John Foppe tells Ed West that his faith has helped him to become a father, speaker and leader despite being born with no arms

John Foppe, the executive director of the St Vincent De Paul Society in St Louis, the Catholic heartland of the Mid West, is describing a turning point in his life when, as a youngster, he went on a parish trip abroad.

“On the very first day of the Haiti trip we went to the Mother Teresa Hospital,” he says. “It was nothing like a hospital in the First World. We’re talking a concrete bunker, with a rusty tin roof at the end of a street with an open sewer. These kids were mere skin and bones. The children had distended navels, their normally black Haitian hair turned blond. It was hot and humid. There were flies everywhere. You could smell the urine.

“You’re a 16-year-old American teenager, fairly middle class, and have everything you want in life, and you see a lot of these kids just staring into empty space, not really acknowledging your existence. And as I was walking up and down the beds I had a flashback to when I was a kid.

“I know what it was like to be in a hospital for children, when I was getting tested and fitted with occupational therapy for artificial arms. In those days parents didn’t stay with their kids in hospital so every day at the end of the day I would scream and holler, and I wanted to go home with them. But they left.

“My very first memory of life is being restrained by a nurse,” Foppe says, his voice wavering. “Sorry, I still get choked up by it,” he says. “Seeing my mom and dad getting in the family car and driving away… terror.

“I’m in a Haitian hospital and I’m re-living all that, and suddenly my mind just jerked back into the present because something grabbed me. I looked down and there was this boy with his arms around my waist. Of course my first reaction was to pick him up. He wants me to pick him up and hold him. But I couldn’t. I’m standing there, no arms, feeling totally helpless.

“His big brown eyes are staring up at me, and I’m looking down at him, starting to well up. I’m hoping that I can keep it together. Everybody saw this scene going down no one said anything. It was just this awkward moment. I just had this one thought: you don’t
have arms to pick him up.”

Today, Foppe is a renowned public speaker and author whose work has been translated into six languages. He has addressed “florists, military generals, students, prisoners, rocket scientists” and spoken in 15 different countries. He has given talks to businesses such as Boeing and GE, and even sports teams like the Miami Dolphins. He has that characteristically American mindset that sees every obstacle as a challenge, a sense of optimism that built the country and which is so intertwined with its Christian heritage. But what makes his story especially inspiring is that he was born with no arms.

Foppe continues to describe his visit to Haiti. “We had eight more days like that. We visited leper colonies, but my mind kept on coming back. I was very angry with God. It wasn’t until I was on the plane back to Miami that I was getting more and more restless, and I was thinking: ‘I don’t get it, God, I thought you wanted us to help people.’

“I felt disabled when I realised how I wasn’t going to dress myself when I was 10, but this took the cake – something so simple as a child wanting support. I just lashed out in my thoughts: ‘You’re a cruel God!’ But then it hit me: I wasn’t supposed to be picking up the child, the child was hugging me. And I missed it, I didn’t get it. I was so caught up in my own pain. Of course I wanted to turn the plane around and tell the kid.

“So I decided I wanted to educate others about Third World people. Maybe I couldn’t pick up the kid, but I can educate people.”

Born in 1970, John was the fourth of eight boys (“my mother always wanted a girl”), raised in a community of just 3,500 souls. His mother had the Hong Kong flu when pregnant and Foppe believes this may have been the cause of his disability, which is congenital rather than genetic.

He grew up 40 miles east of St Louis, in southern Illinois, an area that has been dominated by German Catholics since the 1830s. The Foppes arrived in 1840 from the border region around Germany and the Netherlands, which had been Catholic throughout the turbulent wars of religion, when the area was constantly passing between Lutheran and Catholic princes. (His surname is pronounced “fopp-ar” in Germany but was turned into “fopp-y” by English speakers in America.) His was a “strong Catholic family”.

He says: “My faith has always been a strong support, although it’s been a journey. I don’t think I ever denied the existence of God. Some people who have a tragedy ask: ‘Why did He let my sister die?’ That sort of thing. I would look at my empty sleeves and think ‘Why did God do this to me?’ in that simplistic childhood way. I jest now that I never denied the existence of God – I just didn’t like Him.

“If you put yourself in the mind of a child, what helped me was the devotion to the Blessed Mother. The psychologist Eric Fromm talks about the feminine form of love from God. As a child I was angry with God. I couldn’t pray to God, but I could pray to the Blessed Mother. As I moved into adolescence and began to think about Confirmation and the Holy Spirit, I feel like that relationship waned. As a teen I really remembered that prayer life with the Blessed Mother. It was like she said: ‘You need to start dealing with my Son.’ ”

Foppe was lucky to be accepted by a local Catholic school run by nuns.

“They didn’t have to, and otherwise I would have been relegated to a public school,” he says. “But the Sisters welcomed me with open arms.”

A lot has changed with regard to disability since Foppe was a child. He mentions that today American children with disabilities often have aides who shadow them all day.

“I’m always asked: ‘Did you have an aide?’ I say: ‘Yeah, I had 30 classmates.’ A Catholic school couldn’t afford aides, so it was my peers who helped me. Every day the nuns would go through in alphabetical order and each day a child was appointed, took turns, and that was my partner for the day.
They helped me with my lunch tray from the cafeteria to the lunch table.”

Those friendships formed through trust have endured and his best friend to this day is someone he first met in kindergarten.

The town’s extracurricular life revolved around sport, but “when you have a disability you’re kind of left on the sideline”. Luckily his diocese, Belleville, had a strong youth ministry organisation, offering everything from dances to social projects and youth leadership conventions.

Foppe became involved. He was elected president of the diocese youth council and was chosen, along with a couple of youth leaders, to go to Haiti.  The scheme was called “adopt a parish”, where an American parish would send money to a Third World counterpart, and youth leaders would also get to visit orphanages and bring medical supplies.

“I think every American child should have to spend a week in Third World poverty,” Foppe says. “It’s truly a lesson in gratitude.”

Along with fellow youth leaders he put together a presentation on Haiti “and one presentation led to another”. They ended up doing 60 talks in southern Illinois, mostly in churches, raising £5,000, which they sent back to the hospitals and orphanages in Haiti.

“In the meantime I kind of discovered that I liked public speaking,” Foppe says, “and I was also now in the public eye. Newspapers were doing things. And self-esteem became a big issue in classrooms in America. I started getting requests from schools about living with a disability and having healthy self-esteem. One thing led to another.”

Foppe studied communications at college and big corporations began to take an interest in him. He attracted the attention of Zig Ziglar, one of America’s most famous public speakers and the author of 20 books on motivation and personal growth, who mentored him. He also started his own company in 1995. The final part of his odyssey led him to social work. “I decided I wanted to learn more about the human condition,” he says.

“Groups were good but I wanted to work with individuals. I became a student of the human condition. I remember working with a rocket aerospace company, having conversations with people of means who struggled with so many things. They had education, money, good jobs, but couldn’t get on with their kids. I remember one rocket scientist – literally, a rocket scientist – asking me what she should do with her 13-year-old child.

“I also spoke to people who really didn’t have anything. In some cases they were really surviving, making it work. There are a lot of walking wounded.”

Foppe studied for a Masters in social work and more recently started to work for the Society of St Vincent de Paul, one of the world’s most respected charities. Foppe believes that Church organisations could perhaps benefit by learning from the world of business.

“You have what are called ‘silos’, redundant agencies,” he says. “Even in our diocese you have similar organisations competing for same funds, overlapping, and not even working together. Even in the business world that is a challenge.”

The American Church will face a difficult time over the next few years as its charity workers struggle with a huge increase in demand following the economic downtown. Foppe says that a “new face of poverty” is emerging.

“There are two types of poverty, intergenerational passed down, and then there is poverty of because circumstances,” he explains. “There are people now who never thought they would be in poverty: white, middle-class people.

“We’re struggling [to meet increased demand]. Funds are down. Government money is tighter in some areas – in other areas not, but it comes with regulations. Many social services do take government grants, but as a faith-based organisation we are wary because we also see the government threatening our religious liberty here.

“You have people in America who are hungry, though you don’t have people starving. The causes of poverty are different: breakdown of family, drugs, lack of jobs… Racism plays into it to a certain degree.”

Foppe married in 2003 and he and his wife now have a four-year-old girl, Faith Teresa.

“We had difficulties conceiving,” he says. “Six years ago I re-established contact with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s charity. One or two of them had read my book and asked me to do a retreat for them. In the course of doing that we were talking about the challenges of conceiving a child. They lit up and said how Mother Teresa had prayed with infertile couples and said: ‘You’re going to bring me a baby.’ And often they did.
“And then about three months later we conceived. We called her Faith because it took a lot of faith, and I named her after Mother.”

Foppe doesn’t wear prosthetic limbs because his arms are completely missing from the shoulder down. (“We’re not talking about re-packing a hand or half an arm,” he says. “I have nothing from the shoulders down.”) He drives an automatic car, types with his toes, and dresses in the morning by sitting on the floor and looking at the mirror.

Many might have given up, but Foppe has another, hidden source of strength.

“The other thing that has helped is our theology on suffering,” he says. “To me, knowing that we have a God, a model in the human Christ, who knew what it was like to be humiliated, to hurt physically, to struggle…

“One of the things I point out when giving testimonies is that the scene from Scripture which helps me deal with my disability is the Good Friday exchange between Pilate and Christ, when Christ essentially handicaps himself. This is the guy who walked on water and raised Lazarus from the dead. He did not have to do this, but it was total submission.

“How many times in Scripture does Christ talk about the healing of the blind, the lame walking? I choose to think of it at a metaphorical level: we all have thoughts that blind us in life. We all have possibilities, things that paralyse us in unproductive ways of being. We all have resentments and hardened feelings and old stories that deafen us from listening what people are trying to say. When you have breakthroughs in your life to see possibilities, to get unstuck, to forgive, those are the real miracles of life. And those are the toughest ones.

“I’m constantly battling with my physical environment, opening a door or buttoning my shirt. The problem is not the external struggle but the internal struggle. As I like to tell people, all things are within reach when you reach within. When you change, the world literally changes around you. When you go out to externally change the world, it doesn’t work. It’s about a spiritual conversion.”

What’s Your Excuse? Making the Most of What You Have by John Foppe is published by Nelson Books and available from Amazon