Finding his purpose
One second, Don Murray was lining up just the right angle for a photograph of water rushing over the top of Willamina Falls. The next second, he was spread-eagle in the water, the current tugging him toward the drop off, boulders bouncing down on his body and head.
The bank on which he was standing had given way suddenly, changing a pleasant day-hike into a life-threatening situation.
By all rights, Murray said, he should have been pulled over the falls, which could easily have meant death. “But an angel grabbed hold of me,” he said.
Although he was left with permanent injuries, his life was spared. In fact, he said, in many ways the accident was a positive turning point.
It made him more committed to his faith and more convinced that he needs to reach out to others through an Internet ministry.
He’s hoping to use that as a base to land engagements as a motivational speaker. “I want to use my experience as testimony and encouragement,” he said.
Remembering that day almost a decade ago, Murray is thankful for many little things that contributed to his survival.
For instance, the routinely lone hiker had gone out that day with a friend. If he had been injured while he was by himself, he probably couldn’t have made it the 10 miles back to McMinnville.
As Murray started climbing a steep slope to reach the top of the falls, so he could take pictures, his buddy expressed trepidation. “I have a very bad feeling,” his friend said.
Murray downplayed the danger. “I know what I’m doing,” he said.
An experienced hiker, he has always loved the outdoors.
When he was growing up in Wisconsin, he enjoyed hiking and camping with his family. But he was a little too adventurous to make his mother comfortable.
“She said she always had to tell me to get away from the edge,” he recalled.
He fell in love with Oregon wilderness areas in the early 1990s, after coming to McMinnville to attend a local Bible school. He spent a lot of time hiking during his 3 1/2 years here.
Then he moved first to Wisconsin, then to Kentucky. While there, he completed a correspondence course that focused on reaching out to young people on the street.
Planning to pursue such a ministry, he returned to Oregon. “Then I really got adventurous,” he said, recalling the many, many hours of his spare time he spent mountain biking and hiking in the hills west of McMinnville.
In June 2004, Murray was working for an excavation company. The hard physical labor, combined with his outdoor activities, left him in good shape.
So when he saw the slope beside Willamina Falls, it didn’t look that intimidating. He was used to climbing — even straight up, using rocks and roots as handholds.
In retrospect, he said, he should have found an easier path to the top, then secured a rope to a sturdy tree to use as a support. But he didn’t, and he got into trouble.
Murray stood atop a large boulder and used a root to help balance himself. Then he leaned various ways, looking for the best angle for his photo. “I wanted to show the water going over the falls,” he said.
When the boulder moved, he slid into the water. And rocks dislodged by the boulder followed, crashing into Murray as he struggled with the current.
When rocks stopped rolling, he was injured and bleeding.
His teeth had been damaged by a rock that struck him in the face. His rotator cuff was torn and his left arm smashed. His ribs were pushed out of place, his knees and lower back damaged. He couldn’t feel his fingers, and he could hear nothing but an incessant ringing in his ears.
Somehow, Murray managed to crawl out of the creek. When he stood up, he felt as if he were going to pass out, so he sat down again.
“I started praying,” he said.
His friend managed to reach him and help him back to their vehicle. He drove Murray straight to the emergency room.
“It was really funny,” Murray said. “All the way there, whenever we hit a bump, I could feel the bones in my arm rubbing together.”
Murray underwent the first of several surgeries on his arm that day. Then he was checked into the only room available at the hospital.
The accident left him permanently disabled. He suffers frequent pain in his arm and carries other reminders, including a number of pins and plates holding once-shattered bones in place. He needs to wear a back support much of the time.
He can no longer pedal his mountain bike or carry a heavy pack. And he tires easily.
“I still have a lot of limitations,” he said.
But rather than concentrate on them, he focuses on the positive changes in his life.
“I’m a strong believer in prayer,” said Murray, who attends the Seventh-day Adventist Church. That belief has become even stronger in recent years, and with it has come a desire to help others through the ministry.
“For a very long time, I was limiting myself,” he said. “Then I saw the story of Bethany Hamilton,” a young surfer who pressed on after losing an arm. “God used that story to get my attention, to make me ask what can I do with my disability.”
These days, instead of trying to minister to people on the street, he uses Facebook to reach out all over the world.
“I started by sending a lot of friend requests to people I didn’t know,” he said. He wrote to people with his own surname first, and since has collected additional contacts through their network of friends.
Murray said he’s open to chatting or exchanging e-mails with anyone. He doesn’t push his beliefs on them, but he does offer advice if they request it.
Mostly, he just listens. “I’m not going to judge them,” he said.
Whenever he has a chance to speak, Murray shares the story about the important role God plays in his life. He tells people to listen to what God is doing in their lives and not give up.
People need someone to listen and lift them up, he said.
Murray believes he was meant for that role. Encouraging others is the reason he was saved from going over Willamina Falls, he said.
“It wasn’t just a coincidence,” he said. “It can’t just be explained away.”
He said the real explanation lies in a Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11.
As quoted in the New American Standard Bible, the verse reads, “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or email@example.com.