Young minister’s life cut short by muscular dystrophy, but his faith lives on
Brian Spann, by all accounts, was a man who found his ministry in what many would consider suffering, and his calling in the faith that also gave him strength.
When he died in December at age 27, after a nearly lifelong battle with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the coordinator of Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church’s Epiphany Ministery and a leader with the non-profit To Be Like Me provided a blueprint for his service — one that outlined the faith and encouragement that became his trademark.
“He knew hope even while suffering because Brian and Jesus were old friends. God was at work within Brian,” Rev. Caroline Braskamp said at his funeral.
Spann’s outlook was clear even in the papers he wrote for seminary class.
“As my muscular dystrophy progresses and my body continues to decay, it serves as a consistent reminder that this is not the way that the world will always be,” he wrote. “One day we will not only be rescued from death and restored to life. But we will also be crowned with glory and honor, because God’s victory over death is central to his promise, and to our hope that God will redeem our bodies through physical resurrection.”
Braskamp said wryly, “Only Brian Spann can preach at his own funeral.”
To Be Like Me founder and executive director Hollis Owens knew Spann since he was five – she was part of the team at Scottish Rite who initially helped Spann and his family navigate his diagnosis.
“As my muscular dystrophy progresses and my body continues to decay, it serves as a consistent reminder that this is not the way that the world will always be.”Brian Spann
“I remember meeting him that day, that first day they came in and just had this warm, beautiful smile and these big blue eyes and was just a remarkable young man,” she recalled.
But he was also falling a lot. And as a physical therapist, her job was to assess his muscle weaknesses and report to the doctors. A subsequent muscle biopsy was positive for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
“At that point what they do is they bring the family in for another appointment. And it’s usually a kind of a team appointment where the doctor tells the family the diagnosis,” Owens said. “And then the rest of us as team members go in and offer support to the family.
“And when the doctor gives the diagnosis of Duchenne muscular dystrophy many times, it is life expectancy, and ‘this is what you can expect’ — they’ll go into a wheelchair at a certain point. It’s progressive, so he will get weaker.”
And when the ultimate diagnosis was delivered, she said she knew Spann — and his family — were remarkable.
“I just remember going in there after that diagnosis was revealed to the family and they were just so supportive of Brian,” she said. “They took it all in and looked at Brian and just said, ‘You’re going to be able to do whatever you want to do in this world.’”
And those activities included Boy Scouts, where he won the Paul Bunyan Award that requires the recipient to chop wood for two hours straight. He was a member of the Allen High School marching band, driving his wheelchair with his right hand and his clarinet with his left.
Owens said that as a leader with To Be Like Me, he worked with a variety of groups to help them broaden their understanding of what it was like to live with a disability and to foster compassion.
“He was amazing with the kids,” Owens said. “He let the kids know upfront, ‘this is a safe space for you to ask me questions and I am happy to answer any questions that you have so when you meet someone else who looks a little different or maybe they’re in a wheelchair, you’re more likely to open up, say hello, and start a conversation.”
And even when he needed to advocate for himself, she said, he was kind but firm.
“He often talked about restaurant workers — where he would be in a restaurant with his family, and instead of looking at him, the water would look at his parents and say, ‘What would he like to eat?’” she said. “And he would say, ‘Actually, I would like …’ and he would answer, and they would usually say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ and he would respond with, ‘No, it’s OK, but you can talk directly to me.’
“Even with those barriers, he was gracious and kind always.”
Owens said that over the summer, the nonprofit was creating videos with their leaders to answer common questions, and Spann “had so much knowledge to share.”
“We had a video shoot and he had not been doing very well,” she recalled. “He had been sick and weak this summer, but we scheduled him to come in for four videos.”
But you wouldn’t have known it for Spann’s determination to share.
“I think he was scheduled for 9 a.m. that day. And at 8:50, the elevator doors opened and there he was, bright-eyed, and so handsome with his blue leader To Be Like Me shirt on and he looked at me when those elevators doors opened and he said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
A half-hour shoot became an hour as Spann answered questions so eloquently that Owens said they required little post-editing at all.
“He knew exactly what he was going to say and he did it so incredibly well, and it was almost like he knew that this is an opportunity,” she said. “He had an opportunity to get in there and educate, and he wanted the ripple effect to continue — he wanted to spark that awareness in kids so that they would share that knowledge and information with other kids.”
Spann earned a bachelor’s degree from Dallas Baptist University, became a minister, and was working on his master’s degree when time ran out.
But he didn’t leave those mourning him without a benediction.
“This is my charge to you. Do not mourn my death, but celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ in my life,” he wrote. “Celebrate the fact that I am no longer about bound by the clutches of the disease from hell, but I find eternal healing in Jesus’s name.
“Please leave today passionate for the Lord and proclaim the gospel to the very ends of the Earth.”
See Brian Spann’s memorial service below: