A tale of two camps: including friends with disabilities

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What if we spent more time asking “How do we?” instead of saying “We can’t.” What if we asked “What can we do?” instead of saying “We’ve never.” What if inclusion were the norm and exclusion bewildered us?

I’ve been to two different camps this summer. At the first, a junior high girl was sent home not for being disruptive, not for sneaking out, bringing alcohol or drugs, starting a fire, or ┬áhaving sex. She was sent home because she was born with FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome).

She was the right age. She had a counselor who was both a little overwhelmed yet excited to be with her. She needed extra attention and came across as younger than she was…but she was there. She could tell you exactly what was happening in a conversation even when it seemed she wasn’t paying attention. But she was sent home.

I ached for this girl. I ached equally for the family who trusted their child to a church camp, a Christian community, an extension of the body of Christ only to have her turned away. I have researched and interviewed hundreds of families who have shared such stories with me. Most left the church. Many walked away from God. This was the first time I was at the camp to see it happen. The leaders of this camp made the decision to send her home without the counselor’s input or mine.

I want to be careful, these are good people seeking to serve God and simply felt they were not equipped, that this young woman was a distraction to others and that she was not getting anything out of being at camp. They decided that they were not the ones who should be doing this.

But maybe it wasn’t about what she would get. (Though I believe the Lord was speaking clearly to her and she was much more aware than most realized.) Maybe it was about what she brought to the table. About what she could teach the leaders and campers. Maybe it was about the camp and its staff being a light on a hill to her family finally welcoming one of their beloved in. Maybe. But it wasn’t. The only answer was “we can’t.”

At the second camp I’ve attended this summer, I had the privilege of helping to greet group after group after group of teenagers whose needs went far beyond needing a little extra attention. Roughly 100 special needs friends came to camp. Travel alone was demanding. Flights, long drives, extra helpers for wheelchairs, meds for days…and with every new challenge, the question became “what can we do to be a friend to this person?” “What do we need to build?” (as in ramps), and “How can we accomodate?” This was not because everyone there was trained. In fact, for many it was the first time meeting a friend with special needs. It was because there have been people who weren’t afraid to change the question. They moved from “should we?” to “how do we?” and never looked back!

This is what a preacher looks like…

Two events are taking place this week, both of which I would like to be a part of. One I get to; the other, I’ll have to watch from a distance. The first is camp in Minnesota with Youth Forum. (I am so excited!) The second event is the CBF annual meeting this year in Dallas. In particular, I wish I could be there for the baptist women in ministry meeting. One of the many things I appreciate about BWIM is a book they released a few years ago now titled, ‘This is what a preacher looks like.” All women, all preachers.

This brings me to both my excitement and anxiety about this week. I am going to Minnesota to be a camp pastor / preacher for junior high students through Youth Forum camps. I love camp. I love junior high students. It’s a win-win. Still, even after all these years of ministry, voices from my past haunt me. Fortunately, my formative years were void of the harshness I experienced during my twenties. While I didn’t ever see women in preaching roles, neither did I have anyone tell me I couldn’t or that women shouldn’t preach. By the time I hit seminary at age 20, all that changed. I was told repeatedly that women just could not preach. Not that we weren’t able, rather – and I quote – “it would turn God’s stomach to hear a woman proclaim the gospel.” Or so I was told. While this exact quote was only directed at me once, I have had its sentiment repeated numerous times.

I take seriously God’s charge to bring the gospel to the world. I take seriously the warnings to not take teaching or preaching lightly. I believe so much in adolescents deserving the very best that I still get more nervous and spend more time in prayer and preparation when preaching to youth than I do to an entire congregation. In short, I put enough pressure on myself without needing all those foolish voices creeping in, trying to get me off my game. Yet, there they are. Ever-waiting in the recesses of my mind, reminding me of all the foolish things that have been communicated to me over the years. I know better than to give them much time and attention, but silencing them often escapes me.

My second point of anxiety about this week is about the very notion of preaching itself. I know it is in scripture, and I come from a tradition that holds preaching in high regard. I, too, have a high regard for preaching. I am also aware that in the traditional sense, a sermon or lecture of any kind is one of the least effective forms of communicative teaching. When church members are being really honest, many are writing grocery lists, doodling, or simply distracted at points during the sermon each week. Tim Baker has a brutally honest post that has been haunting me for a few months now. I can’t help but wonder if it’s not that we need to get rid of preaching but that we need to rethink what it means in our world today. With the exception of my addiction to TED talks, I am rarely moved by what is told to me in any form of lecture, sermons included.

So with all of this anxiety and baggage, I am still excited. Excited to have a week with junior high students. Excited to preach and quiet all those foolish voices from my past. Excited to think through some of Tim’s suggestions as I seek to be faithful and proclaim God’s word. Most of all, I am excited for another week of being obedient and getting to be exactly what a preacher looks like.