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Sharing faith and friendship: Young Life program ministers to teens and young adults with special needs

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The Young Life Capernaum group poses with members of the ECU Women’s basketball team. At Capernaum meetings, volunteers sometimes outnumber club participants. “You have all these best friends here who know you,” Capernaum Team Leader Katey McCarver said. “I think that’s the same for any high school student, pregnant teen, middle school or college-age person. They want to be known and they want to be loved.”


By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, April 1, 2018

In the New Testament, the story is told of four men who were desperate to bring their friend to Jesus. Because of the crowd and the fact that their friend could not walk, this would require an unconventional approach. So the men made an opening in the roof, lowered him in close to where Jesus was and saw a miracle in Capernaum.

More than 2,000 years later, Capernaum is still a place where people with disabilities are introduced to Jesus.

Thursday nights in the basement of Immanuel Baptist Church, they gather to sing songs, play games and share a Bible lesson. The text varies from week to week, but the overall message is one of inclusion as volunteers share their faith and friendship with teens and young adults with disabilities.

“When Jesus came, he came for the people who were lame, the people who were broken, the people who were disabled, the people who literally couldn’t get off their mat and walk,” said East Carolina University senior Katey McCarver, a Pitt County Young Life volunteer who serves as team leader for Capernaum. “He would go and hang out with the people who are considered less than … That’s who Jesus came for.

“Our goal is to sit them in front of a Bible and say, ‘There is a person who looks at you and sees no flaw in you,’” she said. “’You may not look like every single person in this room, but there is absolutely no flaw in you.’”

Over more than two decades, Pitt County Young Life has grown to include clubs at six high schools and four middle schools, along with a campus group at ECU and a ministry to teen moms. But until this year, there was nothing for people with special needs.

Like the paralyzed man whose story is told in the Book of Mark, some people with disabilities still struggle today to find an entry into the faith community. Capernaum committee chair Lisa Jordan said families of children with disabilities sometimes hesitate to attend church services or youth group meetings, fearing that their child’s behavior or medical needs will be viewed as disruptive.

Jordan, whose son, Todd, attended Young Life in his teen years, wanted her younger son, Spencer, to have a similar opportunity. It was not until McCarver was hired as a part-time caregiver for Spencer that Jordan learned that Young Life offered a program for people with disabilities.

“My child can’t go play ball at Guy Smith and he can’t go to the soccer field and all those other things, but this is a place that he can go,” Jordan said. “... It’s allowing them to have a group of friends.

“There’s so much that the parent gets when someone at the mall or someone at the ice cream store walks up and says, ‘Hey, how’s it going, man? I cannot wait to go to camp. See you on Thursday,’” Jordan said. “That is huge for a parent just to witness that someone embraced our child.”

After visiting a Capernaum Club meeting in Raleigh, Jordan and McCarver started making plans to start Capernaum in Greenville.

Pitt County Young Life Area Director Andrew Koehler had been on the job for less than a week when Jordan approached him about launching Capernaum. Koehler, who had worked with Young Life for eight years in Gaston County, was receptive. A former teaching assistant in an exceptional children’s classroom, Koehler had seen how youth with disabilities are often overlooked.

“I don’t think that’s because people don’t have a heart for kids with disabilities or that they don’t care,” Koehler said. “I think it’s more often they just don’t know how to interact with them and are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.”

For Capernaum, Koehler didn’t recruit volunteers based on their experience with special populations. He simply asked college students who were already volunteering with high school and middle school clubs if they would be willing to be part of the same kind of club for teens with intellectual disabilities.

“I believe to my core that all kids are the same,” Koehler said. “We’re learning the unique needs that our friends with disabilities have, but ultimately we know that we can love them and care for them. We can befriend them right where they are.”

In many ways, Capernaum looks like a typical youth group gathering, with loud music, lots of giggling and stacks of empty pizza boxes.

“We typically describe the club as controlled chaos or a party with a purpose,” Koehler said. “Ultimately we want it to look and feel like a party where there’s food, we sing songs and play games, and do funny skits, ultimately leading to a brief talk at the end about Jesus and the gospel.”

At a recent meeting, after a Bible lesson about the healing of a woman who had hemorrhaged for 12 years, followed by a short video clip from Disney’s “Aladdin,” Capernaum participants and leaders sat in “knee-to-knee” groups to talk about what they had learned.

“We try to figure out how to tell that story in a way that all kids can understand, especially as we’re working with kids with different levels of intellectual and cognitive disabilities,” Koehler said. “We try to figure out how do we communicate the gospel in a way that is clear and simple, which it is as its core, anyway. I think it’s us that usually complicate it.”

After a few dance videos, teens and volunteers played a game in which they pelted each other with Q-Tips. Then they locked arms to sing “Lord I Need You.”

“It’s good,” participant Jeremiah Ward said, adding that dancing is his favorite part.

Jahleel Morris, who didn’t know anyone in the room the first time he came to Capernaum, has enjoyed making friends.

“I think this is the most fun place ever,” he said.

Board member Tina Williams said Capernaum is exactly the kind of place that she wishes her uncle had been able to enjoy when he was growing up in Greenville.

“I think a lot of people think that people with special needs don’t have feelings … but they do,” Williams said. “They have the tenderest hearts, most times. They listen and they know more than people really know.”

Williams brings her son, Corbett, to Capernaum to participate and volunteer. He attends mainstream classes at middle school and is a part of Young Life’s Wyldlife program for middle schoolers.

“It’s so important for these kids to have an outlet and a way to be in touch with typical kids, typical environment and learning about the Lord.,” she said. “Everybody needs it.”

Jordan hopes to also start a similar group for older adults with special needs, since Young Life’s Capernaum programs are limited to ages 14 to 21.

Koehler knows that Capernaum alone will not resolve all the issues of inclusion for people with disabilities within the faith community, but he believes it is a start.

“It’s our best way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re not going to keep standing around saying we should do something,’” he said. “Let’s just take a shot at it.”

The next Capernaum meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 12 at Immanuel Baptist Church, 1101 S. Elm St. For more information about volunteering or participating, contact Lisa Jordan at lisa@bylisajordan.com or Katey McCarver at mccarverk14@gmail.com or 910-724-9264.


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