Just Like Jesus

Here’s what you might expect to gain from a week spent with teenagers who have disabilities: You come home thankful for your good health and your unlimited opportunities.

But a special July week at Rockbridge upended that formula completely, as more than 100 able-bodied Campaigner kids came face to face with disabilities they had never noticed before.

Sure, some of the Capernaum campers struggled to speak clearly, but they praised God loudly and without shame, illuminating the Campaigner kids’ affliction of worrying excessively about avoiding embarrassment and being accepted by their friends.

Some of the Capernaum kids talked about their relationships with God with an intimacy that eluded their brothers and sisters in Christ who live a “typical” high school life. That difference revealed the suburban Campaigners’ struggle to make time for God in the midst of their achievement-oriented, overscheduled days.

And consider this exchange in a camp bathroom between Harper, a Capernaum camper with cerebral palsy, Liz, a Capernaum leader who uses a wheelchair, and Margaret Smith, a Campaigner kid from Burlington, N.C.

After Margaret helped both Harper and Liz get showered and dressed, Harper summed up the experience like this: “You see, Liz can’t help me in the shower because she’s in a wheelchair. I need help with my shower because I have CP. And Margaret, you can’t reach the top shelf because you’re short.”

It was a pivotal moment for Margaret, who has always wanted to work with people with disabilities and saw the Rockbridge week as a chance to experience the Lord in new ways. Her greatest challenge in coming home from the discipleship track at Young Life’s first East Coast Capernaum camp? Explaining a life-changing week to friends and family who didn’t share the experience.

“I think the most exciting thing was realizing that we’re not really that different,” Margaret said. “We just have different things that disable us.

“At first when they asked me to help with Harper’s shower, I was kind of intimidated because I’d never done anything like that before. But I said, ‘I’m going to see God in a way I never have before. It’s not about me.’”

Open arms for Capernaum

Crooked Creek has hosted a Capernaum outreach week for several years, but this was the first year the concept moved east to Rockbridge. Judging from the numbers, the eastern areas were ready to embrace the concept of Capernaum campers. Rockbridge hosted 152 Capernaum campers, 116 Discipleship campers — also known as “buddies” — and 104 adult leaders, and Crooked Creek’s camp included 189 Capernaum campers, 40 Discipleship campers and 87 adult leaders.

The purpose of Discipleship camp is to immerse Christian teenagers in a unique setting that puts hands and feet on the concept of loving as Jesus loves. Spend just a few minutes talking to one of the participants and you’ll hear about lives changed through serving and befriending in extraordinary ways.

“I think the most powerful stuff is the relationships that are formed between able-bodied and disabled kids,” said John Wagner, senior vice president of the Eastern Division and the speaker for the Discipleship clubs at Rockbridge. “I just think there’s real power in the fact that these kids with disabilities bring a certain side of Jesus that the other kids never see.”

Conquering fears, making friends

Caleb King, like many of his counterparts in the Discipleship camp, had some reservations about the week, but those fears didn’t stop him from jumping in with both feet when he arrived at Rockbridge from Teaneck, N.J. King, who is now a freshman at Wheaton College, knew that God had placed him there purposefully, he said.

“Before this, I had never been with someone who’s disabled for more than 20 minutes,” King said. “My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them or that I would be patronizing to them, misjudging their mental ability.

“I just decided, ‘I’m not going to spend this week shy.’ So I just went up to people. They were very responsive. After that initial decision to get over my timidness, it was simple.”

The Campaigner groups who came to participate in the camp were paired with groups of campers from Capernaum areas, and during the week the two groups ate meals together and talked and played during free time. Club meetings in the mornings were tailored for the Capernaum campers, with Empire State Regional Director Rick Rogan as the speaker. Then later at night, the Campaigner kids — joined by some of the campers with disabilities who were already Christians — attended a Discipleship club, where John Wagner gave the messages.

“We talked a lot about what it means to serve, to be in community, to be a part of community with the least of these,” Wagner said. “Because I think they saw it every day being lived out. It wasn’t just talk.”

As Brian Hall, who is on teacher staff in New Jersey and brought 20 teenagers to the Discipleship camp, said, “The message and the application were there together.”

Unexpected miracles

In preparation for the week, most of the trip leaders led their kids through several weeks of training. Several of the groups read Adam, a book by Henri Nouwen describing his transforming encounter with special needs adults. For the Burlington, N.C., group, Capernaum leader Elizabeth Thompson from Durham/Chapel Hill, N.C., came to talk to the group about everything from how to react in the event of a seizure to the joy of seeing past a disability into a person’s heart.

“She told us to avoid the awkwardness and jump right in,” Margaret Smith said. “And we did. And it was amazing.”

Emma Collie, who works as a divisional administrator in northern Virginia and brought eight girls from the high school where she leads Young Life, said that most of her girls were spiritually mature and well-prepared, so the week was actually easier than they expected. One of Collie’s Campaigner girls brought a friend who had little Young Life exposure but a personal interest in the Capernaum aspect of the camp because her brother had autism. That girl not only thrived with the special-needs campers, she made a commitment to Christ while she was at Rockbridge.

“I think for them to see the authenticity and the realness with which those kids experienced Christ, it was really significant,” Collie said.

For Burlington, N.C., Area Director Andrew Boyd, the enduring snapshots of the week are images of the Capernaum campers’ extraordinary abilities, the areas where they showed their peers how to live the type of abundant life that Jesus promises His followers.

For instance, every single time music was played during the course of the week, there was a group of Capernaum kids who danced — with joyful abandon and without self-consciousness.

“I asked the kids, ‘When was the last time you danced like that?’” Boyd said. “We’re more concerned with what everybody else thinks than just being free in ourselves.

“I really think that by the end of it, we weren’t seeing the disabilities.”