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Bob Lind, Published February 22 2009

Ministry thrives despite loss of arm to cancer

George Gardner had been through an ordeal before.

In 2002, he’d developed a malignant, fast-growing sarcoma cancer in his right shoulder and armpit area.

Surgeons promptly removed a huge tumor. He not only survived, but he kept his arm.

“Doctors were amazed at what I could do with it,” he later says.

Now it was the day before Thanksgiving 2004, and George was at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., for a routine checkup.

“Then the surgeon walked in, with a whole string of interns behind him,” he says, told him the cancer was back and that his best chance of surviving was to amputate the entire shoulder and arm.

It was Wednesday. “I have an opening Friday and can do it then,” the surgeon said. “Or it can be Tuesday, if you need more time.”

George called his wife Sharon, back in Moorhead. Then he told the surgeon, “Let’s do it Friday.”

Kansas to Dallas

George and Sharon are from Kansas. They met at Kansas State University, where George majored in agricultural engineering.

They were married in 1975, farmed with George’s parents for five years, and thought they’d live on a farm “forever,” George says. “But farming was tough then; interest rates were terrible.” So he joined Halliburton Services as an engineer, working in Kansas for 15 years.

But for some time, he’d thought of going into vocational ministry. Finally, in 1995, when he was 43 and when he and Sharon had four children, he enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary.

On to Moorhead

In his third year at Dallas, someone from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship asked him to consider applying for a job at Bear Trap Ranch in Colorado, a college students’ retreat center.

George applied, got the job as co-manager, and with Dallas too far away to commute, transferred to Denver Seminary, from which he graduated in 2000.

He stayed on at Bear Trap, where, he says, “God focused my ministry on college students.”

While he was there, he had that bout with cancer.

Then he was asked to consider a job as area director for InterVarsity.

“I prayed about it,” he says. “Chemo was done, it looked good. So I did it.”

He and his family moved to Moorhead in 2003, where he became director for IV’s college chapters in the area.

That was going well. And then came that tough diagnosis at Mayo.

Back to work

George’s right arm and shoulder were amputated that Friday. “Then I came back and went back to work,” he says matter-of-factly.

“It’s gone pretty well,” he says. “I healed up really fast. No sign of cancer since then.”

How does this normally right-handed guy do writing left-handed?

“How does writing left-handed go for you?” he asks right-handed Neighbors.

Pretty bad, Neighbors says.

“You’ve got it,” George says, and laughs.

Spiritual hunger

There isn’t much George can’t do; it just takes longer. “But I made my wife nervous when I fired up the chain saw,” he says.

On campus, his missing an arm becomes a conversation starter. “I just joke about it; it breaks the ice,” he says.

“Students can’t imagine anything as devastating as losing a limb. But they see that if God can help me handle this, he is big enough to help them with their problems, too.”

And they do have problems, and as a result, he says, “There is a lot of spiritual hunger on campus.

“What we’re doing,” he says, “is help them gain a personal relationship with Jesus; help them grow in their faith, with their spiritual journey, with becoming leaders.”

Outdoors worship

George and Sharon’s children are Emily, Austin, Texas; Christa Linsenmeyer, Manhattan, Kan.; Ray, Denver; and Philip, Rapid City, S.D. They love getting together with their kids, whenever they can.

But it’s a challenge, because George is busy, traveling to the campuses, working with staff members and attending conferences, such as one held recently at Brainerd, Minn.

George once was speaking at an IV chapter meeting at Macalester College, St. Paul, at which everything went wrong: Equipment didn’t work, the fire alarm went off.

The students threw in the towel on that room, but not on meeting. They went outside the building and kept on singing worship songs. “Some students are uneasy about showing their faith on campus,” George says, “but not these kids; they sang worship songs, guitars and all, out there, and even other students joined them.

“Anything,” he says, “can happen on campus.”

And that includes leadership from a guy who doesn’t let what many would consider a huge handicap keep him from his ministry.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com