Wearing a hoodie, jeans and some converse, Josiah Stern, looks like your average seventeen year old. Except that he’s not. Behind that slightly scruffy face and sweet smile, Josiah wears a badge of honor. A badge not desired by any, but nonetheless earned. Josiah earned it along the rough road walked alongside his family and those impacted by the devastating disease known as ALS.
At the age of 11, Josiah’s life was turned upside down with the heartbreaking news that the peculiar symptoms his dad, Steve, had been experiencing were the beginning signs of ALS. ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease with no known cure, causes muscles to deteriorate, eventually taking the life of the person. With so little known about the disease thoughts of the future filled his little mind and heart with a sense of “impending doom,” as the Sterns sought to find sure footing for what might lie ahead. Though the next steps in this unknown territory were filled with sadness and fear, Josiah and his family decided to embrace family, friends, and life with intentionality and faith. “Through it all, we made the people around us a really big priority and they carried us through this,” he says. Josiah was surrounded with a steady tribe of people committed to checking in, sticking close and helping to traverse the land of ALS.
With a desire to savor the time that they had left with their dad, the Sterns stopped most things in exchange for weekly family dinners, bike rides, hikes, movie nights, and dream trips chosen by each kid to experience with Steve. Josiah chose to travel with his dad to an Indianapolis Colts game where they created lasting memories that now bring an easy smile to his face.
As the effects of ALS took shape in Steve’s physical body, the disease began to take a brutal toll. Neck braces, feeding tubes, and wheelchairs became staples in the Stern home along with a deep sense of priorities. There were scary, exhausting, ups and downs from day to day. Josiah says that, “Relationship with my Dad was made a priority. He demonstrated regardless of the toll it was taking on his physical body, how important we, his kids were, along with the people around us. We connected over storytelling, listening and spending time with people in our tribe.” Steve always found ways to maintain a strong connection even though his body was growing weaker. As Josiah watched the strength and energy of his Dad wain over the years of this battle, he found himself at a life-changing crossroads. Somewhere in the midst of this disease, he realized that deep down he would have to choose whether to trust God fully or to abandon his faith. He knew that he couldn’t stay in between.
At a church Wintercamp in 2013, Josiah recognized that in his own strength and understanding, he was helpless. In this raw, broken, and vulnerable place he reached out. Josiah chose to trust. “I had gotten to a point where I knew I couldn’t handle the situation where it was without significant help from God,” he says. “Right here, right now I need to ask in faith for help. The story of that moment is that I asked for help and I got it. From then on, I found that I have the best support system I could ever have in God. I can go to Him in hard situations, maintaining that contact and it is life-fulfilling more than anything else.”
God remained steady and sure in the land of ALS. The disease progressed in Steve Stern’s body and on July 18th, 2015, surrounded by family in his home, Steve flew home to Heaven. But the story doesn’t end there. The God in the valley of shadow of death is the same God at work on the other side. Now as a senior in high school, Josiah carries a maturity and wisdom that was forged in the fire. When faced with the devastating diagnosis of his dad, Josiah chose faith again and again. In that place he gained access to deep hope, peace, and strength. Even more though, it gave him eyes to see.
“My faith in God has brought me to be fearless in a lot of situations that I would have avoided. It has made me into someone that feels a lot more comfortable than I ever would have in a situation where I don’t know the person. When I hear God’s saying to go encourage them, and that they’re having a rough day, I don’t hesitate.” Josiah has learned to completely embrace those moments where God gives Him the ability to truly see people with eyes of compassion and a heart of empathy. Because of what Josiah has gone through, he is willing to engage and be present with people in a unique way. Fuelled by God’s work in his life and the inspiring words spoken by his dad in his final message at Westside Church, Josiah recognizes that God has called him to be, “numbered.” “Now I am numbered with people who have been affected by ALS. That has heavily impacted my life because I can reach people in deeper ways than I could have before.” Josiah and his family have fully accepted the challenge to be, “numbered,” and have used that voice to speak faith and hope into a community in such desperate need of it.
Josiah knows that this situation more than any other has forced him to acknowledge the existence of a loving God. “I had to look for a father and I ended up finding one, one that loves me unconditionally. There have been other father figures in my life and people around to help, but not nearly as much as God could and has.” Josiah’s story could be one of loss alone and yet, God has redeemed so much. Choosing to trust God on dark days isn’t easy. Yet Josiah and the Stern’s example is crystal clear. Leaning into God and the community around him has allowed him to come out on the other side strong and steady. When asked to summarize his story in one sentence, Josiah paused and confidently said, “My story is about choosing faith and how that decision saved my life.”
Written by: Jenna Anderson || Photos by: Erica Stubblefield