Passion 2023: Disabilities advocate Katherine Wolf poses challenge to Gen Z
Disabilities advocate and Christian author Katherine Wolf challenged thousands of young people gathered at Passion 2023 to see pain as a path toward growth and to find the “hidden treasure” in the darkest times of life.
Speaking Wednesday afternoon from the Passion Conference stage in Atlanta, Georgia, the 40-year-old speaker and author commended conference founders Louie and Shelly Giglio for “putting a wheelchair and the lady with disabilities on your stage."
“I have to say that it doesn't happen nearly enough in our world," she said.
“They say currently that 20 percent of our world is people living with disabilities,” she added. “And yet, only 2 percent are put on display in media context at conferences and churches. It's not as if there's appropriate representation for the community living with disabilities. And I say that the voices of folks with disabilities are voices that should be heard because we've got things to say and in the Christian community context; we've got so much to say about the hope of Jesus Christ.”
On April 21, 2008, Wolf, who was just 26 years old and a mother of 6-month-old James, unexpectedly experienced a brain bleed from a massive brain stem stroke that nearly killed her.
After hours of micro-brain surgery, the former beauty queen and model miraculously lived but was left unable to walk, talk or swallow. She was left with severe double vision, right ear deafness, and right-side facial paralysis.
And though she remains in a physical wheelchair, she pointed out that every human has multiple “invisible wheelchairs.” She challenged the audience to “embrace” their own invisible wheelchairs.
“I heard early on after the storm, ‘Katherine is wheelchair bound,’” she said. “You may have heard this expression, ‘wheelchair-bound.’ And it just never really settled right with me. And I realized that's because I'm not wheelchair-bound; I'm actually living in wheelchair freedom. And the reason for that is because this wheelchair enables me to go where I need to go … this is my vehicle, the means, to where I live out my story for God's glory. And the same is true for you and your inner wheelchair.”
“You don’t have to overcome your wheelchair,” she said. “No, embrace it, seeing the need for Jesus to meet you and carry you where you need to go.”
Today, Katherine and her husband, Jay, are behind Hope Heals, a nonprofit that serves to offer rest, resources and relationships to broken bodies, brains and hearts. They're also internationally-recognized communicators and advocates for those with disabilities.
In 2015, the Wolfs miraculously welcomed their second child, John Nestor Wolf, named after Katherine’s three-time-life-saving neurosurgeon, Dr. Nestor Gonzalez.
The couple shared their powerful story in the bestselling book, Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and an Overcoming Love, and in a second book, titledSuffer Strong: How to Survive Anything by Redefining Everything.
“Life is hard,” she said. “Life is going to be hard if it's not already really, really hard. But I believe we can live so well in the hard. … You have a stunning capacity to endure incredibly hard because of Jesus in your story. You are actually anti-fragile. You are not nearly as fragile as everything in this world is telling you you are.”
“With Jesus in your corner, you are so much stronger than you think; you can endure very, very hard things. You can stay in the hard, you don’t have to leave. You can do it. You can do this, because of Jesus,” she added, citing 1 John 4:4, which states, in part: “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”
She urged listeners to find emotional agility and “pivot” in life when needed. She said there is a “profound beauty” in growing in the knowledge of Christ and considering Him when suffering well, rejoicing no matter the situation.
“Some people spend their whole lives looking for the miracle in their story, but they miss the miracle right in front of them,” she said.
Wolf reminded attendees that they get to decide how they feel about their story: “Your life is a story and not a moment,” she said. “There are chapters and there are seasons in stories … we can’t control what happens to us … but we have control over how we respond to what happens to us. We get to decide how we move forward.”
Christians can find beauty in suffering, she said, because they know of the hope that is to come. She urged listeners to be “unafraid” of challenges in their lives, adding: “God made you to do hard things in the good story He is writing in your life.”
Wolf previously shared what her struggles have taught her in an interview with The Christian Post.
“I had to learn how to find God in the midst of it,” she said. “I learned that God’s goodness was not attached to my earthly circumstances, and God being good was not based on anything going on in the physical world. The cross put everything in perspective.”
Jay Wolf offered the reminder that God’s goodness never fails — and there is “hidden treasure in the darkness.”
“We’ve discovered this is true in our life,” he said. “If we have eyes to see it, we’ll find that God is making Himself known to us even in the places that look like the dark. There’s a sacred darkness that we don’t necessarily lean into as a Church. We often believe that darkness equals bad but, throughout Scripture, you see how new life often begins in the dark.”
Since the first Passion Conference in 1997, the ministry has encountered millions of students. Other speakers at this year’s three-day event included Louie Giglio, David Platt, Christine Caine and others. Ahead of Wolf’s message, Passion Music led attendees in worship.
The annual event, held Jan. 3-5 this year, is geared toward young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 and aims to “glorify God by uniting students in worship, prayer and justice for spiritual awakening in this generation.”
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org