Armed with faith
John Foppe is a man with many blessings.
He grew up in a loving family with seven brothers in Breeze, Ill. He went to college and earned a master’s degree. He has traveled the world as a professional speaker, given two TED talks, authored a book, founded his own consulting firm and directs a non-profit. He is married and has a beautiful young daughter.
With so many accomplishments, it’s hard to believe that Foppe was born without arms.
“Doctors don’t know why it happened,” said Foppe, a member of Legatus’ St. Louis Chapter with his wife Christine. “It wasn’t genetic.”
In the moments after Foppe’s birth, his mother went through many emotions. At first, she told her husband to celebrate and buy cigars. Within hours, Foppe had emergency surgery because of blockage between his upper and lower colon. Doctors said there was little chance of survival.
Early in his childhood, he received prosthetic arms from two charities. The prosthetics were hot, heavy and cumbersome. Finally, Foppe refused to wear them and began to use his feet in place of hands.
Growing up, Foppe’s brothers did everything for him. One day, when Foppe was 10, he heard about a summer camp and desperately wanted to go. “My mother said no because I couldn’t dress myself,” he explained.
At this point, Foppe’s mother realized something had to change. His parents called a secret family meeting and decreed that nobody would help “Little John” anymore. Foppe asked his brother to help him get dressed the next morning, but his brother walked away. Foppe became enraged. Horrified, he screamed at everyone, especially his mother, and then stormed into his room — crying and yelling. When he finally calmed down, he tried to dress himself. After tremendous struggles, he finally did.
“It was a turning point,” he explained. Foppe realized that in order to get over his condition, he had to change his perception that people without arms can’t do anything.
Today, Foppe is a professional speaker, and one of his key themes is that the biggest obstacle to personal change is often oneself, and that we are co-creators of our own reality.
By the time he was a senior in high school, Foppe was a leader in his community. That year alone he gave 60 speeches in Illinois to raise money for the poor in Haiti.
“I attribute my self-esteem to three things: my family, my friends and my faith. My family made me feel secure and loved. My friends made me feel normal and accepted, and my faith in God told me that he had a reason for my condition,” Foppe told Legatus magazine.
Many people, Foppe said, confuse self-esteem with self-confidence.
“Self-confidence often comes with accomplishment, but there were things that I could never do. So for me, self-esteem had to be rooted in something more stable than accomplishment. It had to be rooted in who I am, and who I am is a child of God. That’s my core identity. God loves us unconditionally. It’s not about what we’ve done.”
When Foppe met his future wife Christine, she couldn’t help but be bowled over by his personality. “We met through my friend Emma who was engaged to his brother Jim,” Christine said.
She had heard about Foppe and wanted to hear him speak, so Emma arranged for it to happen. “He gave the speech, and I thought he was so fun, humorous and intelligent,” she explained. “I fell in love with him that first week because he was living life to the full without arms.”
They traveled to Bermuda seven weeks after they met and went swimming.
“I had had a previous boyfriend who was a bodybuilder, but he was too afraid to put his head under water, and here was John diving in head first,” she said.
Not only did Christine fall in love with Foppe, she also fell in love with Catholicism.
“When I met John, I saw a spiritually filled person,” she explained. “He had five brothers who were married to fantastic ladies, and his parents had just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. My parents had divorced and here were John’s parents, still holding hands and praying together.”
Christine came into the Church three weeks before they married. When asked if he would ever use robotic arms, Foppe declines.
“I use my feet as my arms. Secondly, you get to a point that your life is whole as it is. There’s nothing to fix. As Christians, we believe we are whole and complete even within the frailties of our bodies.”
Faith in Jesus has been a driving force for the Foppes in their 14-year marriage. They showcased it in a television series pilot called Armed with Faith, which aired last September on EWTN. It’s also something they have nourished in their five years with Legatus.
“It was a real honor for me because I’m the only chapter member who is the CEO of a non-profit,” said Foppe, who works as executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Archdiocesan Council of St. Louis. “When we’re at Legatus, we see people on fire with the faith. I also see what Legatus members do for the community. I am impressed by how quickly they can make things happen.”
Foppe’s work is to support affiliated parish groups for SVDP, provide training, governance and fundraising. SVDP runs seven thrift stores in St. Louis. Part of Foppe’s time is also dedicated to his corporate consulting group, Visionary Velocity Worldwide.
Foppe inspires people from all walks of life who meet him — from the Missionaries of Charity (whom he gives talks to around the world) to military men and women, to business leaders.
He has proven that you don’t need arms to touch others.
Matthew Whiat has known Foppe for years. Whiat was part of a U.S. Air Force think tank on leadership that invited Foppe to give a TED talk at Scott Air Force Base.
“The power of his intellect is only matched by his ability to care,” Whiat said. “When you’re with him, you feel extremely valued. Everything else falls behind.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior sta writer