This is David Christian Dahlke at his graduation from Bryan College. When he left his wheelchair in the wings and struggled across the stage, the crowd at the commencement program rose to its feet with a deafening ovation. Tears flowed generously down the faces of those who knew him. It was a memorable moment.
At Bryan, David inspired many with his outlook, humor and faith. He had every reason in the world to be bitter and faithless – the victim of a broken world. But he chose to be more than a conqueror. David was born with Cerebral Palsy and it was clear that he would never walk. His parents embraced his physical challenges and saw to his emotional and spiritual growth. His life was grounded in reality:
Yes, I cannot walk, he seemed to say. But I am not going to waste time asking, “Why?” I am focusing on “What now?”
As he grew, healthcare professionals and therapists set the bar low for David and his future. They said he would never finish high school; college absolutely was out of the question. But David thumbed his nose at their prognosis. He not only finished high school, but achieved far beyond anyone’s expectations but his own.
When David came to Bryan College, he discovered that our campus was not very “handicapped friendly.” He helped us retrofit sidewalks, hallways, and doors to accommodate those who moved through life in a wheelchair. He never once complained about how difficult it was to get around. He saw every day as a gift.
David found out that I really did spend time with students, so soon he and I were going out for dinner on a regular basis. Why? Because he asked. David was fearless. Nothing was going to get in his way. I miss our regular meals and spirited conversations. We keep up on Facebook but it’s not the same.
David’s faith in God is relentless. I’ve learned a lot from him about perseverance, trust and friendship.
I have never once pitied him. His presence and personality just won’t allow it. He’s had his down moments when he wanted to give up; but they never lasted very long. God always brought someone along to comfort and restore his spirit.
He talks about the first time he will stand and walk on his own will be when he stands before his Savior. He can’t wait. But about 20 years ago, he decided he wanted to get a glimpse of that day at his college graduation ceremony.
David wanted to “walk,” literally, to receive his diploma. His idea was that he would use arm braces – the metal crutches you see in the photo – to walk to the podium and receive his diploma.
He started preparing twoyears before. I would see him agonizingly pulling himself along one of the sidewalks by his dorm for a few steps and then collapse. Then he would pull himself back up and take another step or two. He had his heart and mind focused on the commencement.
At Bryan we held the commencement program outside in the Triangle, a park-like area in the middle of campus. Every year we kept our eye on the weather forecast and every year the weather allowed us to celebrate outside.
The alternative was moving the program into the chapel, which was much too small for the large crowd. We would have to set up overflow rooms with televisions for the many without seats in the chapel.
One year, the forecast was for rain. Outside, we set up the stage, the chairs, and the sound system, fully expecting to move inside if the rains came an hour or two before the program.
As our staff prepared the Triangle, we looked up at the dark clouds moving in. When decision time came, I said, “We are doing it out here.” The staff stopped and looked at me for a moment and then looked skyward.
It began to drizzle.
But only for a few minutes.
The commencement went off without another drop falling.
But the morning of David’s commencement we were expecting good weather. As the temporary stage was set up and the chairs arranged, David came out to make final preparations for his walk across the stage. In a few moments, it was clear that it wasn’t going to work. The runway part of the stage was not wide enough to accommodate David and his braces. There was no way to make it work.
He would not be able to walk at his commencement.
I felt sick.
All I could think about were the years of agonizing practice for his final collegiate act of defiance against the naysayers, his physical challenges, his own fears.
Then it began to drizzle.
I didn’t even look up.
“We’re moving it inside,’ I said.
The chapel stage was wide and would easily accommodate David. The preparations were easily struck and Plan B was put into motion.
But this was God’s Plan A.
Soon, it was pouring rain.
In all my years as President of Bryan College, this was the only year we had to move the commencement program inside.
On May 4, 2002, God made it rain for David Dahlke and he walked across the stage.
David looks forward to not only walking, but running and jumping. He loves basketball and I think the Lord is going to let David dribble, shoot and slam dunk to his heart’s content.
He tries hard not to let the weariness of his life get him down. It’s hard but David says he waits on the Lord. I know why.
. . . those who wait in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (Isaiah 40:31).
David continues his courageous life of purpose. He works in Chattanooga and just started a work called MINDS Ministry (Meeting Immediate Needs of Disabled Souls), where he coordinates collecting, refurbishing and distributing of wheelchairs and other medical devices for those who need it most. He got this vision while on a mission trip to Ecuador where he saw the desperate difficulties the physically challenged endured. Check out his Facebook page and give him a shout.