This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.
I consider Christopher to be one of the pastors of the little church my family and I attend. He never went to seminary, has no formal training, and isn’t called Reverend, but he is a pastor. Christopher is a young adult in our congregation who is refreshingly honest, affectionate, and always willing to give a hug as we pass the peace. Sometimes he is more honest than I would prefer, like when he whispered (loudly) that I needed to brush my teeth. And sometimes his affectionate embrace can last longer than desired, or be tighter than one can handle comfortably.
Christopher is also vulnerable. One Sunday morning we sat together on the floor in the back of the sanctuary during the sermon. He was sad, and cried as he mourned the loss of his uncle who had recently passed. We just sat there. He cried. We sat. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, and I realized that I was becoming annoyed with the situation. I was being distracted as I tried to listen to the sermon on loving one another. Catch that irony? It took me longer to figure that one out, but as soon as I did, I realized that Christopher had done it again. He embodied the gospel in a way only a young man like Christopher could, and called me into a deeper understanding of this passage from the Gospel of John, chapter 15.
I have a lot to learn about what community, and the church, could actually be like from someone like Christopher. Without his gifts our congregation would suffer. Without his presence, I might continue to hide from real community. We need the Christophers of our communities, and they need us.
Christopher is a young adult with Down’s syndrome, and we have known Christopher since he was in middle school and a part of the local Young Life Capernaum ministry. Years later Christopher has become a part of this little congregation, along with a few of his friends with disabilities, and some of their families. I say that Christopher is a pastor, because without his presence and his voice, we would all be missing something significant.
Zach is one of my heroes. Zach Grant is our part time youth minister, the other half of his work (which I’m sure adds up to like 4 jobs!) is working part time with the Capernaum ministry of Young Life in town. Zach believes deeply that the church should not only go out of its way to welcome folks with disabilities, but in fact that the church needs the voice, the presence, the gifts of those with disabilities. Zach is on a mission, not a loud or boisterous campaign, but a much more subversive hush-hush kind of attack. He wants us all to fall in love with Christopher, with Javontte, with Sarah, Matt and with many others. Zach knows that the gifts of these amazing individuals with disabilities will be the salve many of us need. He also knows that the love, community, and friendship that the congregation can offer will be readily accepted by his friends with disabilities as well. This is what happens when the church acts like the church: gifts are shared, healing takes place, and people are made more whole. Not in a “you are healed and therefore not disabled” kind of whole… but instead a “I am created imago Dei with gifts and beauty inherent to my life with disabilities” kind of whole.
That’s what Christopher has done to me. I say “to” me because I actually never knew to ask for this kind of love or ministry from anyone. I never knew that, in fact, a bear hug from a friend in the row behind me during the prayers of the people might actually be exactly what I needed. I never knew that while listening to that sermon on loving one another might have been good, actually getting the chance to sit on the floor and love someone in a time of need would be better. Christopher’s ministry is what Ben Conner talks about as an “evocative witness”1 insofar as Christopher actually brings something altogether new out of me. His witness, while meaningful and important on its own, has a second effect. His witness actually invites me into a more whole and faithful way of being human by experiencing a more genuine sense of togetherness with another person in Christian love and fellowship. His willingness to show affection actually resembles my latent desire to do so as well—the truth is that I’m just too scared to give a hug or tell someone that I love them or show pure joy and excitement when a friend arrives. His honestly and vulnerability about being sad resembles a deep cry within my heart to express how I really feel, my need and desire for someone to recognize my own pain at times, and sit with me in it.
I have a lot to learn about what community, and the church, could actually be like from someone like Christopher. Without his gifts our congregation would suffer. Without his presence, I might continue to hide from real community. We need the Christophers of our communities, and they need us. We need pastors who, rather than leading worship from up front, will lead from within the congregation as evocative witnesses. I’m grateful for Christopher, one of my pastors. May God bless us all with these evocative witnesses often overlooked in our communities and congregations.
1. Conner, Benjamin T. Amplifying Our Witness. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 68.
Justin Forbes serves as the director of the Youth Ministry program at Flagler College and has been involved in youth ministry since 1998. Currently a candidate for his PhD from the University of Aberdeen, Justin is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary earning a Masters of Divinity as well as a Masters of Arts in Youth Ministry. He also attained a Masters of Arts in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Having spent 12 years working for Young Life, and serving locally in his church, Justin brings a broad base of experience across different types of youth ministry to include urban, multicultural, suburban, special needs, and college ministries. He is the co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry, a youth ministry resource organization, and is a proud foster parent. His passion is teaching and mentoring youth ministers. He and his wife Bethany live in St. Augustine, FL with their 4+ children.