Chet McDoniel wows Chattanoogans for Life with faith story

“I believe that each and every life is not perfect. Every person has something they wish was different. But every life is worth it. Every life is worth fighting for. Every life is worth living.” — Chet McDoniel

Chet McDoniel and Dr. Jim McDoniel are shown at the Chattanoogans for Life banquet on Oct. 16. Photo by Paul Schulz

Chet McDoniel and Dr. Jim McDoniel are shown at the Chattanoogans for Life banquet on Oct. 16.
Photo by Paul Schulz

By Paul Schulz

On Jan. 5, 1980, Chet McDoniel emerged from his mother Judy’s womb breech, with shortened legs and no arms.

“My parents tell me that immediately after my birth, I was placed in a corner of the room after having the customary post-birth suction, etc, done,” Mr. McDoniel said. “I was left alone in that corner and, for lack of a better way to put it, I was given a chance to die. A doctor made the decision that my life may not be worth living. That doctor decided that if my body was as mangled on the inside as it was on the outside, I would be better off dead.

“Having lived a wonderful life, including getting married, getting pregnant and seeing the birth of two baby girls, running two businesses, and most importantly, serving my God, I wonder what that same doctor would think now. We cannot use our own judgment in matters where only God should reign.”

With that heart-wrenching story as background, Mr. McDoniel and his father, Dr. Jim McDoniel, shared their 34-year life journey together during a moving appearance at the 11th annual Chattanoogans for Life banquet Oct. 16.

The banquet, attended by more than 140 people, was held at Pier 2 at the Southern Belle Riverboat on Chattanooga’s riverfront. Members of the Diocese of Knoxville Chattanooga Deanery Youth and Young Adult group, directed by Donna Jones, organized and hosted the event. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish business manager Ralph Christiana served as emcee.

“It was very difficult,” said Dr. McDoniel, a life-long Church of Christ minister. “What do we do with a baby without arms? How do you teach him? What can he learn? What can he be? Who will take care of him when we are gone? There were plenty of nights when we just stood over his bed and cried. Eventually, we decided that wasn’t going to help anyone. We decided we would rear him just like our first two children, teach him that his life was his, he could do whatever he wanted and go wherever he wanted to go.”

No one has mastered those lessons better than Mr. McDoniel.

“I live what I term to be a very happy life,” he said. “I have a wife (Joni) and two kiddos (Hannah, 6, and Olivia, 2) at home. I own my own business (Off to Neverland Travel, Disney specialists). I’m on staff as a worship minister. I go around the country speaking. I live the life I choose to live. I live it for God and in defense of everyone else’s life because if my life is worth it, then every life is worth it.”

Indeed, the McDoniel men related stories that drew laughter — a tattletale that clocked Chet going 25 miles per hour in his wheelchair on the way to school — and provoked deep thought.

“One time, when Judy was crying and just couldn’t get control, I said he may not have everything he needs for this life, but he has everything he needs for heaven,” Dr. McDoniel said. “She quit crying, so I returned to that several times. I said it so much that he said ‘I want that to be the title of your book,’ when I wrote All He Needs for Heaven.”

Soon thereafter, Mr. McDoniel penned his own book, I’m Not Broken, to share his philosophy about choosing to lead a happy and productive life. He shared some of those thoughts with the banquet guests.

“To truly live, we need to stop the blame game,” said Mr. McDoniel, who stands and walks short distances though his leg bones are not attached to his hips. “If tomorrow I got a phone call and they said we know why you were born this way, it would mean nothing. It wouldn’t change the way I live. I don’t focus on that because I would miss out on how to truly live.”

Case in point: the college math study group Mr. McDoniel formed to prove wrong the professor, who predicted half the class would fail. No student received lower than a C.

“I could have kept my mouth shut and coasted, but I choose to focus on how I can fix things. We need to do that in life,” said Mr. McDoniel, a magna cum laude graduate of the University of North Texas.

Turning to the pro-life cause, Mr. McDoniel drew a parallel.

“So often, we look at situations of a life that’s about to come into the world, and it’s turned abnormal, something’s wrong. We like to ask, ‘What caused this? Who’s to blame?’ when we should be saying ‘How can we love on these brand new parents about to have a child that’s going to throw them for a loop?’

“And how can we love that baby just like we love the other children,” Dr. McDoniel added.

Make no mistake; Mr. McDoniel freely admits the struggle of reconciling the fact he had physical abnormalities. He admits he never wanted his father to write his book and he never wanted to speak to crowds because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.

“My story was worth telling, but I didn’t want the attention,” he said. “I fought my whole life to not be the guy in the room without arms.”

So to support the books, the McDoniels hit the speaking trail – with the Lord, beginning with Dr. McDoniel’s church.

“The first people who approached us afterward were a mission couple that had been run off the mission field in Africa because a witch doctor had tried to kill their baby that was born with a deformity. It was their first day back in the states and God had used my lack of arms and a few words we said that night to heal them.”

Five years later the father-son team is going strong. The pair has crisscrossed the country speaking to churches, schools, corporations and national conferences. They even spoke to the employees of a Social Security Administration office that had lost six family members in a six-week period.

“You told me I couldn’t say Jesus or God,” said Mr. McDoniel, remembering saying that to the person in charge. “I can’t do this without Scripture.”

“Say whatever you want. This office needs to be healed,” the person in charge replied.

“I finally realized that if I get out of the way, God can heal people, God can restore people, not because of my words, not because my words are great, but because He’s so great,” Mr. McDoniel said.

Finally, he offered one more piece of advice.

“We need to learn how to see people instead of labels,” he said. “The pro-choice community would love us to call babies fetuses or clumps of cells. … They should be called a baby from moment No. 1.
If we constantly reinforce that, I think the other side would have a lot harder time with its case.”

So why does he do what he does?

“The fact of the matter is, in today’s day and age, with a different set of parents, I would not have made it, and neither would they have,” Mr. McDoniel said, motioning to a picture of his family that is about to grow to five with the joyous anticipation of a third child in May. “I could sit back in life and society would say that is OK because something’s not right, I didn’t come with everything I need,” he said frankly. “But I did come with everything I need. … I was put on Earth to worship God. If I needed arms to do that, He would have given them to me in the first place.”

Chet McDoniel is anything but broken.

Proceeds from the Chattanoogans for Life banquet support Chattanooga’s youth trip to Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life.

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