Taking the Next Step

When the leaders of Young Life’s Capernaum ministry in Nashville planned their first outreach mission day, they didn’t expect that kids would be prepared for the experience by watching American Idol.

But the first activity of the day, filling food boxes at the Feed the Children office, was particularly meaningful to some of their friends with disabilities because it was the same charity that benefited from a recent “Idol Gives Back” episode. After a few hours of preparing boxes for 150 needy African families, they felt like they had partnered with Ryan Seacrest and Paula Abdul to make a difference.

“They felt so good about themselves,” said Suzanne Williams, the Young Life Capernaum coordinator in Nashville. “Feed the Children really resonated with them because they had seen it on TV. They had heard of AIDS and they had heard of malaria, and they really felt like they had helped.”

After they sealed up their last box, the 15 Capernaum members and their leaders went to a Young Life ultimate frisbee tournament in Nashville, where they sold food and drinks to the spectators and participants, and they ended their adventure by serving Starbucks and ice water to homeless people in one of Nashville’s inner-city parks.

Blessed to be a blessing

It was a full day that extracted the kids from their comfort zones and gave them a taste of selfless service. For their Young Life leaders, it was both the fulfillment of a vision and the dawn of a new movement in ministry as kids with disabilities became young adults.

“The idea was that many of our friends with disabilities who love Jesus need to take the next step in their faith by learning to serve and using the gifts that God has given them to give, and not always being the ones receiving,” said Pam Harmon, director of operations of Young Life’s Capernaum.

When young people first plug in to Young Life’s Capernaum project, many of them have been marginalized and stuck at home, with little to do outside of school and few activities appropriate for them. But after they become involved with the ministry and embrace it, many grow accustomed to clubs, camps and other activities that are designed especially for them, and they lose sight of the importance of putting others first.

So the leaders trained the kids to identify their gifts of service and then gave them a chance to pour out those gifts. To put the day together, they partnered with the Center for Student Missions, an organization that exists to pair young people with outreach opportunities. CSM typically organizes mission trips for groups that travel to other locations, but for this first project the Capernaum leaders decided that it was best to stay close to home. So they worked out a full, diverse day that would touch needy people overseas, and lost teenagers and homeless people right in their hometown.

“They’re still talking about it,” Williams said. “They’re saying, ‘We can help; God can use us to help people.’ I think it was just a real clear picture that God has created them to be a part of this kingdom.”

No limits

The mental highlight film from that day features more than a few indelible images, Williams and Harmon said. Here are a few:

    • “I think they were very impressed at how much these ‘disabled’ kids were able to do,” said Debbie Hamilton, whose 17-year-old daughter, Katie, participated in the missions day. “I don’t think they expected them to be able to do much.”

    • The Capernaum teenagers added a vibrancy to the ultimate frisbee event, where they served hot dogs, chips, water and Gatorade, and cheered for the players. Several of the Capernaum kids had a chance to participate in the games too, and they jumped in with enthusiasm.

    • In their training, the Capernaum leaders equipped each of their friends by giving them a specific job for each site they visited, so there was no standing around wondering where they could pitch in.

      “The kids didn’t get there and ask, ‘Now what?’” Williams said. “They knew what their job was. They were doing really simple jobs, but I think one of the greatest things about it was watching their pride and seeing them realize how significant they were.”

The most unforgettable memory of all for Harmon and Williams was the way the Capernaum kids interacted with the homeless people they met. They arrived at the park with Starbucks coffee, ice water and games like dominos and cards, and what unfolded was a natural, leisurely time that allowed two often misunderstood groups to become friends.

“The homeless people and our kids just hung out with each other,” Harmon said. “Nobody was in a hurry. We just sat around and chatted and drank coffee and played games. It was wonderful.”

“They’re not judgmental,” Williams said. “They didn’t assume that these guys must have done something wrong to become homeless. They just treated them like everybody else.”

“Suzanne and Young Life’s Capernaum project — they don’t put any limits on those kids,” Debbie Hamilton said. “You can try anything and you can dream anything.”

A New Ministry: Friends Life

That Saturday, which ended with dinner at a Turkish restaurant in an effort to expose the kids to different types of cuisine, was a wonderful kickoff for a new ministry, Friends Life, which is forming in Nashville. The purpose of Friends Life is to provide meaningful service and spiritual growth opportunities for young adults who have aged out of Young Life’s Capernaum activities (typically serving young adults from their early 20s and older).

“The new organization and Young Life Capernaum will partner to remind people with disabilities of their absolute value to the kingdom of God and the myriad doors that the Lord wants to open to them,” Debbie Hamilton said.