As kids at the church camp altar prayed earnestly and in faith over 14-year-old Joy Willis as she sat in her wheelchair, her brother, Tim, quietly whispered in her ear, “In the Bible, when Jesus made the lame walk, they had to choose to stand up.”
Joy immediately began to struggle to get herself in a position to stand, ignoring her pain, and desperately believing that today was the day her — and countless others’ — prayers were about to be miraculously answered.
As a young child, Joy had unusual flexibility that became part of the fun and games kids play, enabling her to “fold herself up” to fit into relatively small places — a neat trick and rather advantageous in games of hide-and-seek. However, unknown to the family, that flexibility had a hidden dark side.
It was after a fun vacation to the hills of Tennessee that then 7-year-old Joy first started noticing unusual pain in her knee.
At first her parents, Robbie and Anna May, currently pastoring Link Church in Lavaca, Arkansas, dismissed the pain as a normal thing that kids go through as they grow. But within the next several days, the pain began to spread beyond her knee, from joint to joint — her wrists, her ankles, her elbows, her fingers, her hips . . . .
“At that point, we took her to the doctor,” Anna May says, “but he told us it was just ‘psychological’ and that she really wasn’t having any pain.”
But as the weeks turned into months and Joy’s pain continued to build, the Willises noticed that she no longer ran or rode her bike — Joy explaining that it hurt too much to do either.
“We took her to doctor after doctor, but they all said the same thing,” Robbie says. “We knew it wasn’t psychological as she was the type of kid to scrape her knee, get up and brush it off, and keep playing.”
Even after pushing for and getting an appointment at the Little Rock Children’s Hospital, it just resulted in a “she’s just fine” report.
But Joy wasn’t “just fine.” She was in pain and life was tightening around her as she was no longer able to do many of the things she loved. And despite going to multiple specialists, each one basically communicated to the family that Joy was imagining or “making up” her pain. This led to Joy no longer wanting to speak to doctors for fear still another doctor wouldn’t believe her.
Over the next several years the pain restricted what Joy could do, but she was able to manage it with the use of braces on her ankles and being careful about being too active as even walking became too painful at times.
Then at about age 12 (2019), puberty hit, and what was once “simply” very painful became agonizing.
A PARENT’S NIGHTMARE
During the early years of Joy’s health struggles, Robbie’s health had also been on a slow decline as unknown to him and undiagnosed by doctors for nearly a decade, he had developed Autosaumal Recessive Parkinson’s Disease.
But in October of 2017, God miraculously healed him.
“What’s funny is, I knew I was quickly becoming diabled and knew I needed to be healed if I was to be able to continue in ministry,” Robbie says, “but my prayers were for God to heal Joy.”
When describing Joy, Robbie and Anna May use words such as “positive, upbeat, caring, faith-filled, fun” and what may or may not be a blessing, “a high tolerance for pain.”
“She began experiencing partial dislocations,” Robbie says. “She would move and a hip would go out of place, she’d yawn and her jaw would partially dislocate, her ribs dislocated during a hug, her shoulder when she shifted, a collarbone partially displaced, and her ankles were always in braces.”
Finally, in 2019, the Willises found a pediatrician willing to listen. He recognized that something was definitely wrong, but admitted he didn’t have the expertise to diagnose it. He sent them to the Peyton Manning Clinic in Indianapolis. Within 20 minutes of seeing a leading connective tissue disorder specialist, they had their diagnosis: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) — a syndrome which causes joint subluxation.
According to an article posted to The Ehlers-Danlos Society site, “A subluxation is basically defined as ‘a partial dislocation.’ It can be no less painful than a full dislocation . . .”
“It’s kind of hard to describe,” Joy says, “but when it happens [a subluxation], it feels like somebody is ripping my ligaments inside of me.”
Joy’s suffering gripped and ripped at the very fibers of Robbie and Anna May. Despite his own documented miraculous healing, Robbie admits he struggled — as any loving parent would — in seeing his daughter’s pain and suffering.
“I know God hears our prayers and that He knows the desires of our hearts,” Robbie says, “but I was asking Him, knowing that He’s more loving as a father than I could ever be, that if I could heal my daughter I would, so as He loves her more, shouldn’t He heal her?”
Through the diagnosis, Joy began to do therapy to help with the subluxations, but she had to continue to wear ankle braces in order to walk without injury. In her physical evaluation, it was determined that she had the balance of a 5-year-old and her body coordination was at 5% (50% is considered normal) due to the EDS.
Yet, this spring, despite her pain, when church camp was announced, she was determined to go, even if she was limited in what she could do; she had no idea how limited that would be.
“After the diagnosis, things continued to be worse,” Anna May says. “In May 2021, she was just sitting on the couch and her shoulder popped out, so we had to put her in a sling — she couldn’t move her arm without severe pain.”
From that point on, it was almost a Job-like experience for Joy. Shortly after, while gingerly playing air hockey, she popped out the other shoulder and as both shoulders were now partially dislocated, slings were no longer an option. The family borrowed a wheelchair and propped Joy’s arms with pillows to reduce the tension and pain . . . she was now unable to raise her arms, unable to feed herself, shower on her own, brush her own teeth, or a host of other things, which Anna May now had to do for her.
Next, while her sister Grace and Anna May were helping her to pack for camp, Joy was shuffling on her knees to look at what had been placed in her suitcase when a knee painfully twisted.
But Joy’s resolve to attend church camp remained steadfast – even if all she could do was sit and watch the other kids have fun.
The subluxations continued, though, as while driving to camp in the car, the other knee subluxated with piercing pain.
“By the time we arrived at camp, Joy couldn’t walk more than two steps,” says Anna May, who was serving as a camp counselor with Robbie, “and that was basically transferring from the car to the wheelchair and from the wheelchair to her bed or shower chair or wherever it was she needed to go.”
Unable to walk, unable to use her arms, in constant pain whenever she moved “wrong,” and not knowing what joint would partially disconnect next, it might seem camp and its bumpy gravel paths and less-than-plush accommodations was a huge mistake, but God had a plan.
Prior to camp, Anna May had reached her breaking point. Caring for Joy was nearly a full-time job and then with a foster child that also needed guidance and attention, it was too much.
“I told God I couldn’t be two places at once — I can’t shower one child and deal with a behavioral problem of the other at the same time,” Anna May recalls. “And that’s when He told me: ‘Okay, so I’ll heal Joy.’ I struggled with that because that’s what I wanted to hear . . . was it God or me? . . ., but then He told me that He was going to heal her at camp.”
However, instead of Joy showing any signs of improvement, now she couldn’t even walk! And Anna May pushing Joy in her wheelchair up and down the hills on the gravel Arkansas camp paths seemed to emphasis Joy’s weakening condition — it also didn’t help that Anna May ended up losing her footing and falling, twisting her own knee that first day.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Willises now was, “What next?”
But in the service that night, the speaker was David Willis, a cousin of Robbie’s, and the lead pastor at The Link/Fernwood Assembly of God in Arkansas. As he concluded that Monday, June 14, service, the altar was filled with young people, praying. After praying with some others kids, David moved to pray for Joy.
“I remember as I knelt by her, I heard God tell me in my spirit that He was going to do it [heal Joy], but in His time,” David says. “And then He said, the time is now . . ., but He was going to use the kids to do it.”
David went to Robbie and shared what he felt God told him and then began gathering kids to go over to pray for Joy’s healing.
“Our camp is for kids 10-18,” David said. “Most of the kids who came to pray for her were 12 or under.”
Meanwhile, unknown to David, during the worship portion of the service, God had spoken to 12-year-old Jaelyn, a friend of Joy’s.
“I was raising my hands and praising during worship music,” Jaelyn recalls. “All of a sudden I felt a big wave of happiness and joy and He [God] said there are two big things that are going to happen tonight — Becky (another friend) is going to get the Holy Ghost and Joy is going to be healed and walk again. And I want you to tell them that.”
Jaelyn did as God directed, noting that it made her feel so happy that Joy was going to be healed and walk again.
Joy admits that when Jaelyn told her, she desperately wanted to believe it, but there was still a caution, a fear, that Jaelyn might be wrong. However, she put her doubts aside and continued to praise and worship God.
Joy’s cousin, Lexi, wheeled her forward to participate in the altar time at the conclusion of the service. Shortly after, responding to David’s request, children began gathering around Joy, praying for her healing. Jaelyn, right there with Joy, had no doubt that God was preparing to fulfill His promise.
“I felt God’s presence run through my fingers,” Jaelyn says.
After about 20 minutes, Joy’s brother Tim whispered in her ear his words of choosing to stand (and accept God’s healing). From the time Joy stood, things began happening one after the other.
“When he [Robbie] pulled me up there [on stage], it seemed like there was little difference, though there had to be some as otherwise I couldn’t have got up there,” Joy says. “As I was with him, I started feeling better and better.”
Robbie says Joy took a few stilted steps by faith, and then said she wanted him to help her take off her ankle braces.
“I was thinking, What? This doesn’t make any sense . . . she can’t walk and now she wants to take her ankle braces off? But, I went ahead and did it,” Robbie says.
As Joy returned to her feet, she began walking and attempted to raise her arms in praise — something she couldn’t physically do due to the subluxations.
“At first, they didn’t feel better,” Joys says, “but the farther I raised them up the better they felt!” And now Joy was walking around, hands raised, praising God!
“I opened my eyes for just a moment,” says 12-year-old Cheyenne. “I look over and see Joy. I was like, When did Joy start to walk? I was so surprised . . . her ankle braces were off and that wheelchair was empty!”
David laughs and notes that God heals in His own way. “Some healings are instantaneous, but this was very progressive . . . it was like God was taking steps toward her healing throughout the service.”
Meanwhile, Robbie now praying with other campers, paused a moment and looked around — he couldn’t see Joy. Was she OK? He hurried to Anna May.
“Joy had come up to me and asked if she could go up to the snack shack and I just said sure,” Anna May says, her voice still reflecting the awe of the moment. “And then I stood there, with my mouth hanging open as she jumped down off the platform and ran out. A few minutes later, she was running up the hill to the snack shack!”
Robbie and Anna May were shellshocked, or better put, God-shocked. Joy had never brushed her own hair or put on her own make-up, and she had been unable to put on her own clothes or own shoes, much less run or jump! Then the next day she went swimming, not to mention she was jumping up and down with hands lifted high in praise during the altar time that evening!
“She participated in all the other things that the kids were doing for the rest of the week,” Anna May says. “I went to camp thinking I was going to have to do everything for her and now she’s doing everything on her own.”
“I guess that’s why Christ says come with the faith of a child,” David says. “This elevated the kids’ faith for the rest of the week — if you needed someone to pray for you, they were ready to pray!”
And the wheelchair?
“The wheelchair sat where Joy got out of it for the rest of the week,” David says. “No one wanted to move it because it was a reminder of what the Lord had done — Man, our God did this right in front of us!”
The rest of week of camp was filled with marvel for the family and all who knew of Joy’s condition. The reality of God’s healing power impacted everyone who was there, with a number of kids experiencing the baptism in the Holy Spirit.
But was this healing real or just some kind of “hyped-up” reaction?
“A month or two before we went to camp, I had a conversation with Joy’s physical therapist,” Anna May says. “She told me Joy wasn’t ever going to test out of physical therapy — she was always going to be in physical therapy. After camp, when we went back, Joy tested again . . . the therapist said with all of Joy’s improvements, she was going to write a prescription for six months of physical therapy, but she felt Joy would test out in three months!”
On Joy’s evaluation chart, where she was well below normal in balance and body coordination, she was now within normal range, moving from 5% to 50% in balance, with the therapist noting that as Joy’s core muscles continue to strengthen, her test numbers will continue to improve even more.
“The therapist was blown away,” Robbie says with a laugh. “She said she has seen improvement in patients, but never seen this much improvement and all at once. We just let her know that God answered our prayers.”
Joy has become another living testimony in the Willis family to God’s healing power. “Everyone can see it,” Anna May says. “No one who knew her can deny it — she even walks differently!”
GRACE OF GOD
No one has a closer view to miraculous healings than the Willises, however no one has a closer view to when God chooses, for whatever the reason, not to heal this side of heaven.
On July 16, Robbie made the following post:
“Nineteen years ago today, I stood there at Sherrellville cemetery listening to my pastor, Walter Brashear, preach my son’s funeral. It was the day after my 23rd birthday, and we were burying our second child less than a week after his [twin] brother’s funeral. My world was shaken. Nothing made sense. Nothing brought comfort.
“I could see that my pastor was deeply affected by it as well. We were hurting. He was hurting. He stood and prophesied some things to us that make more sense now than they made that day. Lots of people tried to help, but my soul was crushed.
“Today is the day after my 41st birthday. The voices of six amazing kids echo through my home. We have a spiritual daughter changing lives through Teen Challenge in Alabama, and a spiritual son changing lives as a nurse. Though God gave each of them good parents, he saw fit to make them part of our lives as well.
“On any given Sunday, there are 12-15 people in my home, with noisy laughter echoing through our walls. We have an abundance of amazing nephews and nieces and spiritual sons and daughters spread across multiple states. God is so, so faithful.
“As I prepare to sleep tonight, I am reminded how different today is from that day, nineteen years ago. He has turned my mourning into dancing. He has turned my sorrow into joy and transformed our barrenness into over-abundance. He is a good, good Father, and I am forever grateful.”
. . .and oh, by the way, Becky — the other girl at camp God talked to Jaelyn about — was filled with the Holy Spirit that night, just as He promised.