A Worthwhile Trip
The Story of Joni & Friends’ June 2023 Family Retreat
Driving a souped-up Bobcat golf cart around the Shawnee campus, I sat next to a young man known simply as Jojo. Jojo has a form of autism that makes him extremely excitable and hyperactive, and here in the Bobcat cruising at a blistering 30 mph he was having the time of his life. In the back attached trailer were about four other children with disabilities, each enjoying the experience as far as I could tell (or at least I hoped), although in a more subdued way.
“Kyle, will you be back next year?” Jojo asked me.
“I hope so. As long as they invite me back,” I replied. We had to yell at each other to overcome the roar of the Bobcat engine.
Suddenly, Jojo started screaming excitedly and he seized my arm in a death-grip with all his strength. Frantically, I clutched at the steering wheel with my remaining free hand, trying to keep us from careening off the side of the road and down a hill. It was a tense couple of seconds, but Jojo let go before it could become disastrous. Looking back, it was actually kind of touching – he was excited I might be back again to drive him in the Bobcat more and wanted to express his enthusiasm. But in the moment, I was just glad I didn’t accidentally kill a bunch of children with disabilities. That wouldn’t be a good mark for a first-year pastor at Joni & Friends Family Retreat.
The June retreat was packed full of lifelong memories like this. I saw a young volunteer with severe anxiety reach his absolute limit with his camper who wanted a different volunteer at the beginning of the week. As the week progressed, the volunteer overcame his anxiety, and he and his camper became the best of friends.
I saw other volunteers learn the hard way what real patience looks like. One was paired with a camper who was wheelchair-bound and almost exclusively spoke in quotes from Barney & Friends. The other was with a camper who wanted to swim in the pool from sun-up to sun-down. By the end of the week both volunteers were rejoicing in their experiences.
I started the week with a painful, aching lower back. I felt like Gollum walking around hunched over like an old man. But one evening, several volunteers laid hands on me to pray for healing. That night I went to my room and in a moment the pain disappeared. It was such a strange experience; I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.
I met with a father who struggled with guilt over his past failings. I shared the Gospel message of grace and forgiveness, and that night he received Christ. On the last day of the retreat, during the all-camp gathering, he stood up to proclaim his newfound faith. The entire camp erupted in joy. It’s moments like these I’ll cherish forever.
It was a hard week with plenty of work every day. Every night I collapsed into bed in total exhaustion, but it was the good kind of exhaustion. The kind that only comes with good worthwhile work.
I had the chance to bring my family along with me as well. My mom even came to help watch my two young daughters. It’s important to me that my girls grow up exposed to the reality of disability so they can develop that heart of compassion early. I could tell the experience was jarring for them, but overall they had an amazing time. Seeing my almost 4-year-old daughter take an interest in some of these campers was a beautiful sight.
One of the highlights of the retreat is the Thursday night talent show where folks with disabilities show what they can do. Campers showed off their skills at karaoke, dance numbers, xylophone playing, trivia reading and more. The evening closed with an emotional gospel song sung by a young woman in a wheelchair. What impacted me most was seeing the honor given to these young folks by everyone in the room. These folks don’t get honored like this in the world, but this night at least it was different. As one parent put it, it was like a slice of heaven.
I saw the Freedom Fellowships volunteers stepping up in a big way. Not only did they make up the majority of volunteers, but their level of service was incredible. Many people from different churches told me how special it is that we have such a radical, mobilized group of both young and old ministers. It’s a rare thing to see, and it brought me a newfound sense of gratitude for this church that God is using so powerfully.
I came out of this trip convinced the Joni & Friends/Freedom Fellowships partnership is a God-driven and blessed thing worthy of serious investment. The disability community is easily one of the most marginalized groups on Earth, and it’s this community that is in most desperate need of the tender loving care of Christ. I was reminded of the many instances of Jesus’ compassion toward handicapped individuals in the Gospel accounts. I believe Jesus gives great honor toward those who serve this community in particular.
If ever you have a chance to serve at one of these retreats, don’t even hesitate. Do it. You’ll see God work through you and in you. I can’t promise it will be easy – you may reach the limit of what you think you can endure. But it’s good to be brought to the end of ourselves so the glory of God can shine through us ever the more.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” – 2 Corinthians 4:7