Growing up with cerebral palsy, at times, was difficult for me. There were times when I felt very lonely, and I wondered why God had made me so different. As a teenager, being different wasn’t such a great thing. I blamed my disability for my having been left out of activities I knew were going on. I was not invited to go to the movies or go out for dinner with anyone during my high school years, and I blamed my isolation on my cerebral palsy.
As a pastor, I feel a strong sense of call from God to do ministry with people who have disabilities. I knew that if I had so much of a struggle making friends in my teen years, there had to be others like me. I want to reach those youth who struggle with their identity in their formative years, as I did, and help them see the claim of God on them. So, last summer at the request of Lutherans Outdoors South Dakota, I entered into conversations about starting a new program for youth with disabilities. From that conversation came Camp ABLE.
Recently, from June 10-12, eight campers attended the first Camp ABLE at Joy Ranch near Watertown, S.D. At Camp ABLE, the youth participated in the same activities other campers participate in, as the camp has been built to be fully accessible. The big difference was, instead of using the regular summer curriculum for camp, I, along with my friend Erin Diericx, led Bible studies geared toward youth with disabilities.
On the first night of camp we talked about the bad names the world often uses for people with disabilities. We made name badges with those names and discussed how those names hurt us. We then discovered that Jesus is the one who takes away all of those negative labels in his own body on the cross. In return, Jesus gives us new names. We looked at many passages that reflected the new names God gives us and we wrote those names on a mirror. We wrote down names like Child of God, Son, Daughter, Royal Priest, Chosen, and others. We then had the campers look into the mirror so when they saw these wonderful names of God, they would see their own reflection.
Later in the evening we had a campfire where we sang a lot of great camp songs. One of the songs we sang was, “Thank You Lord for Giving Us Life.” We sang the song through and then the counselors asked for suggestions of things to use in place of the word “life.” We sang “Thank you Lord for giving us pets.” One camper, however, suggested replacing the word “life” with “names.” It was at that moment that I knew they had heard the message that they were claimed and loved by God no matter what the world said about them. On the final day, at the closing program, the camp staff gave each camper a hand-held mirror, which included the names God has given to all of God’s beloved children. Now whenever those youth feel lonely, left out, awkward or sad, they need only look in the mirror and be reminded of who they really are.
Camp ABLE at Joy Ranch was made possible by a grant from the funds being raised for Disability Ministries as part of Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA. The smile on the kids’ faces at camp reminds me just how important the work of sharing the good news with people with disabilities is.