(Mesquite Independent School District/Clifton Cotton)
Austin Ziegler is a preacher. Like other preachers, he puts on a suit, stands before crowds of people and proclaims God's love. He is also blind, is physically disabled, has delayed speech and is only 15-years-old. But nevertheless, he is an inspiration to those who have heard his messages.
Jan Ziegler, Austin's mother, said that it was almost a full year after he was born that she realized something was wrong. He was later diagnosed with optic nerve atrophy – the cause of his blindness – and cerebral ataxia, which affects his coordination and his ability to move normally.
"It's been a challenge. I mean, for a long time he couldn't even speak at all. He didn't say words at all...He couldn't walk when he was younger. He would just have to use the aid of a walker to hold onto to get around,” Jan told The Christian Post on Monday.
But as time wore on, Austin began to deal with his conditions. He began to walk without any aid and could speak more clearly. Then, two years ago, Austin began preaching.
Jan, who has raised Austin by herself since he was just six years old, purchased a karaoke machine with a microphone so that he could sing worship songs and preach to the congregation – which usually consisted of only herself and sometimes a friend.
"It don't matter if he has anybody here. We have three dogs, and he'll call one of them in there. He likes just having someone. And I keep telling Austin, 'It don't matter if anyone's in here or not, you just go right ahead because Jesus hears you and he's looking down on you and smiling regardless,’" said Jan.
But soon Austin wasn't satisfied with just a karaoke machine, so one of his neighbors built a plywood stage in one of the unused bedrooms of the Zeigler's house. The 12-by-12-foot room quickly transformed into a place fit for a church, complete with rows of chairs and even instruments – a guitar and keyboard – although Austin can't actually play them.
At times the small room has been packed with as many as 15 people, some of them teachers from Austin's school.
Kristie Smith, a teacher for the visually impaired for the Mesquite Independent School District, says Austin, who is a freshman at North Mesquite High School, seems to address the specific problems of each person in the room when he preaches.
"Other people started coming to his church, his teachers this year, and he is preaching and hitting every one of us with something that's going on in our lives. He is amazing,” Smith told CP.
Smith has helped Austin learn to read braille and also helps him to learn daily living skills, including how to handle money. She first heard him preach in May of 2011, when she was going through a divorce, and his message inspired her.
"In my opinion, it's like God is showing us that our children with disabilities have special gifts, that everybody has a special gift,” she told CP. “Our kids are, a lot of times, written off. But when Austin speaks with passion you feel...the Spirit of God talking through him to all of us."
Some of Austin's favorite topics to preach on are faith, the love of God and the importance of speaking and thinking positively. Last Wednesday, he preached at Tripp Baptist Church in Sunnyvale, Texas, at the invitation of the church's pastor, Billy Kelly.
Kelly told CP that the crowd of between 30-35 people that attended Wednesday night were encouraged by Austin, who is “totally dependent on the Lord” and isn't afraid to share what's on his heart in front of a crowd.
"It really encourages people that you can, if you just have faith in God, you can get up and you can talk. You can speak about the good things of God. It's really encouraged all of our people. I didn't have no complaints at all,” Kelly said.
Austin's school bus driver had previously introduced him to Kelly, who allowed the teenager to preach for several minutes during an open mic-style worship service. Kelly later asked Austin to share a longer message during last Wednesday's service, and he says that he will invite Austin back again.
"Austin is real...He's just like a child. He steps out in faith and it's good for people to see Austin... because he just makes you feel like you could do more. If he can do that, we can do more,” said Kelly.
Jan says her son has inspired her as well. She has been married and divorced twice, and about three years ago she went through a bout of depression and weight gain that was difficult to overcome. But after seeing how her son had overcome so many obstacles in life, she realized that she, too, could do the same.
"He's always been so uplifting. He never wants to...give up. He has so many accidents where he falls, he runs into things, and he just always gets right back up and keeps on going. He's an awesome kid,” she said.
When Austin was young, Jan was often the only person who could understand what he said, but now everyone hears his message louder and clearer than ever before. She says preaching is therapeutic for him, and she's confident that God has a plan for his life.
"He's come such a long way since he's been doing this, and I'm just excited to see where God takes him from here."