I am spending the month of June mentoring college students and playing music at Young Life’s Woodleaf. This property has played a key role in my life’s process. I was baptized here in December of 1993, been here just about once a year since 1987 and worked every job a volunteer can do here. This is the second in a series of lessons I’ve learned while at Woodleaf.
Michael, one of my Summer Staff guys, is talking with Anthony by the light of a flashlight. Anthony is one of 72 campers here at Woodleaf this week who are part of Young Life’s Capernaum Project. Capernaum cares for teens and adults living with various disabilities. Michael has asked Anthony if he wants to go through the military-style obstacle course just up the hill from where we are standing. Anthony is explaining that he’d like to but that his chair won’t make it up the hill. It’s a significant piece of machinery, designed to carry up to 650lbs, and while Anthony probably only weighs 170lbs or so, getting him up the steep hill and through the muddy course with his chair is a practical impossibility.
Michael is leaning over now, talking closely with Anthony and I can’t hear what they’re saying. But I can see Anthony’s arms in the air and his head nodding wildly up and down. Michael is laughing as he reaches to un-buckle Anthony from his chair. And moments later, Anthony is fist-pumping and thumbs-upping his able-bodied friends from high upon Michael’s shoulders.
Over the next fifteen minutes, Anthony would conquer each of the eight obstacles on the course with the help of his new friend, Michael. And, when it’s all over, as they descend onto the main road, Michael is buckling Anthony back into his chair, saying “Thank you so much. That was awesome.”
And I don’t think he’s simply being sentimental when he says it… I don’t think he’s being patronizing. Though Michael is the one who did the bulk of the work, he’s expressing his thankfulness for the gift Anthony offered him – a gift I’ve been offered myself here at Woodleaf many times. Something close to magical happens to the able-bodied among us when we allow ourselves to befriend, serve and know our disabled sisters and brothers; I think we become more fully human.
Because of his disability, Anthony will likely not experience many of the things able-bodied folks find affirming and validating in the human experience – career, education, vocational success, courtship, sexual intimacy, financial success, etc… and it is in relationship with their Young Life leaders, their loving parents and with friends like Michael that Anthony is reminded, over and over again, that he is fully human, fully loved, fully accepted and fully valued. His disability may prevent him from a significant list of experiences, but that’s different from suggesting he is defined, intrinsically, by his disability. He’s limited. So am I to a degree. Limitation is part of being human – it forces us into relationship. And in relationship, we find the roots of our most fundamental value and identity.
Anthony high-fives Michael before being wheeled off toward his cabin to wash off the mud from his legs, arms and face. Michael says, for the third time now, “Thank you.” And this time, I feel like he’s saying it for me. For folks like Michael and myself, able-bodied and upwardly mobile, our connection with friends who live with disabilities reminds us that our value isn’t anchored to our particular successes, failures or even experiences, either. I am reminded that the value of my life is given, acknowledged, received, taught, etc… it isn’t earned and it cannot be diminished. The value of my life is rooted in my relationships, first with the Creator and then with the family, friends and community among whom I get to live out the gift that is my life.