Parkinson's was Taking His Ministry and His Life . . . But then, God
For nearly a decade, Pastor Robbie Willis, 37, has been dealing with physical struggles that doctors were unable to properly diagnose. Fainting spells, tremors, and extreme weakness after exertion had left doctors perplexed. Being a Pentecostal minister, oftentimes by the end of a sermon at Mulberry (Arkansas) First Assembly of God, he could barely remain standing to pray with people.
But God would do something so miraculous in his life that Robbie’s skeptical neurosurgeon was left just shaking his head — unwilling to accept the miraculous, but unable to explain it any other way.
However, for a physical miracle to occur, suffering is almost always a prerequisite.
“People would often comment about what a loving couple we were,” says Anna May, Robbie’s wife of 18 years, “because after Robbie preached, I would often go up and put my arm around his waist and he would have an arm around my shoulder as he walked around to pray with people. What most people didn’t realize was I had him by his belt, helping to hold him up.”
The Willises, who have five children ages 7 to 13, including two children who they adopted, believed in their call to ministry while also praying for years for Robbie’s healing. But their prayers seemed to go unheeded as not even doctors could determine what was causing all the symptoms Robbie was experiencing.
Finally, in April 2016, a diagnosis. A highly qualified neurologist with Sparks Neurology in Fort Smith, Arkansas, diagnosed Robbie with Essential Tremors Disorder (ETD). Medication was prescribed and for a short time, it seemed the answer had been found.
Then the bottom fell out.
The new medications prescribed, if in fact Robbie had ETD, made initial positive changes, but then faded and may have even enhanced some negative issues. Something else was going on and now multiple symptoms started to point toward something more severe.
Robbie’s neurologist ordered a DaTSCAN — a relatively new test that is specific to Parkinson’s disease. The test came back positive. Robbie was informed he had Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease, more specifically, Autosaumal Recessive Parkinson’s Disease.
The diagnosis of Parkinson’s was not a “leap” for the doctor by this point. In addition to now having all the classic signs of Parkinson’s, such as chronic pain, facial masking (losing the ability to change facial expressions) on the right side of his face, cognitive issues, tremors, sleep deprivation, and a family history of Parkinson’s, the test revealed a clear loss of dopamine in the left side of Robbie’s brain.
Although many prayer meetings were held, including at the district level as well as multiple churches coming together to lift Robbie up in prayer, the disease progressed relatively rapidly and a tremendous battle between faith and “fact” was well underway.
“From the moment that I realized what disease I had, I’ve believed God would heal me,” Robbie says. “Nonetheless, that nagging fear would not go away.”
For Anna May, the struggle was between what she believed in and what she saw happening in front of her eyes.
“The cognitive issues were growing worse,” she says about Robbie. “There were days we knew God would heal him and days where I didn’t know — even on the days I knew, he was still sick . . . still slipping away from me . . . and it had gotten to the point where he couldn’t take care of me anymore; I had to take care of him.”
Added to Anna May’s concern for Robbie was another cloud. The family lived in the church’s parsonage and she was a stay-at-home mom who homeschooled their children. If Robbie should die, she and her children would be homeless, penniless. What was worse was the feeling of being alone — at times feeling as if God had abandoned her.
As months passed, periodically there were some signs of improvement in Robbie’s condition as he sought help from multiple sources, but then he would regress. The Parkinson’s was advancing, the tremors increased, he struggled to write, his balance was often questionable, his memory and even ability to speak at times failed, there were days where he repeatedly lost consciousness, and the cogwheeling in his shoulder (a sign of advancing Parkinson’s) was undeniable. The future looked, at best, grim.
Mary Davis, who turns 72 on Valentine’s Day, grew up at Grace Church (AG) in Burleson, Texas, having attended since she was 16. Her husband, Buster, and she own a cabin in Salus, Arkansas, and when they were there, they attend a soundly Pentecostal church, led by Pastor Robert Boen.
Pastor Robert and the Davises knew Robbie and Anna May well as she had grown up in the church and Robbie cut his preaching teeth at the church.
However the Davises didn’t become aware that Robbie had any serious physical problems until they heard in the spring of 2017 that he had been diagnosed with Parkison’s. A woman who believes in prayer, Mary joined with countless others praying for Robbie on a regular basis.
But then something very peculiar happened. A few days before leaving for their fall stay at the cabin in Salus, Mary had a dream, but not just any dream.
“I’m a big dreamer, but most don’t make much sense,” Mary says. “But this was extremely clear. I have never been in Robbie’s church, but I dreamed I was there, sitting on the left side about three-fourths the way back, and Brother Robbie came and stood behind the pulpit. I stood up and said, ‘Brother Robbie, I’ve come to pray for you . . .’ and then I woke up.”
Mary kept the dream to herself, pondering it. It seemed so real and so strong within her, she believed it was from the Lord. She and Buster headed for Arkansas with the dream still on her heart. Finally, about a week before they were to head back to Texas, she spoke to Pastor Robert.
“I remember she asked about Brother Robbie and how he was doing and I had to tell her he wasn’t doing so good — Parkinson’s was taking its toll,” Robert recalls. “Then she says, ‘Let me tell you what happened,’ and she told me about the dream.”
Robert agreed that Mary should pray for Robbie, but exactly the way God had shown her in the dream, which ended Mary’s thoughts of privately visiting Robbie and Anna May at their home and praying.
Robert connected with Robbie, sharing about Mary’s dream. They decided to allow Mary to follow through on the dream during the next Sunday’s evening service, which was to be a sing.
Sunday, Oct. 29, arrived. Pastor Robbie was having a very bad day. All kinds of symptoms were firing off, reminding him of how much control Parkinson’s now had over nearly every aspect of his life.
That evening, the congregation was larger than normal as family and friends from other churches, not all who were aware of what Mary was going to do, felt compelled to come.
“When Pastor Robert told me he thought I should do everything I saw in the dream, my heart began fluttering,” says Mary, admitting she has never been this public about praying for people. “But then I thought, Lord, You’re in charge, I’m not. This is Your dream, and I’m just an obedient servant.”
As the sing service began, the presence of the Lord filled the room. Although Mary originally was to be invited to speak toward the end of the service, the presence of God was so palpable that the service was redirected midway, and Mary was given the microphone.
When Mary asked Robbie to walk to the pulpit, Anna May and Steve Shipley, the assistant pastor, had to steady and help him get there.
Speaking the words God had given her from the pew, Mary then stood before Robbie, who now sat in a chair per Mary’s instruction, and began to earnestly pray.
“I literally spoke to the disease in him,” Mary says. “I said it was evil, not of God, had no place in his body, and that it was a foe and according to the written Word of God, no foe can stand in the presence of Jesus. I then commanded the disease to leave his body and never to return.”
As Mary continued to declare the Word of God over Robbie, hot tears began rolling down his face. “I became more and more aware of the reality that God was healing me,” he says.
Touching the side of his face, Mary concluded her prayer with, “In the name of Jesus, be whole,” and then she sank to the floor praising and thanking God because she knew that she knew the Holy Spirit had just done something miraculous.
As her prayer subsided Robbie got up from his chair — he could feel strength returning to his body!
“You could see Robbie begin to come alive,” Robert says. “Things getting better and better.”
Anna May quickly came up to Robbie, so used to offering her assistance, but he told her he was good. He began praying with others who had followed Mary up to the altar to join their prayers with hers.
But was he healed?
The next morning, he only had one remaining symptom, which disappeared by day three. He had immediately stopped taking one of his medications, which should have caused his Parkinson’s symptoms to go wildly out of control — nothing. With his doctor’s permission, he then weaned himself from his other medications. Still no symptoms!
“The moment I realized that God had really healed him was when we went to lunch the next day,” Anna May says. “We stopped and ate lunch and I took a picture of him randomly — ‘Say cheese.’ I looked at the picture and then showed it to him — ‘You’re smiling!’ I said. He began to cry. I showed the picture to my 13-year-old and he started to cry, ‘Dad’s smiling!’ he said.” And when asked, the Willises’ 11-year-old daughter, Joy, had no memory of a full smile ever being on Robbie’s face.
But even with his symptoms no longer demonstrating themselves, was he really healed?
After being off all his medications for nearly three months, Robbie visited his doctor for a thorough neurological exam on Jan. 23 — it came out normal. The doctor was completely baffled, asking what Robbie had done differently.
His answer? Prayer.
“Just prayer?” the doctor asked Robbie, mystified.
“Yes sir,” Robbie responded. “Just prayer.” And the obedience and faith of a 71-year-old Texas woman who was given a dream by God!
The doctor went on to explain multiple times how his original diagnosis could not have possibly been wrong — at times, seemingly trying to convince himself more than the Willises — it just wasn’t possible. Only, now it was?
As Robbie and Anna May left the doctor’s office, no longer diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, they made a short video to share the confirmed miracle in Robbie’s body — barely able to keep from shouting their joy — but just barely.
Mary wasn’t quite as controlled when she heard the confirmation of what she already knew God had accomplished. “I shouted out loud, ‘Praise the Lord,’” she says. “It is so awesome, so wonderful to be used of the Lord . . . , my deepest desire is for my conduct to be controlled by the Holy Spirit of God.”
But what many people don’t know is that Robbie wasn’t the only one healed that night, as at least two others experienced God’s touch. In addition to Anna May receiving healing from chronic pain, a young woman, Melody, was healed. She had a syndrome which caused her bones in her hands, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles to dislocate with little provocation (Ehlers-Danlos syndromes). But God touched her body. Now, instead of being limited to a wheelchair and forearm crutches, she recently took up bike riding!
“God used common, ordinary people to bring this all about,” Pastor Robert observes, then adds with a knowing smile, “and I told Sister Davis that if she has another dream, even while she’s in Texas, to tell me about it and I’ll come get her and take her wherever she needs to go!”