Pastor with ALS delivers sermon near a different plate
Jennifer Lee Preyss
March 6, 2011 at 11 p.m.
Updated March 5, 2011 at 9:06 p.m.
Gathered at the Riverside Park stadium Sunday morning, retired Rev. Bill Hassel drove his motorized wheelchair to a lectern behind home plate.
From there, he delivered a sermon to a congregation of about 200. Because Hassel was diagnosed several years ago with ALS, often referred to as Lou Gherig's disease, his ability to speak has become increasingly limited. ALS also has robbed the preacher of much of his muscular function, and he uses a wheelchair.
But even though ALS is neurodegenerative, progressively prohibiting muscle movement and often leading to total body paralysis before death, Hassel isn't allowing ALS to keep him from preaching.
Using a digital voice computer device known as the Model Talker, Hassel's computer gave him back the voice ALS has taken away in recent years. Sunday's sermon helped kick off the second annual Stroll, Roll 'n' Run 5K Race for ALS.
"Please accept my apology for my digital voice. ALS has robbed my voice, but not me. Now, a preacher who cannot talk is about as useless as a dog who cannot bark," Hassel said through his Model Talker. "But, thank the Lord, with the ingenuity of recording devices ... you can now hear me speak what I type. Look, I'm speaking, and my lips are not moving. And you call me handicapped!"
Hassel went on to discuss the miracle of modern technology that restored his ability to preach, as well his belief in God's provision and grace.
"This way to speak, even a few years ago, would be considered a miracle. God's grace and mercy never stops," he said.
Hassel said before the worship service, his Model Talker - which is currently on loan from friend Lydia Nash- is capable of creating more than 1,600 words and sentences using a program that devises a digital voice from Hassel's own speech patterns.
"When I can no longer move, the program has a way of detecting eye movement to know what I'm trying to say," Hassel said about the Model Talker. "I'll get my own later, but for now, I'm using this one."
After the worship service, St. Joseph High School student and Stroll, Roll 'n' Run participant Amanda Kurtz talked about Hassel's sermon.
"I thought it was touching because he doesn't have a voice, but he can still speak to us," Kurtz, 18, said.
The ALS race was organized by the woman Hassel mentors, the Rev. Amy Danchik, who pastors Christ the Victor Lutheran Church in Victoria.
Danchik said she decided to organize the race if Hassel helped her organize a young professionals group in the city.
"We agreed and the rest was history," Danchik said, laughing.
Danchik confessed, however, her motivations behind organizing the 5K were specifically attached to her great respect and adoration for her mentor.
"He just means the world to me," she said. "This morning shows he still has a word in him. He's a retired pastor, but he will be a preacher until his last breath. I love that he is still standing and fighting."
After the morning worship service, hundreds of ALS supporters ran, walked and rolled in the 5K race and spent the afternoon supporting the cause.
Hassel's wife, Renee, said they would not know how much money was collected from the race for several days, but proceeds from the race will be donated to ALS Therapy Development Institute.