‘Something Different’ Celebrates a Beautiful Life With an Extra Chromosome

‘My purpose,’ says John Paul Von Arx, ‘is to inspire people to hope in a culture that definitely needs it.’

Sam (l) and John Paul Von Arx
Sam (l) and John Paul Von Arx (photo: John Paul Von Arx)

“He’s totally going to be part of my stage crew someday,” John Paul Von Arx announced when he learned that his unborn baby brother had Down syndrome. The country music artist has performed at events throughout the U.S. and Europe but back then, he was just a 14-year-old boy dreaming of one day having a band.

His reaction to the news was spontaneous. “My mom had come out to the woodshed where I was doing woodwork and she looked distraught. ‘Your dad and I have something to tell you,’ she told me. I came into the house right away and joined them in their bedroom.”

John Paul recalled feeling dread. What could be wrong? Through tears, his mother told him they were having another baby. His dad was mostly quiet. “I was surprised,” John Paul said. “It was not the response I was used to seeing. I loved having younger brothers and sisters. Something was not adding up.” He was the second oldest of eight, now soon to be nine children.

“We just found out the baby has Down syndrome,” his mother revealed. “We don’t know what that is going to look like for our family.”

“It’s going to be awesome!” John Paul exclaimed. “I went from being anxious that something was wrong to being so excited. All my siblings had similar reactions.” His next thought was that his new brother would be part of his music.

John Paul’s instincts were right on target. “Sam’s entry into the family has been nothing short of amazing, and a beautiful gift from God,” he said. And not only does Sam often help his big brother at performances, but he is the subject of John Paul’s just-released music video “He’s Different.” He chose to release it in October to coincide with Down Syndrome Awareness Month and Respect Life Month.

“I want to give hope to expectant parents,” John Paul said. “My parents are pro-life, but it was such a time of distraught for them. Every couple [with such a diagnosis] that I’ve talked to has been pressured to have an abortion by medical providers. It’s fear-based. Kids with special needs are not convenient, but for anything that is good and lasting, I don’t think you can check the convenience box. The ones with special needs are often the ones who humanize us and give us the perspective we all need.”

The song tells the story of Sam being different in all the best ways, how he sees life with joy and simplicity and loves people unconditionally. It’s a celebration of Sam who has enriched the lives of his whole family, John Paul explained. And it is meant to bring hope to others expecting a baby with special needs.

Scenes of the two brothers having fun together blend with the verses:

Oh, he’s different, he’s different than me. Oh, he’s peaceful, peaceful and free. … A heart like his helps mine to believe the little things matter in life, more than they seem.

“There is a tenderness and closeness that Sam brings out of everyone,” John Paul explained. “That extra chromosome has extra love for everyone.” He described Sam after he receives Holy Communion: “He sits there, and it seems like grace is just pouring out of him; there’s not a veil between him and heaven.”

That quality helped comfort the whole family when tragedy struck on Oct. 20, 2017. Their brother Max died in a hiking accident with friends in Maryland. He was a freshman at Franciscan University in Steubenville. “Max and Sam were especially close because they had shared a room together,” John Paul said. “Max was the most outgoing and rambunctious in our family.”

The last time Sam had seen Max was on the college campus for parent’s weekend. When the family returned in November for a memorial Mass for Max, Sam ran around looking in all the places he had last seen his beloved brother. That’s when the reality that Max was not coming back sunk in. “He sat on a curb and just cried,” John Paul recounted.

“I put my arm around him. There was something so grace-filled at that moment and then there was a sweet realization: ‘I miss him but he’s in heaven with Jesus.’ He just accepted it. Sam helped our family through. His simple demeanor and faith were unifying and healing for our family.”

Max’s death encouraged John Paul to take his music career more seriously. “This loss forced me to find purpose in the midst of pain,” John Paul said. “Max was my biggest fan and dear friend, and I know he's still rooting for me and helping me to achieve my dream in music.” The cover song of his first album, “Break Through,” speaks of those hard moments of trying to find peace of mind when the burden feels hard to bear:

Is your yoke really easy because the burden seems hard to bear? But I’m not giving up on you. Faith tells me you’re there. Breakthrough to me, Breakthrough to me. I want to know what you want me to do, Speak truth to me, speak truth to me, in a way that I can understand.

John Paul’s music has a balance of both thoughtful and happy-go-lucky songs like “Cell Phone Blues” which includes the verse, “I’m so alive, my cell phone is dead.”

“The key,” he said, “is keeping God at the center. My purpose is to inspire people to hope in a culture that definitely needs it.”

In addition to performing at events and recording, John Paul serves as the Coordinator of Worship at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, Sarah, and their daughter Miriam Jane. To learn more about John Paul, book him for an event, or see where he’s performing next, go to JohnPaulVonArx.com.

Pope Francis blesses a child with Down syndrome May 18, 2013, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

Down Syndrome Awareness, and Prayers for Haiti (March 16)

Looking ahead to Down Syndrome Awareness Day on March 21, developmental psychologist and mother Mary O’Callaghan sheds light on the joys and challenges facing families who receive trisomy-21 diagnoses. Also, Father Louis Merosne, pastor of the Cathedral of St. Anne in Anse-à-Veau, roughly 80 miles west of Port-au-Prince, describes the fear and the faith of the Haitian people.