a system for getting in and out of the house. Other challenges and other offers of tough love built his independence. Today, at 31, he has enjoyed 11 years of marriage to Michelle and years of active children’s ministry. He knows his dad’s uncompromising approach to his needs is a big part of that success.
But Rich needed to feel emotionally independent as well.
At first, the excitement of his new faith in Christ had spurred him to aggressively evangelize friends and classmates at school. But he sensed there was something missing in his attempts to convince others of the truth of the gospel.
“I was a preacher without a pastor’s heart,” he says. “When I had said what I had to say, I was done. The seventh through 11th grades were some of the most miserable times in my life.”
Prayerful self-evaluation revealed a hole in Rich’s spirit. He had allowed his concern over people’s attitudes towards him as well as his own fragile self-image to compromise his ability to build relationships.
“I just asked God to help me to reach out to other people,” he remembers. “I needed His help to not care what people thought about me. I needed God to help me not to care about what I look like. I had to come to the place where I just wanted to be a vessel for Him.”
God began to do a work in Rich’s heart. The Holy Spirit reminded Rich that there is not a single person that God has not created. Since God creates everything and everyone to bring Him glory, there is no one born into this world without a God-given purpose.
Not everyone shared this view.
“I remember sitting in a church once and someone actually looked down from the pulpit, pointed me out, and said that God could never use a ‘blemished lamb,’ ” Rich remembers. “That could have impacted me in a negative way, but it didn’t. It motivated me.”
As a youth pastor with years of children’s ministry behind him, Rich is motivating young people to recognize their worth in Christ and achieve all of the potential He has created in them. Rich feels like he is blessed even more than the young people whose lives he touches, the excitement of watching them grow in the Lord is so intense.
Does it mean that all personal doubts have evaporated? No. Rich admits that illness and physical handicaps are still a mystery in many ways.
“Sometimes God works situations out in ways we’ll never understand,” he says. “But my strength and my hope is God. I’ve been asked how I think my disability will affect my ministry. My disability has the potential to impact my ministry negatively just as it has a potential to impact my life in a negative fashion. But the key is, when I wake up in the morning, I don’t look in the mirror at my flesh. I don’t go through life looking at my flesh. Ultimately, if I thought I was self-sufficient, life would be very depressing. But my sufficiency is not in myself. It’s all God. He is where my hope is. We all have a purpose in our lives, and God can use anybody because He created everybody.”
Wes Bartel is national director of the Assemblies of God’s Sunday School Department. Scott Harrup is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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