Local Pastor Shares Story Of Thanksgiving And Gratitude

Pastor Chris Rhodes with with his step-daughter Lilyanna.

FREWSBURG — “When you step out in faith and have courage and trust God, He removes barriers and obstacles, which seem insurmountable,” said Pastor Chris Rhodes of Fentonville United Methodist Church.

When Pastor Rhodes’ father, Ron, drove his wife to the hospital on Nov. 24, 1969, to deliver their “third” baby, he and his wife had no idea they would be bringing two baby boys home to join their older brothers, 9-year-old Mark and 7-year-old Greg.

During her pregnancy, Jackie Rhodes had told “old Doc Williams” she felt the baby kick on both sides, but he discounted it.

“They pulled me out and then my brother, who had no name for a few days,” said the pastor. “Mark liked Corey, a character on Lassie.”

The parents took their oldest son’s suggestion, naming the second baby after his favorite TV character, Corey, on the weekly Lassie series.

Rhodes with his brother Greg at Michigan State University.

There were no known issues in the beginning.

“Corey and I have kind of a unique story. We were very active (in the womb), but Mom had spotting and went to the hospital. She was given hormone shots every hour for several hours.”

“She couldn’t lift her head after so many shots,” he continued. “Dad had to carry her out of the hospital and into the house because she was so weak.”

From this point on, the expectant mother no longer felt movement from her once active babies.

As expected, the twins seemed to develop normally for the first two years, rolling, crawling and pulling themselves up to furniture. But when they weren’t walking by the age of 3, their parents took them to Buffalo Children’s Hospital out of concern. The doctors told them the muscles were not receiving the message from the brain, but the condition wasn’t genetic.

A few years later, they were told the condition may have been due to the overuse of the hormone shots, which may have possibly been DES. Mysteriously, their mother’s medical records were illegible, so it could not be determined what was used.

“I remember being at a younger friend’s house when I was 4 or 5 seeing the friend walking and wondering if I would ever do that,” Chris Rhodes said.

When the brothers were ready to start school, the school indicated they should be put into special education classes, but their parents would have no part of that. Their father made special desks with wheels. Chris remembers being pushed by his classmates while sitting in his. The boys got manual wheelchairs in third grade, using them until they were in fifth grade, when they received electric wheelchairs.

When they were 12 years old, the parents were told they needed a spinal fusion. They were also told their sons had a 50/50 chance of survival, but without the fusion their organs would be crushed. A doctor who overheard the conversation told the parents to take their sons to Dupont Institute in Wilmington, Delaware for the procedure.

The brothers spent their 13th birthdays in the hospital in Wilmington. A few months later when Corey was ready to go home, the doctors wanted Chris to stay due to developing an infection. His parents convinced the doctor to let their son go home for the upcoming Christmas holiday, even though he said “the bacteria doesn’t know it is Christmas.” The wound healed over Christmas, but within a few months the bacteria had formed an abscess.

After battling the infection for awhile, the decision was made to remove the rods in the teenager’s back since the spine had fused. This procedure required packing the open area with sterile gauze strips. More time passed before the boy was able to return to his home, escorted by his mother who had stayed with him in Delaware. His father had been seeing to the care of his three other sons, while running the family’s dairy farm in New York.

The children had been able to keep up with their studies during the time they spent at Dupont Institute, thanks to communication by the teachers in both states. The teachers at Clymer Central School sent assignments to the teachers at the Institute.

“My parents had a dairy farm, which is the best way to grow up. They raised us normally, not as disabled children. We had our responsibilities, helped in whatever way we could and were disciplined,” Chris Rhodes said. “My brothers were awesome. They always included us in whatever they were doing, including taking us woodchuck hunting or taking us along when they went to the drive-in, but they were normal brothers, too. They didn’t exempt us from practical jokes.”

“My Mom always had her sister’s kids a lot in the summers,” he continued. “My friends always came over to play flag football in the yard and Corey and I would coach. We played board games and liked strategy games like Risk and Axis and Allies. We went to friends’ houses.

“I had an awesome group of classmates. They were always right there,” he says, referring to the Class of ’88 at Clymer Central School.

The brothers were involved in many school activities in high school, such as concert band where Chris played bells and Corey played xylophone. They participated in marching band by carrying the banner, which was stretched between the two wheelchairs and were managers for the school’s football team for three or four years. Chris served as class treasurer for a few years and graduated third in his class.

The firstborn twin thought the treatment he experienced while growing up was normal until he arrived at college and saw the parents of other handicapped students treating them like pre-adolescents, monitoring their bank accounts, among other tasks.

“We never thought college would be an option,” Chris Rhodes said. “We didn’t know we were going until our junior year in high school when we learned that Edinboro University had an entire staff of personal care aides who would get us up in the morning and help with showers. We were transported in a van equipped to carry wheelchairs.”

“One of my friends transferred to the university. Our circle grew and grew and grew. It was a great experience. I loved it,” he admits. “I think it was a blessing having a twin. I know it would have been a lot harder being alone.”

He was able to go home every weekend in his freshman year, but by the time his senior year came, he was satisfied to return to the farm in Clymer on holidays. He graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history and that passion led him to consider working in a museum, although that hasn’t materialized. After graduation in 1992, he worked for the university for five years as a clerk in the office for students with disabilities. He has been employed by Home Depot for the last 20 years, having worked the first five at the Erie, Pa., store.

“It was nice to have my manager from Erie move to the Jamestown store. He had already set the stage and everyone already knew me when I got there.”

Aside from his customer order specialist position at Home Depot, Chris Rhodes has served as the pastor at Fentonville United Methodist Church in Fentonville since 2005. He had wanted to become a pastor while living in Edinboro, but it didn’t work out, but he did become a Stephen minister while living there. When he came back to New York and met the Rev. Roy Miller, who was the district superintendent for the Cornerstone District of the United Methodist Church, the doors opened to an opportunity to become a pastor.

“Fentonville has been awesome,” Chris Rhodes said. “They had a ramp built before I started. By the third week, they had built a ramp to the pulpit.”

The pastor’s paternal grandfather was a United Methodist minister and his mother became ordained in the ’80s.

Corey Rhodes is a guidance counselor at his alma mater. Chris Rhodes had the opportunity to be married for 12 years and even though it ended in divorce, she has returned as a friend and personal care assistant. They are raising her daughter together. Both men have experienced good health throughout the years, with the exception of last winter when they had respiratory issues.

“My self-visualization when I’m out walking is actually seeing myself walking and when I dream, I am walking. God has opened the doors between school, college, ministry and my position at Home Depot,” Chris Rhodes said with a smile.

What most people may consider obstacles, this family embraced, while feeling God’s love throughout the journey.