Have you ever been asked a question similar to "how would you describe chocolate to someone who has never heard of it or tasted it"? I find myself thinking along those lines when trying to put into words my experience this past week at the Joni and Friends Family Retreat. First, let me just start by saying if you, a friend, family member, neighbor or anyone you know has any type of disability, you need to go check it out! (Go ahead and do it right now, I can wait)
JAF Family Retreats are held in several locations each summer across the US. They also have international retreats as well. The website explains that it is a safe and caring environment for families with special needs, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. It was a truly amazing and unforgettable week! I have never experienced anything like this camp anywhere else in my life. It did not matter what your ability or disability level was, everyone was just treated with such love and respect. I witnessed what it truly means to be the hands of feet of Christ in a very real way. Volunteers helped with everything from bathroom needs, to feeding, to just being a true friend and so much more.
Each human being is created in the image of God, and although we are marred by sin and disease and death, we are all worthy of respect. I shed so many tears this week as I heard stories of how families and individuals have been touched and lives changed at Family Retreats. There is likely no place else on the planet where you can worship with such a variety of people. There are no judgmental glances or words when your child yells out, or runs around, or throws themselves to the ground. There is freedom and acceptance at a level I did not expect and cannot really explain. Disabilities ranged from mild to profound. It is humbling to see all the volunteers (many of whom are teenagers) give selflessly of their time to give families a break from the round the clock care that many of the campers need.
This was my first time doing anything like this and I was nervous that I couldn't handle it. What if I said or did the wrong thing? What if I was physically unable to keep up or do my job? All that worry was quickly washed away as I realized that I was finally in the one place where others would understand my fatigue and my limitations. It was one of the most forgiving and grace-filled weeks of my life. I enjoyed daily hugs and high fives from some of the campers, and they will be missed. I learned a lot about myself, both my strengths and weaknesses, and about God's sustaining grace and overwhelming mercy to gently show me my sins, help me to love others and give me His strength to get through the week.
We are back home and I am knee deep in dirty laundry, unopened mail and staring at an empty fridge. I really want to hop back in my car and go back to Michigan for week 2, but alas it is not to be. Only 51 more weeks until I can do it all over again though!!
This week's verse was from Nehemiah 8:10 "The joy of the Lord is my strength" and I can say I experienced that joy this week! Tears and pain and fatigue were plentiful, but overarching it all was God's joy.
Would you consider coming and serving alongside me next year? If that isn't a possibility, maybe you can give so that we or others can go serve (all volunteers have to cover all travel, lodging and meal expenses), or offer a scholarship to a family who could use a welcoming vacation among friends. Share the gospel message and love of God with those families affected by disability and be the hands and feet of Jesus in a real, loving and practical way.
Be encouraged and enjoy our theme song from the week!