Something incredible happens when you bring young people and adults together in the same space, away from the world they’ve known, with the intention of growing in faith and understanding of who they are as children of God. Youth trust the process of building an intentional community much faster than adults because they’re used to being vulnerable.

For youth or adults living with a disability, vulnerability isn’t an option—it’s part of their way of life. Vulnerability looks different on people with disabilities than it does on able-bodied people. Their personal stories are shared publicly by doctors and teachers. They live as the “exception” to every rule while desperately wanting to be the norm. And often their place in the church is relegated to a pew cutout or a quiet room depending on what “disables” them.

The Definitely-Abled Youth Leadership Event (DAYLE), held July 12-15 in Detroit, had nearly 70 participants (youth, caregivers and staff) whose shared vulnerability became a gift we could offer to one another, to the youth’s parents, to our God.

Less than 24 hours into the event, participants engaged in a talent show, performing magic tricks, singing their favorite songs from Broadway musicals and Taylor Swift, playing their favorite hymns on the keyboard and telling jokes they’d been saving for such an occasion. (Trust me, if you’ve never danced along to Katy Perry’s “Roar” with a room full of youth who use wheelchairs, have an extra chromosome, interpret social cues differently and all who know how to giggle, you haven’t experienced church as it was meant to be experienced.)

That night, after freeing themselves to embrace, encourage and enjoy who they were created to be through song and dance, DAYLE participants entered into a time that can only be described as “tangible worship.” Prayer stations were set up around the worship space that engaged the senses and holy imagination, letting each person pray in new and concrete ways.

If one way to pray didn’t work, there were a multitude of options. Participants could sing, mold clay, weave prayers into a loom, walk an accessible labyrinth, look into mirrors, stick prayers onto one another with sticky notes, and leave with a blessing and reminder of their identity as a beloved child of God. The ballroom was transformed into holy ground as youth and adults shuffled around, sometimes staying at one station longer than another because their spirits connected with the Spirit in that moment.

What did I find most sacred about the event? I saw parents’ faith strengthened as they watched their child pray for them. I saw a son write “Mom” on a neon-green nametag and stick it to her arm. I heard a son explain he was making a blue clay version of his father. I watched a young woman bless her parents with water from our font. Witnessing parents who had prayed for their children constantly being made vulnerable by the Spirit was, in a word, incredible.

Sarah Flatt

Sarah Flatt is pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Capac, Mich.

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