Disability, Possibility, and the Church

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.

In the fall of 1980 I randomly, (or so I thought), met a pack of 25 high school kids in wheelchairs on the Blackford High School campus in San Jose, California. My unexpected immersion began into the world of kids with disabilities. Like most, I was unprepared, uncomfortable and a complete stranger to this world. I didn’t know how to connect or what to say. Early on I had an encounter with The Parable of the Great Banquet  in the Bible, where the host commands his servants to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame to his great banquet. For the first time, I read that passage literally, in the context of my new friendships with kids with disabilities.

I was moved. Was it possible that God had a very direct mission towards those with disabilities and it was high on His priority list? In that moment that is exactly what I discovered and God’s life changing phrase was given to me:

Kids with disabilities… lead us to LOVE often without visible results. They are many times unexpected prophets, screaming loudly, “I am valuable, simply because I am.” I perceive that if ours is not a theology that is inclusive of our friends with disabilities, then it is our theology that is disabled.

Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

This phrase opened the way through my fears, allowing me to forge deep-spirited friendships with kids with disabilities. A fundamental shift occurred in me. They were no longer disabilities who happened to be kids, but new friends who happened to have disabilities. This led me deeply into their lives to know them and be known by them.

I discovered young people with the same hopes, fears, and dreams as anyone, but rarely able to engage in them due to lack of access, economic disadvantage and no transportation. They were misunderstood, shunned and much of the time, invisible to others, except in their limited world of parents, teachers and doctors. I quickly learned their greatest challenge was our glamour filled, success and performance oriented culture. They simply did not fit.

So, we innocently began a weekly Young Life club meeting for our friends with disabilities. It was their only regular social gathering outside of their families. It took off. They were ravenous for adventure, community, laughter, fun and the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I soon found out that, not only did they not find a welcome in the fast paced teen culture, they also did not easily find a welcome in my own ministry organization. But, over a fourteen-year period, I watched a miracle take place. As we slowly integrated our new friends into every part of Young Life culture, their presence transformed them and their able-bodied peers, leaders and staff in dramatic ways.

Capernaum, which we named our ministry, is based on the story in Mark 2, where four friends go to great lengths to bring their disabled friend to the feet of Jesus. Today, Capernaum is completely integrated into the fabric of the Young Life culture. The result is 273 ministries across the United States, and ministries in 39 countries. What is the lesson in this? Young Life is a clear road map for the Church. In Young Life…

-A ministry focused on disabilities didn’t exist
-No one thought about disabilities
-God called one person of no experience to a group of kids with disabilities
-Through faithful persistence, the flicker became a flame and an idea spread throughout an international ministry

It is now normal in Young Life for each staff to consider our friends with disabilities in their area planning and outreach. So, what keeps our Christian Church doors closed to this community?

1) A theology of strength versus a theology of weakness. This is a group of people where God’s power can be perfected in weakness. Unfortunately, Christendom has been impacted by the “idols” of large numbers and impressive programs. Kids with disabilities, as a ministry, will typically be small, unimpressive, and as many say, “Do they even get the gospel?” By the way, yes, they do, but it is in their spirit, more than their mind. They lead us to LOVE often without visible results. They are many times unexpected prophets, screaming loudly, “I am valuable, simply because I am.” I perceive that if ours is not a theology that is inclusive of our friends with disabilities, then it is our theology that is disabled.

2) Being uncomfortable. Drool, feeding others, helping someone in the bathroom, garbled speech, random sounds and outbursts…for most of us, this is uncomfortable to be around, especially in church. Our friends cannot hide their disabilities. Many of us can, and do. We want our services to be spotless performances. Enter our friends with disabilities—the messy church. Isn’t that really who we are? Doesn’t the Jesus we proclaim know our messy selves as well as the others we consider a mess? We need a church that is comfortable with being uncomfortable.

3) Who is qualified to lead? Don’t we assume only the eloquent, the charismatic, the dynamic and the intellectually sharp should be leading? Don’t we want visionaries with brilliant strategies? The problem is our choices are almost always at odds with who God chooses to lead. He chooses the small, the insignificant and those lacking in confidence to do his greatest work, as stated in 1 Corinthians 1.

4) God has chosen the weak to shame the strong. He chose the foolish to shame the wise and the lowly things of this world and the despised things – the things that are not – to nullify the things that are. Based on this, my friends are first picks on the leadership list. But, do we believe this? As long as the Body of Christ closes its doors to those with disabilities, the Body of Christ itself is severely disabled. When we open the doors to these precious friends, the fresh wind of the Spirit blows in, bringing stunning examples of joy, love, friendship and worship like we’ve never known. Welcoming those with disability creates a church of glorious new possibility.


Palermo squareNick Palermo is the founder of Young Life’s Capernaum Ministries which was established in 1986 in San Jose, CA. He has served on Young Life staff since 1983 as a Club leader, Capernaum founder, Capernaum’s National Director, and currently is the Director of Young Life’s Metro Capernaum ministry in the Santa Clara Valley. Born and raised in San Jose, he is married to Sumarah (Sue) and has three sons. His favorite time of the week is any Capernaum club where he can be with his friends.

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