On June 27th, 2017, my gracious Dad drove me at my request to a Joni and Friends Family Retreat in Navasota, Texas. They had accepted my application to be a volunteer short-term missionary (STM) at the camp for one week!
(For anyone who might be unfamiliar with Joni and Friends, it would do you good to immediately check out that organization online and there see for yourself what they do and how it all started).
My excitement and my expectations were high. It was my dream then to be what so many STMs each year at the JaF family retreats usually turned out to be: a disabled person’s good friend who would learn along the way his or her way of life and how to best minister to them spiritually. In the end we would become besties; I was sure of it. “Be the hands and feet of Jesus!” was the exhortation of the trainers for us STMs. We rounded out to almost one hundred in number, STMs ready and available to serve a slightly smaller crowd of incoming campers who would also each have at least one family member and possibly a personal aid from outside of the family in tow.
As more and more of the other STMs arrived, I started to grow nervous and feel overwhelmed. I have always had a very hard time being comfortable around strangers for so long, and on that day I had never met so many at once with whom I would be working for an immediate cause. And the campers had not even arrived yet!
I learned early on that my friend would likely be in the age range between infancy and five years. I was slightly disappointed. It went to show that I had actually been looking forward to enjoying a friendship with a specific age group and not simply any special-needs camper regardless of whatever else was about them. Talk about favoritism and selfishness! I asked God to love whomever I would get so that He would work through me for them to be loved. As for how that prayer would be answered, I believe that it was and I intend to help show how it might have been answered through a written record of my week.
The training mostly consisted of several listening sessions. It was important for everyone to know the hows and whats and whys about people with disabilities in preparation for upcoming friendships. I forgot to bring note-taking material to the sessions and so I listened carefully. For a few hours, I was immersed in the world of how people with various unique conditions thought and acted and how to do basic things that a friend would do with them. It was very interesting, touching, and eventually exhausting. Listening while trying to remember everything was a lot of work. By the end of the day, all that kept me alert with anticipation was the mystery of whom would specifically be my dear little friend for the week.
The group of STMs serving the youngest campers assembled in a small nursery complete with bins of toys, rocking chairs, and a television set. I held my breath as papers holding campers’ personal informations were passed out. Whomever was being handed a sheet had been matched with a camper with special needs. There were ten children in all coming; five who were true campers and five who were accompanying siblings of campers and/or family members of STMs.
The sheets quickly ran out and I was not given one.
My job was not even going to be serving a person with a disability! Instead I would be one of a handful of babysitters for siblings whose parents would either be getting a break from their hard lives at home or be serving busily at the camp or be doing both. My pride and excitement dropped like a stone. “I might as well have just been given the lowest job on the entire site, one reserved for the least experienced and the least trustworthy of the STMs,” was my thought. My friend was going to be a toddler or an infant much like my younger siblings at home, a person who would not be challenging except for his or her interests that were unlikely to be at all close to mine and a little sin nature that was taking root in him or her with all five senses and an alert mind to carry out its will. I thought as I glanced over at my fellow STMs who got the papers, “They are the blessed ones. They got the most adorable people of us all, the greatest responsibilities, and the most trust from our STM leaders. How I’ve so wanted that! But as it stands, I have not deserved it.”
I was assigned no specific sibling. Our leaders decided to let siblings gravitate to various STMs by themselves. I knew nothing about the siblings except that they were going to come and be there. My heart was cold and I did not love them at all. I prayed desperately the thing for God to love them ahead of me. Our leaders adjourned the meeting. There would be a time of fellowshipping and worship and cookies. All of those strangers just down the hall and I had no pride or happiness to show to them! I fell apart even as I started to stand up.
And that was how I found a very unexpected friend at Joni and Friends Family Retreat of Navasota, Texas. A concerned and gracious fellow STM whom I formerly never guessed that would become much acquainted with stepped over and helped me calm down. She sensibly reminded me of Jesus’ example of being the lowest servant by washing His disciples’ feet and she also made up a witty piece of encouragement that was so funny to me that I laughed myself inside out!
I was also encouraged to get that my job would mean hanging out with a person whom on most other occasions lived day in and day out with a special-needs family member. Perhaps he or she would help me understand from his or her perspective, albeit a young one, what stepping aside to love another person day after day would really be like.
Everyone was very kind and wonderful who worked with me at the family retreat. I never met Joni herself, but it was perfectly enough because Jesus was there in the hearts of fellow STMs and in the very atmosphere: kindness and humility found in almost every corner of the place. The ministry was meant for the disabled campers and their families, but in a very special way God would work through it in Navasota to change and direct the hearts of STMs there, I, Kayla Lawrence, being one of them.