Fully Rely On God

This article was posted on: June 28, 2023

Mike and JoAnn overcome trials of Faith, family and marriage

Learning to trust God’s plan for their Faith, family, and marriage through the trials they endured, Michael (Mike) and JoAnn Vruwink have often had to Fully Rely On God (F.R.O.G.). Adopting F.R.O.G. as their family motto provided comfort and a way to call on God when they couldn’t concentrate on prayer.

“I’m Not Catholic Enough!”

Mike and JoAnn are members of The Newman Parish, the Catholic parish at the Ecumenical Religious Center on the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire campus. Since 2021, JoAnn has been the director of faith formation, supporting members of the parish and their families through religious education, small groups and hospitality. The retiring religious education director told JoAnn about the job and emphatically added, “I want you for that position; you’d be the best person for that.” JoAnn’s immediate response was surprise, “What? I’m not Catholic enough!” She truly believed herself unworthy of such a leadership role in the Church. Although born into an active, faithful Catholic home, many aspects of the Faith were a mystery to her. She dismissed the proposal but felt something pushing her.

As a special education support aide for 10 years, JoAnn had been working with younger children with increasingly challenging and exhausting physical behaviors. She knew she needed to make a change. When Mike encouraged her to apply for the religious education position, JoAnn realized God’s timing was perfect. She sent her resume to her pastor, Father Daniel (Dan) Oudenhoven and, after several conversations between them and her many prayers, Father Oudenhoven offered JoAnn the position. She gushes, “So—leap of Faith! I accepted the job and resigned from special education. It was the best thing I could have done for myself, our family and our marriage. It’s been wonderful. As a 21-year-old, I’d never have imagined doing this at 50! I’m in the right place. Looking back, I thought I was in control of my life. Now I know it’s been God leading me on this Faith journey. 

“God Doesn’t Call the Equipped…”   

Father Oudenhoven summed up the Faith life of Mike and JoAnn with a quote he learned as a seminarian, “God doesn’t call the equipped; he equips the called.” Upon hearing that quote, they laughed at the description’s accuracy. JoAnn exclaims, “That’s spot on!” Father Oudenhoven explained the reference. “JoAnn became part of the Newman staff and was willing to do whatever it took to be equipped for the role. I asked her to enroll in the Lay Formation Program with the Diocese of La Crosse. She eagerly enrolled and is learning more about the Catholic Faith through that program. This August, she will receive her blessing from the bishop to become a leader of prayer. She’s a blessing to the parish! Recently, the parish added monthly hospitality events, with pizza and donuts after the weekend Masses during the academic year. JoAnn goes above and beyond to ensure everything runs smoothly. Mike’s always there to help. They’re willing to serve with joy and dedication, focusing on the good of the parish.” Parish office manager Mary Richmond adds, “They bring energy to the students’ lives. JoAnn takes charge of countless activities, and Mike is always there—cheerfully volunteering to help JoAnn with her projects from start to finish! They stand out as a couple who are deeply committed to one another. Their strong relationship is inspiring. They’re good role models for other Catholic couples.” 

Faith Fortified Through RCIA

During college, Mike and JoAnn were part of an inseparable group of friends. Mike wanted to date, but JoAnn teased him dismissively, “You were in the friend zone.” She continued, “I was in control of my life. I had picked somebody out, deciding he’s the one. God said, ‘No!’ and I’m glad He did.” She called Mike, and their short courtship began. Having known each other for four years, they didn’t date long before Mike asked JoAnn to marry him. Mike was baptized and raised as an Evangelical Lutheran. JoAnn was a cradle Catholic whose parents were deeply involved with the Church, providing a solid role model for the young couple. Mike began attending Mass with JoAnn, where he found similarities between Catholicism and the Lutheran faith. Seeing past the differences, he enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) to enter full communion with the Catholic Church. He embraced the idea of leading JoAnn and their children to one church—the Catholic Church. JoAnn attended the RCIA classes with Mike, learning along with him. “It was amazing!” she blurts out, “I learned so much about my Faith during RCIA, I was blown away. Before then, I wasn’t focused on a relationship with God.” Mike agrees, “It was an excellent experience. I decided to join St. Patrick Parish in Eau Claire, where we were married on Sept. 21, 1991. I was confirmed there during the Easter Vigil in 1992.” JoAnn smiles proudly and recalls, “Our girls were baptized there, and Mike sang at our wedding!” RCIA strengthened their Catholic foundation and renewed their Faith. It set them on the path to understanding the completeness of Catholicism and led them to stronger relationships with God, the Church and each other. Mike says satisfactorily, “Involvement with our Faith is at the center of our marriage.”  

F.R.O.G.–Fully Rely on God!

God blessed the couple with three children. Olivia was born in 1995. Madeleine followed in 1997. And in December 1999, Luke was born. Two days later, needing open heart surgery, he was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minn. Sister Eileen, a hospital sister, baptized him before surgery, with hospital staff as witnesses. Luke was back in Rochester within a few months with extremely low hemoglobin. JoAnn passionately relates the story of F.R.O.G., “Here’s this little guy—this little baby in a big hospital crib, looking so alone. I went to the gift shop, found this cute frog, and put it in his crib. His nurse asked, ‘So you know about F.R.O.G.?’ I shook my head, and she continued, ‘F.R.O.G.Fully Rely On God.’ That just grabbed my heart! All the rest of Luke’s life—even now—that’s our family motto.” Their home became filled with frogs—a comfort, a reminder to pray and a symbol of who’s in charge. Frogs allowed them to call on God and ask for His help. JoAnn admits, “During times I couldn’t concentrate on prayer, all I could pray was, ‘F.R.O.G., F.R.O.G.,’ as I saw our child suffering—and feared him dying.”

At 14 months, Luke was diagnosed with Pearson Syndrome, a fatal disease that affects the energy in one’s cells, causing the organs to fail. Life expectancy is short. After that, Luke lived with constant life-threatening disabilities and medical issues. They realized their son would not live to be an old man. JoAnn laments, “We knew that, but knowing it, and having to accept the reality of it, are two different things. What hurt most was seeing our son’s pain when we held him down so the nurses could draw blood and administer IVs. For those who have to go through that, we have a strength we didn’t even know we had.” Mike donated a kidney in 2006 when Luke’s kidneys showed signs of failure. Luke was 6. With a weakened immune system, his lungs began failing. When he passed, he was taking 20 medications daily.

Mike speaks quietly, “We knew it was coming. We were blessed to have a pediatrician who prepared us—especially at the end.” The doctor told them Luke might not survive the virus season. They prepared the documents and other arrangements with broken but determined hearts, agreeing not to use any extraordinary measures because it’s not a curable disease, and Luke had suffered enough. JoAnn says proudly, “We were comforted on the day he passed. We were all there. The girls were there—and we let him go.” “We prayed a lot,” Mike says, adding, “I think we got strength and comfort knowing God would care for him when we no longer could. It was 13 years on February 20.” They sit for a moment in silence. 

JoAnn recalls, “Luke was a joy and a positive influence on the girls because he faced his challenges with positivity and the humor of a typical 10-year-old boy. He loved to laugh—loved life and bathroom humor.”

The challenges and joys we faced as a family created incredibly sensitive, compassionate and supportive dispositions in our girls. They protected their younger brother. Our girls were perfectly healthy, wonderful kids who also needed love, care and comfort. My concern was not being able to help them through their grief. The good Lord was with us the whole way, whether or not we recognized it.” Mike adds, “As parents, we can’t know the level at which we will meet such challenges, but it’s your kid. You just do.” After Luke’s passing, the couple spent more time camping, enjoying their girls and the outdoors, feeling blessed to be together. 

Understanding how to F.R.O.G. reminded us of our reliance on God through all things and gave us the strength to persevere.

Unexpected Trial 

Their family seemed to have weathered the storm, but Mike had something darker to reveal. He hopes, by speaking his truth, others will admit they have a problem. He confides, “I am a recovering alcoholic. I’ve been sober since April 2013.” Growing up in a drinking culture made Mike’s drinking acceptable. JoAnn explains, “Mike was the life of the party—happy and fun. After Luke passed, the drinking increased.” 

“I was trying to escape the reality of our loss,” admits Mike. “I had Faith, but I also had free will. I chose to satisfy myself in a way that wasn’t healthy for our family or marriage.” 

JoAnn offers, “Before he stopped, most disagreements revolved around drinking. How could he be a father and husband while recovering from the night before? Our daughters and I couldn’t make him stop. It had to come from his heart—in his time.”

The first year was challenging. Mike joined Alcoholics Anonymous and worked the Twelve Steps, which he now calls “a positive and necessary experience.” He craved a drink and socialization with friends, which gradually subsided. Now, while socializing, Mike sticks with pop. Confidently he declares, “I’m pleased I made that life change. Our marriage has grown stronger over the past 10 years.” Teasingly, JoAnn says, “We still have disagreements, but nothing so serious. Now we bicker over his inability to load the dishwasher correctly.” 

Source of Strength

“How did we do all that?” JoAnn asks rhetorically, then continues, “Understanding how to F.R.O.G. reminded us of our reliance on God through all things and gave us the strength to persevere.

“When Luke’s health challenges first started, there was less to deal with. Those incremental additions—you take them in stride. If I had to step back into that time, I’d collapse in a heartbeat. We still have moments of grief but live gratefully, thankful for every day Luke was with us. We were fully aware of God’s reassuring presence.”

With Olivia and Madeleine now grown and out of the house, Mike and JoAnn keep their marriage strong through humor and enjoying the same activities. They share a love for the outdoors but forge an even stronger bond while discussing their daily plans over a perfect cup of coffee Mike brewed for his bride as they play a single game of cribbage. Involvement with their Faith, family and friends provides them with a firm foundation. While admitting they’re flawed, they continue to seek a deeper relationship with God, the Church and their marriage. Father Oudenhoven’s quote, “God doesn’t call the equipped; he equips the called,” has been providential throughout their lives. They’ve shared tears—but even more laughter. Initially unprepared for their challenges, by learning to F.R.O.G., God equipped them with everything they needed to succeed!

Story by Collene A. Spaeth
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Published in the July/August 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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