By Glenda Cadogan
For two years, Fountain Baptist Church Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. J. Michael Sanders lived in resistance to his doctor’s recommendation: a heart transplant. He approached the dim prognosis about his deteriorating health by preparing to die. “In 2014, I had heart bypass surgery; I had a pacemaker and at some point also had a stent inserted,” he explained. His heart condition had afflicted his family for generations. “The doctors had run out of options for care and recommended that I go on a waiting list for a donor heart. But, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea. So, in my mind, I accepted the fact that my days were numbered and I made peace with that.”
With this mindset, Sanders put his succession plan for the church he has led for 35 years firmly in place. He wanted everything in alignment when he could no longer serve well or even worse, his demise. He did the same in his personal affairs. “But one day, for no particular reason that I can recall, my mind drifted to the story of Hezekiah when the prophet Isaiah gave him the message to ‘prepare to die,’” he said. The scripture says that the king turned his head to the wall and prayed. The prophet came back and told him that God heard his prayer and had given him 15 more years to live. “Though I cannot recall praying for anything be specific, what I felt in the moment was total surrender and I accepted God was leading me, just as he had done throughout my years in ministry. With this peace that came over me, I changed my focus on preparing for death to accepting extended life.” Rev. Sanders put a small support group of ministers together and submitted to being on a waiting list for a donor heart.
The call that a match was available came early on the morning of the first Sunday in June, 2021 amid his preparations for church. Rev. Sanders recalled how the phone rang and on the other end was his doctor at a New York City hospital. “We have a match! We need you to come in,” the doctor said. “I asked if I could come in after Sunday services. He said ‘No! We need you now.’”
Not only did the doctors successfully complete the heart transplant, but that same day they gave him a kidney transplant as well. According to Sanders, earlier during his treatment, doctors noticed potential issues with his kidney. Now, they took the proactive measure of performing the two transplants at once with organs from the same donor. Both surgeries were successful and Sanders says he has experienced no complications since then. “I am so grateful to God, medical science, and my fellowship for this journey, which has definitely been a blessing in my life,” he said in reflection.
Sanders returned to the pulpit of the historic church after seven months of recuperation, on the first Sunday of Advent. H is power packed sermon entitled, “Affliction W as Good f or M e,” w as based on the words of the Psalmist David, who cried out to God: “It is a good thing that I had been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.” (Psalm 119:71)
“What I went through gave me greater vision and a better understanding of God,” said Rev. Sanders. “I have exceptional clarity about what God can do with and through me, even with my affliction. He added, During my stay in the hospital, I had the opportunity to witness to people from all walks of life, without having to push myself on them. It was then I realized that even in my sickness, somehow and in some ways I can and was being used by God. And that, too, is a blessing.”
Now back with his 1,000 plus congregants in the Summit, New Jersey church, Rev. J. Michael Sanders is not only reigniting the church’s mission ministries both local and foreign, but recreating a path to leadership and fellowship in powerful ways.
In his post-surgery life, he says one of the biggest changes he has seen in himself is a very low tolerance for negativity. “I realize I am more put off by preachers who preach healing by denouncing medical science,” he said. “Too many people are being told that doctors are the enemy of God. Yes, I know and accept that God raised me up through my affliction, but it’s also true that he did so by working through medical science.”
With this in mind, his advice to anyone facing medical issues is simple but powerful: “Go to the doctor! Don’t allow anyone to tell you that all you need is to pray and go to the altar. That has its importance, but you must also do all you can. It’s only when there is nothing more you can do that a miracle is possible.”
The moral of the story is clear. Despite the many wars during his reign, King Hezekiah lived out the rest of his lifetime in “peace and security.” Rev. Sanders is also the president of the General Baptist Convention of New Jersey, Inc.