The Story Behind The Site:
Ten years ago the idea of creating a website to comfort and encourage individuals experiencing illnesses and tragedies would have been about as far off of Tom Gallant’s radar as discovering what he thought was a spider bite on his leg was actually a symptom of an aggressive form of leukemia. The swift transfer from emergency room to Oncology wing at Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan was only the beginning of a journey Tom took through the world of cancer. Little could he imagine that on his first night in the hospital Tom would have a very significant conversation with God in a place usually filled with fear and despair. “He assured me that my sickness was not unto death but that there would be a purpose to all this, a special assignment, and it would affect many others beyond myself,” Tom states. This “special assignment” idea was confirmed by a long discussion with the hospital chaplain, a cancer survivor herself. Tom’s heart was opened to the idea that this entrance into a new world was actually an extraordinary project. This key phrase turned him into a very unusual cancer patient. Tom deliberately turned away from any temptation to become self-absorbed within the frightening walls of his own illness and instead became the encourager in residence within the cancer wing. His 43-day stay was focused on befriending patients and staff alike as well as sharing the hope he had in Christ with many people facing life-threatening illnesses.
When Tom was eventually declared cancer free he speculated as to what the next steps of his special assignment might be. Years passed without any clear picture of the best way to share his story while he resumed his normal life as CFO of Grand Rapids First Assembly. He and his wife, Liz, their children and friends would discuss the amazing healing he had experienced as Tom periodically wondered how to duplicate his experience in the hospital of encouraging a larger circle. All along God was working in a hundred unseen ways through the hearts and minds of people Tom hadn’t met yet or knew only slightly. One by one they would begin to join Tom in his quest to fulfill the assignment God had given him, creating a team that was as passionate about using his story to encourage and build up others as he was. One of the very first partners arrived unexpectedly when Tom struck up a casual conversation about football with a stranger.
In 2010 Dr. Ron Vanderbeek, a clinical psychologist, came to Grand Rapids First as a guest speaker to address the topic of child abuse laws. In his practice Ron had counseled many survivors of sexual abuse and had seen firsthand the unimaginable damage they had endured. Before he made his presentation Ron was briefly hosted by Tom in his office and the two began chatting about University of Michigan football. From their perspective they were just two “maize and blue” guys shooting the breeze but from heaven’s perspective a divine appointment was occurring. A sports conversation shifted to Tom’s winning battle with cancer and the men discovered they had another shared interest: how to help Christians cope better with death and dying. The acquaintances turned into friends and began to brainstorm together about the best way to share Tom’s story. Writing a book, teaching a class or speaking at different organizations were all considered. For two years the men continued to build their friendship and toss around ideas of how to best reach people facing life and death illnesses.
In 2012, Mark Miller, Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness for Chick-Fil-A, also came to Grand Rapids First as another guest speaker. God nudged Tom to share his story and he and Ron’s ideas with Mark. As they spoke Mark suggested that a website was a superior idea as it could be updated and evolving and could reach much larger audiences than classes and speaking engagements. Tom and Ron latched onto the idea immediately. Their original concept began to expand and broaden fairly quickly to include many topics beyond death and dying such as chronic illness, depression, tragic events and other subjects related to pain and suffering. Ron’s work as a clinical psychologist had long ago created a desire in him “to use the internet for good instead of evil.” This was an opportunity to do exactly that. The phrase “why is this happening,” began to emerge as the two men realized this is a common response most people have to pain, suffering and tragic circumstances. Tom had heard this phrase in the cancer ward and Ron had certainly been confronted with this question from patients.
Months passed and God continued to nudge Tom to invite a variety of individuals to join what became a website team. Every individual brought their own history complete with victory stories to the table. Each of them had walked paths of grief, illness or some other painful circumstance and were eager to share the stories of their “special assignments” and to create a vehicle for others outside the team to share their stories. Since God had handpicked this team, with Tom as his team manager, along with their experiences each member brought skills and knowledge critical to the creation of the site.
On the WITH (whyisthishappening) team we believe that what the world thinks of as tragic events can be God given opportunities, what we call “special assignments.” Just as Tom became an encourager to others in the midst of his fight for health, we too can look outward during life’s sorrows. What might seem to be a hopeless situation tempting us to ask, “Why is this happening?” can be an occasion to recognize that God’s ways are so much higher than ours and He desires to use us in ways we could never imagine.