Craig Johnson, 42

"I went to go get a vasectomy on a Thursday. And then Sam called crying on the phone on Saturday and said she was pregnant. And our whole world just changed in that moment."

Published March 9, 2009 11:24AM (EDT)

Sam and I met when I was 18 and she was 14. My mom used to baby-sit her stepdad. My dad went to speak at Sam's church in Visalia, which is in central California. We lived in the Los Angeles area. And I came down, I sang at her church, and then the pastor, who was my dad's best friend, introduced Sam and I. At the time I thought she was too young, but she was really a sweet person. Her dad was a pilot and his airplane crashed off of Catalina Island when Sam was 10. He died, and she basically had to [help] raise her brothers and sisters.

We kinda hung out. I think all the youth groups went out to pizza, and then every once in a while, we'd talk 'cause our families knew each other. And then time just passed. I was going to college, and about four years later, I got a graduation announcement in the mail from her. I guess she hadn't forgotten. And I thought, "Wow. She's grown up." [laughs]

She had blond curls. Kind of sandy blond, green eyes, perfect teeth, which I love, and a smile that blows you away. For me, she was beautiful inside and out. Really, really kind heart. There was just a gentleness to her. When I saw her picture -- something just clicked. I felt a connection. And I was like, "Man, I'd love to just see how she's doing."

We went out on a date. We went to Mann's Chinese and saw a movie and we went to Maselli's, one of the oldest Italian restaurants in Hollywood. It was an awesome night. I remember putting our hands in the middle of the stars' handprints in the cement outside the theater, and she picked up her hand from one of them and our hands just kind of came together.

We kinda knew that night, like, this was planned out, this was supposed to happen. Like, divine intervention. I believe that. I believe God wanted us to be together. I was dating somebody else, but I knew after our first date that it was over with the other person.

So. Then things just kind of accelerated 'cause our families knew each other, and we had some history. We got married 10 months later.

There were some tough things at the beginning. Her mom gave me a couple of challenges. One was that I needed to go find a good job. If I was gonna be in the ministry, I needed to have a good job, which I didn't have yet. So I went out and got a youth pastor job. And when it came down close to the wedding, she didn't want to let go of Sam. Sam was 18, so I kind of get it. But she basically talked Sam out of getting married, and sent announcements out to everybody to call the wedding off. This was about a month before the wedding. And I'm just like, "You gotta be kidding." So me and her mom had a couple good conversations. [Laughs]

Sam called me like nothing had even happened, "Hi, Craig, how are you?" And I'm like, "Well, I'm just a little devastated." She started crying, and I told her, "Sam, you know, if I'm the right one and if you love me and you wanna get married, you know what to do." She wanted me to come up and get her in Visalia, and I said, "No. If you want to get married, you need to get your stuff together and come down. If this is what we're supposed to do, let's do it. But I'm not gonna come get you and make you get married." I didn't know what was gonna happen. But about seven hours later a car drove up.

We went ahead with the wedding at my dad's church. Her mom didn't come, a lot of her family didn't come. And that was devastating for all of us. But after a couple of years, we patched it up. But interesting enough -- it made it so much deeper as far as our love for each other. Even though I had great support from my family, it was her and I for a couple years. I think couples go into marriage with a false sense of what it's really like, and they don't realize that it's a commitment. You have to stand by somebody. I think it made us say, "You know what? No matter what we face in life, we're going to do it together and we're going to stick together."

We've been married 19 years. I mean, we were really blessed. We had Corey and Courtney -- Corey's 17 and Courtney's 14. Corey and Courtney are just awesome and great grades, great hearts. Just awesome.

It's kind of a funny story. When Corey was 12 or 13, we thought that was gonna be it. We felt like, "Hey, this is all you can want right here as far as kids were concerned." They were getting older, and we were looking forward to doing more things as a couple, having date nights. We were doing OK financially by that time, but in the ministry it's not like you're making a ton of money, so we were excited that we were gonna be able buy some things, go traveling more together and different things like that.

I went to go get a vasectomy on a Thursday. And then Sam called crying on the phone on Saturday and said she was pregnant. And our whole world just changed in that moment. Everything that we thought life was gonna be about completely shifted.

In the beginning, Connor responded just like any other baby. I could talk to him and he would respond. He had eye contact. He had everything. He was as normal as any of our other kids. And we're not blaming this, but obviously, you know, there's a big debate about it; shortly after he got his vaccination shot, about two months later, he got an ear infection, and it just started changing where he wouldn't look at you. He hardly made any eye contact. When you said something to him he wouldn't respond. He would begin to go sit by himself. Kind of became distant in ways. He started rocking. And what was really hard for us was: How does a baby go for a year and half from being totally responsive and then all of a sudden it just shifts?

You know how a lot of kids can walk up to you and say hello. Tell you what they want, tell you what they need. It took my son 'til he was at least 3 and a half to give you an idea of what he wanted or needed. When he got hurt, we weren't sure because he would give no reaction. He would have to really bang his head hard if he fell or something like that. [Editor's Note: No scientific study has ever shown a conclusive link between vaccinations and autism.]

From the beginning, Sam was right there, maternal. That just seemed like that's how moms are built. She was just gonna hold him. The mother usually, automatically connects, and her life becomes that child. And Sam was the same way, connecting with parents through the Internet, and trying everything from diets to you name it.

But dads connect emotionally. So I would say, "I love you Connor," and he would just look at me, or he would look away. I come from a family that hugs a lot and very expressive in how we feel. It was probably the most devastating thing that's ever happened to me. And dads, what they want is what guys try to do in general -- they want to give the answer, solve the problem and stuff like that. And when they can't necessarily solve the problem, and the mom is so engrossed in finding that cure, they pull back. A separation begins to happen and arguments begin to take place. And unfortunately, it's affecting families in such a huge way.

I'd been a youth pastor in L.A. for many years, and planted a church in Seattle, and became executive pastor at a church in L.A., and then I worked with a guy named Tony creating youth curriculum videos and music. He's produced some huge million-sellers on the Christian market. And about four years ago, I got the call from Lakewood Church here in Houston -- it's the largest church in America. Joel Osteen is the pastor. He's the most watched pastor in the world -- about 9 million people watch him every week. So they were building this huge children's building and they needed a pastor to come in and help design that and build that and so we came here.

And it was valuable for me to be here at the church, to be around somebody like Joel that really lifts people up and brought hope. Joel has key phrases he uses, he'd say things like, "You're a victor, not a victim." And what he's saying is, "You know what, you've gotta believe that you can overcome this. Don't be a victim. Don't look at issues that way. Keep moving forward."

And that was right around the time we got the diagnosis. I remember the day that it happened. Connor had been tested and everything. I remember I was driving home from work and my wife called me and said, "I just got back the diagnosis and they said Connor has autism. He's in the middle of the spectrum." You never know until you get the diagnosis. It's like until you hear the diagnosis you're still not sure. And there's this kind of finality with that when you hear it. And I started getting all these thoughts like, "Your kid is not going to be like the other kids. He's going to always have problems. He's not going to be accepted."

And I remember just going, "No! I'm not gonna entertain these thoughts." I remember hitting the gas, driving home, going in the driveway, and I ran up the stairs and I pick up my son upstairs in his home and I just held him. I looked down and I said, "Connor, you're a victor, not a victim." I said, "You can do all things through Christ's strength." I just started speaking words of hope into his life. I wasn't going to let my circumstances destroy the tremendous love that God gave me.

After we got the diagnosis, I was determined never to walk backwards and experience death in this relationship. I was determined to always bring hope, always move forward. So, what we did, if we had an argument or frustration, stuff like that, we never let it go on. And that might have started from the very beginning, when we first got married. We never let the sun go down without saying, "I'm sorry." The Bible talks about that. Even though we might get into an argument or get frustrated, or I'd feel a disconnect, I would always turn back around and say, "You know what, we're going to work through this." Because if I kept on pulling backward, then I knew there was gonna be death -- not physical death but death in the relationship.

What people do when they get in hard situations -- they get fearful. And that's death, because that stops whatever is trying to connect or come forward. Pulling back makes me feel desperate. Like there's no hope -- until you engage again and walk in that situation again and work through it. And it's the reason why marriages fail -- because one person gave up or stopped feeling hope. Only takes one, you know, in that situation. And this is the quintessential thing -- it really comes down to how you're gonna respond. Are you gonna let fear and insecurity and anger and all those things pull you back, or are you going to choose to move forward?

Obviously I have a great faith in God. Because it always seems like God gives you enough so you can keep going. There's one thing that he gave me from the very beginning. A lot of autistic kids don't respond. To anything. Now I could ask Connor, you know, questions, I could ask him for a hug, and he wouldn't do it. But then I learned that if I asked him, "Connor, give daddy a kiss," he would turn and give me a kiss. No matter what, Connor would turn to me and give me a kiss. And it's almost like I felt like that -- God -- knew what I needed, you know. [Cries.] It's still hard for me, right now.

It's kind of turned around for me and Sam, where what was originally pretty devastating has also been the greatest gift, because man, our love is so much deeper than I ever could imagine. I thought I loved pretty well [laughs]. But with Connor -- you celebrate every little moment. Every little time he kisses me or every little time I get a hug, you know -- we do this kiss with Connor. It's called the Connor sandwich and Sam kisses him on one side of the cheek and I kiss him on the other side. And when we do the Connor sandwich, man, that's just showing him we're right there -- we're gonna get through this together, and you're gonna live a good life. It's incredible.

And since then, when I got the diagnosis, there are times, obviously, just like anybody else where I go, "Man, this is really hard." But it's less than before. Where I might dwell on it longer before I, don't dwell on it as hard. I go, "No. You know what? We're gonna work through this."

All my kids have different challenges in their lives. Corey's going to have a different challenge, Courtney is going to have a different challenge. And Connor will have a different -- that's just life. That's just kids. And if I had a choice with Connor having autism or being strung out on drugs, let's say -- I mean -- is that any harder? Would I want that to happen to one of my children? Absolutely not. So I don't have to face those obstacles that other parents have to face, and they don't have to face some of the obstacles that I have to face. I just need to thank God for the blessing I have with him.

It seems like God's always testing you, just refining you. And that's been the greatest thing for me and Sam, is that we're such better parents today. We love so much deeper than we ever did. We celebrate every little thing because God's proven faithful and we realize how blessed we are right now. Connor's made me a better person, and I think God allows you to go through those things so you'll love deeper. And care stronger. And learn to hope for more.

After we got Connor into a specialized school and saw what they were doing, we looked at different churches, to see what they were doing, and they're basically just baby-sitting these kids, letting them watch a video, different things like that. And I said, "Man. Why couldn't we do that in the church?" So Sam started a support group centered on special needs and autism. And she's reaching out with Texas Children's Hospital, and we're reaching out to families all over. And we've also launched a prayer chain where any time any child comes in or any time there's a need we'll let one person know, let another person know, let another person know and before you know, you could have 100 people praying for that child.

It started out with us wanting to help out our son. And then you realize how desperate the other parents are that you come in contact with. You come together and you see: This isn't just about our family. And you realize, "Man, I'm here for a bigger purpose. Connor's here for a bigger purpose. It's not just for us, it's to impact others." And now it's gonna impact hundreds if not thousands of lives.

I mean, we're still going through it. But now that we know that every little thing we celebrate is another victory for us, it helps build our faith. For instance, in the support group that Sam launched, a young boy, 14 years old, tried to commit suicide because he just couldn't understand why he was so different than the other kids with his autism. And here Sam is reaching out to this mom trying to comfort her and build her back up and just speak words of life into her.

I have the greatest wife in the world. I mean, I just don't know of anybody who loves me any more, that loves my children any more, that is so giving and caring, and, you know, not a lot of guys can say that for 19 years of marriage [laughs]. I love her more every day and sometimes I don't even realize how much I love her until we go through some of these struggles. It just -- it's so deep.

By Edited by John Bowe

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