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My Journey With Ernie (And Forrest Gump)

My journey with Ernie Hughes began in mid-2005 when I was traveling on a road through the valley of the shadow of death. I was first of all seeing my wife suffer with multiple sclerosis, and then I witnessed and survived the 9/11 attacks on New York City.

Joe and Ernie together July 3, 2010

After this, I went through an extensive period of severe illness – which included some time on life support – finally ending up in Cadiz, Kentucky, after getting separated from my wife and then divorced.

I like to refer to myself as a “missionary to those who are traveling through the valley of the shadow of death;” those who have been stricken with grief, illness, or facing some tragic event in their lives.

After considering my experience, I thought I might be an encouragement to those who, like me, were traveling on their own journey in darkness and despair – through the valley of the shadow of death.

I began a quest in search of such “citizens,” and eventually I showed up at Shady Lawn Nursing Home in Cadiz, Kentucky, thinking that it was a good place to start. I wasn’t looking to make friends, I just wanted to show some empathy by offering to pray for the residents and lend a listening ear.

One day I showed up at Ernie’s room. I stuck my head in the doorway and said, “Hi Ernie. I’m Joe. I come here to pray for the residents. Would you like prayer today?”

Ernie replied, “Come on in!” and so I did. Ernie was a rather large man and even though he was most often in pain, he still liked company. He was always excited to see me.

Ernie was born handicapped with cerebral palsy. Later on he suffered with polio. Many times I went to pray with Ernie. He lay in his bed grimacing in pain, yet he never complained. He lived on a steady dose of pain medications and struggled with respiratory illness.

My new friend spent most of his time lying in bed, listening to audio books on tape and watching movies. He was very fond of John Wayne. So I one day I asked Ernie, “Why do you like John Wayne?” He replied, “Because he always played the part of the good guy.”

Ernie Hughes, Bates, Arkansas, 1967

As our friendship continued, I discovered that when Ernie was younger, he lived independently in Portland, Oregon, and was able to get around with the help of crutches and a walker. Then, in 1979, while Ernie was living in Kansas City, Missouri, he and three other friends were traveling in a 1977 Ford Maverick on their way to church. Ernie was sitting in the front passenger seat. There was a light mist in the air and suddenly the car started hydroplaning, slid off the road and slammed into an embankment.

Ernie flew through the windshield and ended up in a grass gulley. Miraculously, he survived. However, the accident left him paralyzed with no use of his legs and impaired use of his arms.

When Ernie was having a good day, his care-takers would enter his room and using a crane-like device that strapped around his body, they would hoist him out of his bed, then carefully place him in his wheelchair.

Despite Ernie’s poor health, it never stopped him from being cheerful, always smiling and laughing.

The more I got to know Ernie, the more I liked him. He was a good listener and, over time, I shared my life’s journey with him and also told him many Bible stories. I even preached to him and he seemed to enjoy it.

Not long ago, Ernie, Rod (Ernie’s roommate) and I watched the wonderful Forrest Gump movie together in Ernie’s room. I thought about how Ernie could relate to both Forrest and Lieutenant Dan Taylor.

Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) running

Forrest was also born disabled with a low IQ and a twisted spine. He had to wear leg braces when he was a youth. One day as Forrest was running from some bullies, his childhood sweetheart Jenny was yelling, “Run Forrest run!” As Forrest ran the braces fell from his legs and he began to outrun the kids that were chasing him on their bicycles.

When Forrest grew older, he joined the army and was sent to Vietnam to fight in the war. There he made friends with a man named Bubba. Bubba persuaded Forrest to become his partner in the shrimp business after he and Forrest completed their service in the army.

However, their platoon was hit by enemy fire and Bubba was killed. Forrest rescued many of the soldiers in his platoon, including Lieutenant Dan. However, Dan was bitter because he wanted to die in battle and become a war hero like his ancestors who died in various wars before him.

He was angry with Forrest because Forrest received a Medal of Honor and he was also mad at God because he lost his legs and, in his own mind, he also lost his dignity. By now, Dan was living a life of debauchery.

Forrest met up with him in New York City on New Year’s Eve. In a cynical tone, Dan asked Forrest, “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?” Forrest paused then answered, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him.” Dan laughed and said, “That’s all these cripples at the VA, that’s all they ever talk about. Jesus this and Jesus that.” Forrest said, “I’m going to heaven.”

Even though Bubba was dead, Forrest decided that he was going to keep his promise to him and go in the shrimp business. Instead of becoming Bubba’s first mate, he would now be the captain of his shrimp boat. Forrest shared his ambition with Dan and Dan laughed and said, “Tell you what … the day you are a shrimp boat captain, I will come and be your first mate.”

Ernie Hughes in wheelchair with his family, May, 2000

As fate would have it, Forrest bought a shrimp boat and became a shrimp boat captain. Dan showed up one day at the pier where Forrest had his boat and became his first mate.

As the story unfolds, Forrest and Dan aren’t having any success as shrimp fishermen. So Dan tells Forrest, “Maybe you should just pray for shrimp.” Then one day, they get caught in a storm out at sea. Dan yells at God, “You call this a storm? It’s time for a showdown! You and me! I’m right here! Come and get me!”

After the storm ceases, Forrest and Dan become successful in the shrimp business because “Jenny,” Forrest’s shrimp boat, named after his childhood sweetheart, is the only boat that isn’t destroyed in the storm.

Dan later makes peace with God and man. Often times God shows up in the storms of life not to destroy us, but to propel us through turbulent waters.

I believe that God brought me to Cadiz, Kentucky, so that I could meet Ernie Hughes and learn this lesson for myself. I have learned from Ernie that it’s not where we live that is important, rather it’s where we are in Christ Jesus.

Jesus told the Apostle Paul, after Paul prayed for God to take away his infirmity, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” I believe Ernie understood this better than just about anyone that I have ever met.

Unlike Forrest Gump, the leg braces never fell off Ernie’s legs. He never experienced a miraculous healing that enabled him to walk. He never had a successful business venture and he never was a war hero. But he did win the hearts of those who knew him. He was courageous and content with where he was in Christ. Ernie Hughes died on Wednesday, February, 23, 2011.

My journey with Ernie continues today and, even though he is not here in the flesh, his spirit of courage and faith, live on to inspire me. I believe we will meet again someday and continue this journey into eternity.


Joseph Radosti, author of the newly published book, “Touched By The Hand Of God,” (, is a speaker, writer, and blogger. He leads a support group at his local church, Worldwide Grace Fellowship, Clarksville, Tennessee. He offers hope to those who find themselves lost in a place of darkness and despair. He is passionate about encouraging and inspiring those who are sick, grieving and traveling through the valley of the shadow of death.

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