|Jenny, Ken, Kris, and Joni MN '14|
I still remember standing on the green chair in my father’s den, peering onto the top rows of his bookshelf, looking for something to read. It was 1997. I was 13, overly self-conscious of my mild cerebral palsy, desperately longing for God to reach out His hand and heal me.
Joni was sitting on a corner shelf, stacked against a few other titles I didn’t recognize. Perhaps I was drawn to the fact that a young woman grazed the cover. Maybe I was intrigued by its flowery title whose giant brown letters framed Joni’s face like a window, inviting me to peer back into the 1970s.
My next few days were spent with the world only in my periphery as it peeked out beyond the pages of the book. Joni wrote with such gripping detail that I too felt as if I had broken my neck in a diving accident and spent my evenings recovering in a Stryker frame.
It was Joni’s concluding words that gripped me by the throat and wouldn’t let me go: I’d rather be in this chair knowing him than on my feet without him.
No! I screamed in my head. Isn’t there a third option!? Can’t I love Jesus AND be healed? I scanned the pages of her book in torment before I threw it under my bed. Days later I placed in into a brown paper bag and carried it to the trash.
* * *
In 2012, I arrived at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat held at Castaway Club in Detroit Lakes, MN. (Learn about family retreats and more at http://www.joniandfriends.org/) After much deliberation, I had accepted the invitation to volunteer as a short-term missionary (STM) for the week.
I was simply overwhelmed.
I found myself in the bathroom one afternoon only to realize that the woman in the stall next to me was changing the diapers of her adult son.
I witnessed a middle-aged woman tend to her two adult sons with severe disabilities by herself because her husband had died of cancer that winter.
I wondered about the man seated in front of me each morning in the chapel. Why didn’t he have a power wheelchair like everyone else?
Everyone seemed so happy during our nightly volunteer debriefing. They were smiling and celebrating the precious connections they had made with their campers throughout the day…I wanted to grieve.
Then one day in small group, I looked across the room to witness a man who was crying. Finally! There’s someone around here who is keeping it real. I thought to myself.
“Are you crying because of all you have lost due to your disability?” The STMs around him asked. The man signed “Yes,” and the volunteers began to weep. The next day, he was introduced to the rest of us.
“This is Kris. Kris was in a car accident. He can’t talk with his mouth so he signs with his good hand one letter at a time. 1 is for yes and 2 fingers are for no. Even though he can’t talk he still thinks like a typical adult.”
Upon hearing these words, I had one of those rare moments in life when I looked at Kris and saw years ahead. My heart was broken for him, but at the same time, I just wanted to sit beside him and eat pizza together. I wanted so desperately to go over to his house, sit by his chair, and watch him sign hour after hour until we learned how to communicate.
After a few exchanges on Facebook following camp, Kris asked me a simple question, “Do you like pizza?”
And so began our friendship.
The last two years have been beautiful and hard. Learning how to interact with someone who is non-verbal is challenging, but within our conversations I have learned what a gift it is to simply be with another person, that so much can be accomplished and communicated simply by holding another’s hand. Dallas Theological Seminary professor Dr. Victor Anderson was right when he said:
A ministry of friendship [to people with disabilities] does not depend on a vast biblical knowledge or refined pastoral technique. Rather it displays loyal love to an individual and a family, modeled after the love God has shown to his broken people. Relational needs are seldom met with an occasional contact. Family fragmentation may be irreparable, and feelings of aloneness that are controlled in one hour may be ferociously unleashed in the next. Yet true friendship serves as a balm repeatedly applied and rubbed deep into the soul.
* * *
Volunteering as an STM at Joni and Friends Family retreat has changed my life. It has impacted the mail I receive, the books I read, and how I spend my money. It has sparked a greater awareness in me to those in my immediate community who have been impacted by disability. It has caused me to ask deep questions about the role churches can play in reaching out to those who are disabled and to wonder about the spiritual formation process that occurs within a person who suffers.
So much has changed since that day I threw a vintage copy of Joni in the trash. This summer, Joni visited Minnesota’s Family retreat where Kris and I got to meet her. Of all the things I said to Joni throughout this special week, the ones that kept falling most often from my lips were, “Thank you!”
Jenny Hill is an elementary school library media specialist and the author of Walking with Tension a book about her walk with God and with cerebral palsy. She is currently pursuing her doctorate at Bethel University where Joni visited this March. Jenny regularly blogs about faith and disability at walkingwithtension.com
Anderson, V. D. (2011). Pastoral care and disability. In L. J. Waters & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), Why o God? Suffering and disability in the Bible and the church (pp. 231-243). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
The story of Kris was shared with permission.