The English seaside town of Blackpool may seem ordinary by day. But when its famous lights come on at night, its streets are transformed into a place of beauty.
Elder Jo Folkett may seem like an ordinary Englishman at first. But the light of the Spirit has transformed his life and is helping him lead others to the beauty of the gospel.
Elder Jolyon Soames Folkett is from the Glenfield Ward, Leicester Stake, England. The only paraplegic missionary in a wheelchair in the British Isles, Elder Folkett has overcome many obstacles to be where he is.
Early in his mission, Elder Folkett felt pride in his accomplishment of serving. “I used to think, ‘I’m pretty remarkable, coming on a mission like this,’” he said. “‘I had a good excuse not to come, but here I am.’”
Then, during an early-morning Book of Mormon study session, he read Mosiah 2:21–24. “It was about serving,” he says, smiling. “It says that even if we serve the Lord with all our souls, we’ll still be in his debt. It says that the Lord requires us to do all he commands, and not be proud—whatever our circumstance.
“That really humbled me. I thought, ‘I’m not so remarkable, am I? I’m only doing what’s required.’”
“Doing what’s required” has been Jo’s guideline for the last five years. Before that, his legs were the same as most people’s—active. Then came a blood clot in his spine. Only one in a million people ever suffer from this problem. Usually they are middle-aged, and they suffer brain damage—or death.
Jo survived, perfectly normal except for his legs.
Despite frequent hospitalization, he has become more and more cheerful. And as he has relied on priesthood blessings, he has developed a testimony that now makes him a powerful missionary.
Looking back, Jo has a clear picture of that critical moment in his life. “I was prepared, through promptings of the Spirit, for the information that my legs would always be paralysed,” he says. “So when the doctor solemnly said, ‘I have something to tell you,’ I thought it must be, ‘Sorry, there’s no hope. You’re going to die.’ When he said, ‘You’ll never walk again,’ it was a relief. I could accept that.”
That was the easy part. But adapting and learning to do everything differently has not been so easy. So Jo developed ways of dealing with setbacks. His favourite saying when things get tough is, “You can either laugh or cry. But if you laugh, people like you better.”
Jo did progress, becoming more and more independent and mobile.
His testimony also became independent. Although he had been brought up in the Church, Jo had gone through a less-active stage earlier in life. He drifted in with the wrong crowd and did some things he regretted. Gradually, through the influence of missionaries, and to keep his mum happy, he returned to the Church.
“It was while I was in the hospital that I decided to find out for sure whether the Church is true,” he says. “I had plenty of opportunity to fast and pray in there as my visits lengthened into months.” (His spine began curving, needing replacement with bones from his ribs.)
At the end of his first fast, the Aylesbury Ward bishop came to visit Jo and offered to take him for a ride. “We entered a beautiful woodland area,” Jo recalls. “As we drove slowly through it, I was reminded of Joseph Smith’s first vision. I had the strongest impression of God’s hand in all that beauty. The feeling also came clearly—this is the Savior’s church, and I should go on a mission.”
Jo’s testimony never wavered after that.
Later, as he participated in his home ward in a class discussion on missions, his yearning for service came sharply into focus. The teacher, not wanting him to feel left out or embarrassed by the emphasis on serving missions, made the comment, “Of course, Jo is excused. He won’t be able to go in a wheelchair.”
“That really motivated me,” exclaims Elder Folkett. “My immediate reaction was, ‘Oh, yes, I will!’” Soon after that, Jo received his patriarchal blessing, which confirmed his decision; it stated that he would serve and proselyte.
Before Jo left for the England Manchester Mission, it became evident just how much his new positive attitude toward life was affecting him. He took part in—and won—several national paraplegic sporting events. He also applied for a training job at his local council offices. They agreed to take him—even after he told them he wouldn’t be available to start for another two years. They accepted his explanation, promising to keep the vacancy especially for him during his mission.
For Jo, blessings such as these outweigh the hardships in his life. He has even found advantages to serving in a wheelchair. “I must be the only missionary to get through two years with one pair of shoes,” he jokes. “These are as good as new!”
There are a few disadvantages, however, such as the number of new tires needed for his special wheelchair. Jo saved up for a lightweight, thin-tired sports model wheelchair before he left on his mission. The smaller chair makes tracting easier and has allowed him to develop the art of wheelies, crowd navigation, and step bouncing to breathtaking degrees.
He has another saying: “You can do anything you want, if it’s possible. Dean Beale from Weston-super-Mare, England, says he appreciates such attitudes from his companion. “After working with Elder Folkett,” he says, “I’ve come to realize that many of the people who blame God for the afflictions of others are not the victims themselves. The victims are often the ones who have faith and humility.”
As Elder Folkett says, “Life is not supposed to be easy. It’s a tough testing ground. But if we behave ourselves and follow God’s plan, then we’ll get the blessings in the end.”
Often the blessings come long before the end, while you’re in the service of the Lord. Jo has seen that happen many times on his mission—such as the day he met Kevin Smith.
Kevin had become interested in the Church through the fine example of a young Latter-day Saint woman in his office, and he had requested a copy of the Book of Mormon from the Blackpool Ward. Jo and his companion volunteered to deliver the scripture to him.
“At that point I wasn’t sufficiently interested in the Church to have missionaries in my home,” says Kevin, who has been confined to a wheelchair for the past sixteen years. “I had a stereotyped image of Mormon elders—tall, fresh young American lads straight out of college, wearing stylish suits, with toothpaste-advertisement smiles. I probably wouldn’t have opened the door if they had looked like that. But here were two down-to-earth people, one just as surprised as I was at the sight of a wheelchair.”
“Kevin is such a great guy,” exclaims Elder Folkett, who was surprised to find his investigator in a wheelchair. “Even before we got to his house the first time, I felt that something good would happen.”
Elder Folkett and Kevin got along well from the moment they met, and Jo baptized Kevin not long after that first discussion.
The power of Jo’s example has eternal possibilities. Members who have been less-active have returned to church because of his example. He has shared the gospel with everyone who is willing to listen. And his mission president delights in his “good, cheerful spirit.”
Just as Blackpool’s lights brighten the shadows, so too does Elder Jo Folkett’s bright faith enrich the lives of those he meets.
There’s a sparkle to his testimony that knows no handicap, travels beyond boundaries, and turns barriers into blessings.