As you can imagine, when you have a disability, you get several different responses when interacting in any given social situation. To tweak the words of Tom Hanks in Forest Gump, “Talking with people is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get!” Sometimes people hold a normal conversation, others assume the you’re mentally delayed. Now, I like to think that I’m somewhat intelligent, so naturally my biggest pet peeve is people who talk to me condescendingly. Because of this, in late elementary school, I had to find a solution. Because I was just an ignorant little kid, striving to fit in, I figured that if I avoided being around developmentally disabled kids, people wouldn’t categorize me as much. I even went as far as to quit my Challenger softball team, there were other factors as well but that’s a different story. As a result of distancing myself, I began to be uncomfortable around a group of people that I had once enjoyed being around. In high school, I would hate the commute home on the short bus. Looking back, I’m not proud of this behavior at all. In reality, I was no better than the people avoiding or talking down to me!
Up until almost two years ago, working or being with people with disabilities was not where I wanted to be. In a sense being with people with a disability was my Nineveh. Scripture tells a us a story of a prophet named Jonah, who was asked by God to deliver a message to the people of Nineveh. Because Jonah couldn’t stand the Ninevites, he decided to head the opposite direction. However, God needed to get a message to the the city and teach Jonah a lesson. So God had a big fish swallow Jonah and spit him up just outside of the city. As I started my second year at Fox, I had no idea that God would ask me to face my Nineveh.
On an October morning in 2010, I had a meeting with my friend Aaron, who is the Newberg area director for Young Life. Because of my disappointing first attempt to come on Young Life staff, we were discussing ways of increasing my involvement level. Aaron asked me if I would assist him in starting a Capernaum and eventually oversee the ministry. Capernaum is a ministry under Young Life that builds relationships and shares the Gospel with kids with special needs. Immediately, I answered with “No, you’re asking the wrong person. I’ve spent half my life trying to separate myself from that crowd!” For the following two weeks, the idea of starting Capernaum would not leave me. After thinking and praying about it for a number of days, one morning I awoke with a changed heart and a burning desire to start this ministry.
Following Christmas break, Aaron and I began meeting weekly and put a development plan in motion. We contacted Lake Oswego Capernaum and planned a visit that would change my life. As I participated and observed, my heart broke and I began to weep. Not because I felt bad for them but because they are real with everyone and they radiate with the love of Christ! I fell in love with these kids!
To shorten the story, Newberg Capernaum held its first club in April of 2010, and has continued to grow. I was on staff in Newberg this past year and have met some amazing kids and parents. On Saturday we will take Newberg Capernaum to the next level; we are taking our first Capernaum group to camp! I’m so excited to see what God will do next week!
However, reflecting on these memories of Newberg Capernaum is bittersweet. This Thursday will be my final Capernaum club in Newberg. I am embarking on a new adventure to bring Capernaum clubs to East Portland/Gresham schools. Although I’ll miss my Newberg kids, I believe that God has something big planned for the east side!
“Be comfortable with being uncomfortable”- Nick Palermo