Before today, the best word to describe how I felt around a person with a severe disability is "afraid." Not of them, but of me - afraid that I might offend, create an awkward situation, say something wrong, or embarrass them or myself. Most of my personal interactions with the disabled were loving and warm, but also brief and uncomfortable.
All of that changed today. It changed because I attended a luncheon sponsored by Young Life Capernaum Ministries.
My daughter Kristin, who is a junior in high school and has been involved with Young Life for several years, started volunteering with YL's Capernaum ministry in 10th grade. Capernaum "gives young people with mental and physical disabilities the chance to experience fun and adventure, to develop fulfilling friendships and to challenge their limits while building self-esteem through club, camp and other exciting activities. Young Life staff and volunteers model Christ's unconditional love and acceptance as they walk alongside these young adults - filling their lives with love and support." Kristin faithfully attends the "club" meetings on Tuesday nights and participates in many other activities each month. She doesn't see it as something she has to do - helping her Capernaum friends is something she loves to do. Watching this daughter of mine has taught me so very much. It's difficult to describe how I feel when I see her at "work" - laughing and leading and watching the backs of the most vulnerable among us. She's strong and fearless and compassionate and filled with joy. I, on the other hand, was so overcome with "compassion" over the plight of the disabled that I lost the opportunity to experience the joy and uniqueness of their precious lives. I've often marveled at how happy Kristin is when she returns from a Capernaum event. After observing the disabled teens, their families, the volunteers and leaders at today's lunch, now I know why.
The answer is really simple: Anyone can rejoice in the all-encompassing love of Christ. Anyone. And rejoice in Him the Capernaum kids do! I've never seen so many happy teens and satisfied parents of teens together in one place in my entire life. The people involved in Capernaum have learned the secret of life: Christ died for all. And everyone has the right to be told about him, to know him, to touch him, to be touched by him. And they have learned to live in the "joy unspeakable and full of glory" that comes with knowing Christ.
When I received the invitation to attend today's event, I marveled at the scripture verse it featured. "Celebrate God all day every day, I mean revel in him!" (Philippians 4:4). Not unfamiliar with the verse, I have known the joy of Christ and have celebrated God and his love since childhood. I just didn't realize it could be so pure, so true, so real in the lives of those who can't walk, or speak, or in the hearts of those who have some sort of mental retardation. The truth is, the disabled teens involved in Capernaum have tapped into a joy that fills the soul, that does not depend on circumstances or finances or whether or not they have cerebral palsy or Down's Syndrome. They have submerged themselves in the living water that Christ gives all who ask, and they are reveling in it!
Because of their living testimony, my daughter's witness, and the organization of supporters I met today, my own life is richer. Fear has dissipated. My eyes have been opened to the reality that I can help; I now see the tremendous needs of disabled teens and their families and realize that there is no room, or reason, for fear. I learned a few hard, cold facts today too. Laurie Harmer, the lovely young full-time area director of the Arlington/McLean Capernaum chapter in Virginia http://www.arlingtonmcleancapernaum.younglife.org shared these statistics:
* 610 million people in the world have a disability. If that number of people were a nation, it would be the third largest.
* This population leads the nation in homelessness and poverty.
* There are 54 million Americans with disabilities.
* 20 percent of the teen population has a disability.
* Only 10 to 15 percent of churches in the United States have a disability ministry or are planning one.
I also learned the heart-breaking news that over 80 percent of teens with disabilities live in single-parent homes. Add that to the fact that disabled kids have very few true friends, little opportunity outside of their normal school day to engage in the social activities that teens crave, and the sad reality that the majority of the adults in their lives are paid to be their helpers, and you've got a pretty lonely, but large population of teens and families.
And that's where you and I come in. Capernaum chapters are thriving around the nation and the world. Please take a few minutes to view a powerful video of what they are all about on YouTube. These glorious chapters have very small budgets and need our support. Perhaps you can volunteer, or write a check, or let someone with a disabled teen know that Capernaum exists. To find out more about Capernaum, visit http://www.younglife.org/Capernaum. You can also contact the Capernaum chapter near you through their locator page at http://www.younglife.org/Locator/Default.htm?SearchBy=Ministry&SearchFor=Capernaum.
Which brings me to why the organization is called "Capernaum". John Wagner, the vice president of the Young Life Eastern Division, pointed the attendees at today's event to the biblical books of Mark and Luke, where the story is told of four men who carried their paralyzed friend to meet Jesus in the town of Capernaum. They carried him on a mat, because they knew that Christ could help their friend - and they also knew that their friend was helpless to get to Christ without their assistance. When they reached the building where Jesus was, they were undeterred by the crowds that packed the room and poured into the streets. They refused to freeze with fear, or to fail in helping the disabled man meet Jesus. So, they did what any committed friends would do - climbed up on the roof with the grown man in tow, removed the tiles, broke through the roof, and lowered their friend and his "stretcher" right down to the feet of Christ! When Jesus looked up and saw the paralyzed man's friends, he honored their faith, and bathed the man's crippled soul in his forgiveness - he healed the man's spirit, which is the biggest miracle of all. And, Jesus also healed his crippled legs. When we bring people to meet Jesus they, too, have the opportunity to experience his forgiveness. Christ doesn't always heal physical bodies here on earth, but we do know that all who are released from their sins live forever with Christ in a place where there is no more suffering, where there are no more tears, and where tattered, disabled minds and bodies are replaced with perfect ones.
On my own journey to Capernaum today, I was healed from fear, so that I might boldly take others to meet Jesus.
Won't you go to Capernaum, too?