When I was 15, the “radical new youth pastor” moved to town. At this point in my life, I was worn down from the exclusionary, hormone driven practices of many of my peers. I did not want to do very much because I felt that everything I did as a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy was a burden to others. My neighbor suggested that I attend the new youth group with her. I enjoyed myself immensely and returned a few more times before voluntarily excluding myself because the group was traveling to a special event the following week. I remember that conversation vividly; I told the youth pastor that I would not be able to go because my mom would be working and could not provide me with a ride. “Would there be anything else going on at the church that I could participate in instead?” I asked. The youth pastor looked at me, somewhat confused and asked, “Don’t you want to go to the rally with us?” “Well, yes of course,” I said, “but I do not have a ride.” Confused even further he said, “Well that’s what the bus is for.” I thought it must’ve been a practical joke.
At this point, he could have said anything to make sure the responsibility did not fall on him to arrange accessible transportation.
- “I’m sorry your mom is not able to drive you…”
- “I’m sorry the bus isn’t accessible…”
- “I’m sorry we have no one trained to help you…”
Instead, he asked me to arrive half an hour before departure time so that he could dismantle my chair and help me to get on the bus. As my youth pastor lifted my chair and me onto the bus, he quite literally embodied God’s strength, breaking down barriers to belonging. This trip was my first of many youth group excursions. It proved to be the most significant, though. Not only did God make it possible for me to ride the bus, but the effort of my youth pastor showed that he and the other kids wanted me there. Their actions made it clear that my presence was not a burden but a blessing to them. I had found a sense of belonging in the family of God that I had not received from secular culture.
John Swinton says, “Inclusion is to be welcomed when you’re physically present; belonging is to be missed when you are gone.” My first experience on the youth group bus shows that barriers to belonging can and should be dismantled in perhaps unconventional ways.
17 years have passed since that incredible ride, and I am grateful that Lyndon, my former youth pastor, and I still connect on occasion. Recently I asked, “What made you support my full participation in the way that you did? He said, “That’s simple! Your physical limitations were not a reason to exclude you, so we had to find a way to make it work.” Lyndon added that in his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote,
Friendship … is born at the moment when one man [or woman!] says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”
Lyndon continued, “If we can learn to look past our misfortunes – and we all have them – we would do well to realize that we are not alone. Ultimately, our misfortunes can disable us from reaching our potential. Let’s face it. If we are honest, we all have ‘disabilities’ to some degree, but we all have abilities, too. If we can be aware of this, helps us look outwardly at others and respect them for who they are. Chantal, you remind me that anyone can choose to wallow in misery and complain about the cards you were dealt in life or, like you, anyone can choose to work hard at discovering their God-given gifts and making the world a better place.”
My heart goes out to youth with exceptional needs who are looking for a place to belong today and might not feel supported by their church youth group. Further, I wonder how many youth groups are missing out because youth with different abilities do not yet feel that they belong in their midst. There are people who act as though inclusion is a luxury for people with exceptional needs. In fact, exclusion appears to be a luxury for some able-bodied people. Thankfully for me, exclusion was not a ‘luxury’ that Lyndon desired or even saw as an option. Lyndon’s example demonstrates that exclusion of people with exceptional needs is a ‘luxury’ that faithful Christians cannot afford. Rather, it is only when everyone belongs that we experience the full riches of the body of Christ.