I had lunch with a remarkable young man last week. He serves as the leader for a gathering of adults with cognitive disabilities at Bethlehem’s north campus.
He told me this story.
Parents of a 26-year-old woman with cognitive and physical disabilities heard about Bethlehem’s desire to serve adults who experience life like their daughter.
Their church experiences hadn’t been positive. In addition to not having services for their daughter in a church, she experienced physical pain when sitting for long stretches. Church, for her, was not a good place.
Her first weeks in the class at Bethlehem were hard. She was frightened and desperately wanted to stay with her mother.
But God was working. The young man leading the class is a natural leader, and several other college-aged young people joined him as volunteers. He also had the help of wise people who have walked this path of disability for many years. Most of all, God had gripped him with a desire to both communicate truths about Jesus AND love every person God brought to this class. It is the kind of love that doesn’t quit, because it is about a God who doesn’t quit.
After several weeks, the young woman had a breakthrough. She understood she could contribute to the class. She felt like she was welcome. She felt the real affections for her that were there. If she needed to move around or lay on the floor to ease her pain, she was encouraged to do so. Now, after several months, church is a delight to her.
Her parents felt it as well.
Think about that – after 26 years, God changed church from something that caused physical and emotional pain into a place she longed to be.
And as I heard this story, what I felt was the joy flowing out of this young man’s heart. He loves the adults God has brought into this class. He enjoys the hard work he must put in to prepare to teach those who have a hard time learning. He loves that his future wife is working alongside him, seeing the value in and joy around what he is doing for the sake of God’s church.
I’m very grateful God has given this young woman a good experience, a safe place, and the opportunity to learn more about Jesus.
But I’m equally grateful that God lets me see a talented young man experience more than just the satisfaction of doing something well, but increasing measures of joy and affections for those who are most likely to be marginalized and abused in our culture because of their cognitive disabilities.
I don’t know what God has for him; he’s still working on his schooling. But this I know: he is being changed by this experience; he is not the same man I first met about six months ago.
And that’s why we do disability ministry, not out of reluctant obligation or to earn favor from God, but for our own joy!