The crowds that 25-year-old Nick Vujicic draws as an evangelist would have been unimaginable only a few years ago, and impossible had he been born under other circumstances.
"In some third world countries ... I would be seen as cursed, a shame to the family," said Vujicic (pronounced VOY-chich). "The possibilities of me being killed at my birth would have been quite high."
But Vujicic, who was born without arms or legs, does have one of the most powerful of all human attributes: a voice. Through the ministry he calls Life Without Limbs and a motivational program titled "Attitude is Altitude," Vujicic said he has made 1,600 speaking appearances in 12 nations.
"No matter who you are, no matter what you're going through, God knows it," he said. "He is with you. He is going to pull you through."
Like all skilled evangelists, he can imagine the deepest vulnerabilities of his listeners, especially among teenage audiences.
Grief and Confusion
"I used to think that I needed my circumstance to change before I had any hope," he said. "I wanted to know that there was someone else out there in my position, to know that there is hope, that there is more than just the little box that I see in my life."
He cannot avoid the reasons why people are fascinated by his physical condition, and he uses it to his advantage in his speeches, often delivered from a tabletop in front of the audience. He says it lends credibility "to know that somebody has been through something, that they've learned something that you know you need to apply in your own life."
Vujicic was born in Brisbane, Australia, the son of Serbian immigrants. Doctors have never been able to determine why he was born with no limbs and only a small foot with two toes on his left side. His father is pastor of a local church, and because the cause of his condition was unknown, they spent months trying to figure out the reasons why.
"They went through different stages of grief and confusion. Why did this happen? Who made a mistake? They realized that doctors didn't make a mistake ... and my mom didn't do anything wrong in the pregnancy; and it was four months before they actually came to terms with it. It was something that the whole church was asking: why would something like that happen?"
At one point, Vujicic was so sensitive to the teasing he received in school — and so distressed by not knowing what kind of future he would have — that he said he considered committing suicide by flipping himself off a kitchen bench and trying to break his neck.
He was not yet in his teens when he began praying for arms and legs. "It said in the Bible, 'Ask and you shall receive.' I had faith, and I was actually very angry at God. I didn't understand it. And I thought maybe I wasn't good enough. Maybe that's the reason why he's not answering my prayer. I mean, arms and legs are nothing for God, the creator of the universe. And so, I prayed for my circumstance to change, but it didn't happen."
His mother's advice took advantage of a quality he had demonstrated often: his charming personality and his steady, friendly gaze. She told him to start talking when people stared at him.
"Because when people see me talking and speaking, they forget that I have no arms and no legs, and they just treat me like any other person. And I remember ... when I was 6 or 7 years old, I looked at myself in the mirror one day. I wanted to pick out something of my physical features that I knew was good. And I looked at my eyes, and I said, 'You know what? No one can change my eyes.'"
Learning to Embrace Life
Vujicic said he also was influenced by a speaker at his school who had been orphaned and who talked about his bouts of loneliness. The idea that someone who had struggled could give others hope appealed to Vujicic. At 17, he started speaking at school and church-sponsored events. By the age of 19, he seemed to have found his calling, and was getting dozens of speaking invitations.
He says his message resonates with teenagers because they are often told they are not good enough, sometimes by both their parents and their peers. "It's the fact that they understand how it feels to be alone, how it feels to be rejected, how it feels to be confused and broken. That's the level that I come in on, and they can see that straight away. When I get up onstage, they know that I've been broken."
He can't shake hands when he meets someone after an appearance, so he insists on being hugged, regardless of whether his audience came from a church, a school, or a corporation.
He first came to the United States because of relatives who had emigrated to the U.S. He was encouraged to stay due to his successful speaking engagements. Vujicic bought a home in Southern California and established his non-profit ministry, Life Without Limbs.
Within the last six months, his staff has increased from three to 10. He now has an assistant to help with the daily routines he learned from childhood. He brushes his teeth by propping the toothbrush in the muscles between his neck and shoulder.
He learned to write and draw by attaching a plastic mold to his foot that holds a pen in place.
Vujicic can also swim, which causes gasps among people who have never seen him in the water — especially when he dives into the deep end of the pool.
"I don't have much body mass compared to everybody else," he said. "I float, I keep buoyant — unless someone makes a joke. If I start laughing, I start sinking, and it's not that funny, then."
Helping Others Adapt
Vujicic's medical issues are largely orthopedic. When he moves and sits upright, he is thrown slightly off-kilter by his foot, resulting in constant back pain because of the strain.
He can father children and he wants to have them, but says he is waiting for the right time to think about marriage.
Leisure time has become scarce because of the number of engagements he is booked for. He says he currently has more than 2,500 invitations, including many on other continents.
And while Vujicic spent the first part of his life learning how to adapt to others, much of his success now lies in how he has made others learn to adapt to him.
"If we went by the world's definition of who I'm supposed to be because I look weird ... 'well, surely, this guy can't have a productive life, surely, he doesn't have a sense of humor. Surely, he can't love life.' We stereotype people, in, in this world. And so ... if the world thinks you're not good enough, it's a lie, you know. Get a second opinion."
The unanswered prayers he made as a child haven't left his mind, nor has he stopped praying occasionally for arms and legs.
"I totally surrender that to God. I would be obviously elated if I had arms and legs right now ... but I know that God's in full control. And do I believe that He can give me arms and legs? Yes, sir ... The world doesn't understand how you can have these two parallel thoughts, where you can say, on one hand ... 'yes, I believe in the miracle,' and on the other ... say, 'You know what? I'm fully content. I'm not discouraged if He doesn't give me arms and legs.'
"That's where I am. That's the freedom and victory I have. I believe in a God who can do all things, but if He chooses not to give me arms and legs, I know it's for the better. And I may not understand it, but all I need to know is that He's going to carry me through, that there is a purpose for it."