Saturday, June 15, 2013

Family Retreat

How does one even begin to describe a week as fast-paced and emotional as the one I just experienced? How could I put into words just how powerful the Spirit moved on that campus from start to finish? It would take me hours and hours to adequately document all of the little moments that gave me goosebumps or brought stinging tears to my eyes. I could go into detail of the many areas that families could relax and enjoy their week, but for the sake of time, I think it would be best to give you an idea of what my work was like and what it looks like to love like Christ.

FYI: The Joni and Friends Family Retreat is a five day camp for families and individuals affected by disabilities of many kinds. An STM (short term missionary) is assigned to a special needs child/adult or a typical sibling, and it is our job is to care for them and serve them from sun up to sun down throughout these days while the parents enjoy much needed relaxation.

No amount of course-work, statistics, or personal stories could have fully prepared me for what I would see in Mission Springs, California this past week. Upon arrival at the campus, I realized just how much prayer had gone into this Family Retreat. We prayed over every area, even the lawn, and begged God to do mighty things through us and despite us in these places. As we did exercises to help us experience what it was like to have certain disabilities, we prayed for understanding and wisdom on how to reach those with disabilities. We prayed for safety, fellowship, and for God to be glorified through it all. Boy, was He glorified...

The following day (CAMPER DAY!), I found myself with many other STMs waiting at the bridge waving a banner with my camper's name plastered on it. Whenever someone entered campus (yes, even for the UPS man), we would wave our banners wildly and holler out excitedly. The families that come onto campus do not typically have such warm welcomes. In fact, we live in a society that pushes those with disabilities to the sidelines. Our goal is to make everyone affected by disability feel like a rock star, and we truly see them as such.

When Mr. Jeremy Kim, my 11 year-old camper, jumped out of the car, I knew I had my hands full. He took off running, which I ended up doing quite a lot of throughout the week, and headed straight for the trees where he began climbing. Jeremy has autism, and I knew that I would need to be careful as I discovered what things would make him upset and what things he was really passionate about. As a more reserved, calm person, I remember looking up at him climbing on the Redwood trees and praying, "God, use Jeremy to teach me something. Allow me to get inside of his world and learn from him." He answered my prayer.

I learned that Jeremy has more joy than I will ever know. Sometimes he would just look at his chicken tenders and burst into laughter, and I couldn't help but laugh with him. With gobs of barbecue sauce or ketchup on his face, he'd lean in close to me and touch his nose to mine, and we'd both giggle childishly. I'll never forget taking him to the slip 'n slide for his very first time. I pushed him down once, and after that he just wallowed in the puddles and splashed around for a couple of hours. The first fifteen minutes of this time was spent repeating "happy, happy, happy, happy". Other kids would accidentally hit him in the head with water guns, and my immediate reaction was to rush to his side to keep him from crying or being upset with the other kids, but instead he completely ignored it. Some children would take the water hose from him or take the toys he was playing with, but instead of pulling back or fighting, he would sit patiently and wait for the hose to become unoccupied again. It's as if he was so completely joyful that no amount of selfishness or rudeness around him could bring him down. I was incredibly proud to say "that's my camper!" and to watch him interact with other children in such a selfless and joyful way. Jeremy lives an unfiltered and genuine life. God used an 11 year-old boy who is so different from me to show me things that I need to change about myself. Jeremy lives in his own little world and doesn't base his preferences or emotions on what society says is normal. I think we could all learn from Jeremy.

Forgive me, I could talk about that sweet kid all day. As far as camp in general goes, I have never seen something so beautiful. On Tuesday night, we had a square dance. Jeremy sat through the whole thing and we watched as people of all shapes, sizes, abilities, and colors danced together joyously. I had tears in my eyes nearly the entire time as I saw beaming faces and laughter and I knew that this is what it must be like to experience heaven on earth. Administration, STMs, and families were one. I could see it. Nobody was "too cool" for anyone else. We all got out there and acted goofy and I could sense the Holy Spirit working.

The talent show was incredibly special to watch. David played "bop it", Brooke hissed like an Avatar, Nick played the tambourine. It was an opportunity for every one who had something to share to make it up on stage and have an audience wildly applaud them. Only at Joni and Friends Family Retreat can you be moved to tears by the silliest forms of talent that you've ever seen.

My favorite part of the entire week was the last day during worship. Jeremy doesn't like going into the worship center (I think it might be that the music is too loud for him) so I never did get to participate in worship throughout the week. But on the last day, we got Jeremy to sit outside of the worship center in a chair by the doors. I had "spirit bumps" and tears began streaming down my face as I looked inside at the people worshiping. It was so messy. Kids were sitting in the floor, campers were participating by playing tambourines and toy drums on the altar, and some of the campers were dancing or walking around.

Isn't this how the Church should be? Welcoming in those who are ostracized and excluded and making them feel loved? Allowing those with disabilities to play the tambourine on stage or lead a Sunday school class because they too have spiritual gifts to share? God uses down syndrome, and autism, and quadriplegia, and every disability for His glory. So why doesn't the church seem to see that?

Leaving Jeremy was much more difficult than I had anticipated. That morning we walked to the playground and he didn't even really want to play. We kind of walked around aimlessly and after a while I pulled him into me and said with all sincerity, "I love you, bud." He looked into my eyes and said, "I love you."

I plan on participating in a Family Retreat every year. I have never experienced something so beautiful in my life. I can't think of a better way to spend a vacation than providing rest and love and spiritual growth for a family that so desperately needs it. For some, Family Retreat is the only event of the year where they feel loved and accepted, and it's the one thing they look forward to year after year. As glad as it makes us to know that they love camp, it's also incredibly sad that families feel isolated the remainder of the year. This is something I plan on working on in my church/community.



  1. Beautifully said, Bailey. As a Joni Camper myself, I can truly say you and all of the STM's are a huge blessing to us. So glad you got to work with Jeremy. The Kims are an awesome family!

  2. Bailey, thank you for expressing this so tenderly. It was a joy to watch you serve, and your words will be shared with many as we try to explain what Family Retreat is all about. I can't wait to hear how the rest of your internship goes!!

  3. Wow! I have been coming to camo for five years now and have loved it so much!! Last year at camp I also had a runner with autism and it was such an amazing experience! Justin was my buddy two years ago when the Kim's came to camp for the first time.

  4. We just had our first experience at Joni camp. It is very tough to transition to the world of typicals. All day has been spent reliving photos, video clips and stories of Michelle, our wonderful STM. We look forward to attending again, and again.