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Capernaum Campers Demonstrate Leadership Skills

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Sara Webb Cutline No. 1Sara Webb’s 13-year-old son, Malachi, was not a Capernaum camper but served as a volunteer, nevertheless and made friends. “They’re fun people,” said Malachi. "What might the church look like if people with profound and complex intellectual disabilities were conceived of as disciples with a distinct vocation—a calling given them by Jesus?" author John Swinton.

While the summer camp season is in the rearview mirror of history, Sara Webb is filled with the conviction that hope springs eternal.

The reason for Webb's optimism is because of what she experienced with a group of young adults with cognitive disabilities at a four-day discipleship camp at Timber Wolf Lake camp in Lake City.

Leaders in the making

What Webb witnessed is the molding of leaders.

"They have something to offer the community, their church and their schools," said Webb, a Capernaum Regional Coordinator, Western Great Lakes Region for the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based parachurch ministry Young Life. The Great Lakes Young Life covers northwest Indiana and the western half of Michigan, for a total of 30 Young Life areas in the region with a total of 117 active ministries.

Sara Webb Cutline No. 2The Capernaum campers at Timber Wolf Lake camp in Lake City. "When we see our friends with disabilities as gifted individuals, we fall into the co-laboring space," said Webb.

The Capernaum branch of Young Life is a relational ministry for cognitively and intellectually disabled people from middle school to age 26. Twenty-six is the age cap for Capernaum participants in Michigan because it's patterned after the state-supported education system for the developmentally disabled that ends at the same age. Capernaum people are referred to as "friends."

Web served in August as co-director of the Capernaum camp to 40 young adults who are part of Young Life Capernaum, which is named after the four able-bodied men who took their friend with a disability to the town of Capernaum and eventually lowed him through a straw roof so Jesus could heal him.

A tech-free camp

It was intentionally a tech-free camp (yes, no smart phones or tablets were allowed!) so camp participants could learn new skills and hear from God without modern-day distractions
And within those four days, the Capernaum campers made bunk beds and prepared snacks for hungry children, all the while demonstrating they have what it takes to work together and follow instructions.

"We taught them a new skill and confidence: I can serve," said Webb.


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The campers sanded, drilled holes, hammered and stained the wood that would be used as bunk beds for the nonprofit Sleep In Heavenly Peace.

Another service project involved hauling out a huge bag of popcorn and collating them into around 300 zip lock bags so they could be donated to the nonprofit Kids' Food Basket.

"It was really fun because they connected that this goes to somebody in need, to kids who don't have food," said Webb. "We want them to understand they have the ability to lead and see them transitioning to leadership roles."

Webb smiles, recalling the times at the camp when the Capernaum friends also got to let their hair down and enjoy a petting zoo, ride go carts, cut a rug at a dance party and belt out songs during karaoke night.

Beyond the camp is Webb's goal to see area churches expand their inclusiveness.

"It really starts with our own hearts and our own ideas," she said. "God needs to work on my heart first. I think there are churches that understand inclusiveness and giftedness. We all deserve true belonging and I believe the church is a part of that."

Webb cites author John Swinton as a champion grafting developing disabled people's gifts into the world at large. His book "Becoming a Friend of Time" has helped her grow in her understanding of disability, she said.

"One of Swinton's thoughts has been a loud voice in my head over the past year, and has given me a discipleship vision for my Capernaum friends in the Western Great Lakes Region," Webb wrote in an email.

Diverse abilities

"He (Swinton) wrote about the parable of the talents," Webb told West Michigan Christian News. "Jesus tells about the servant who buried the talents in the ground. God gave us gifts we should use. John writes, what if we are the ones burying other's gifts? What if we're wicked servants? What if we (instead) looked at people with diverse abilities as being gifted?

Young Life's background

Presbyterian minister Jim Rayburn launched Young Life in Dallas in 1941. The ministry's outreach is global and ecumenical.

These days, the nondenominational ministry reaches out to middle school, high school and college-aged kids in all 50 United States as well as more than 90 countries.

In addition to a Young Life group for special needs people, there are groups for high school students (Young Life), college age kids (Young Life College), military kids (Young Life Military) and teen moms (Young Lives).

Young Life maintains summer camps in 17 states, including Michigan's Timber Wolf Lake, as well as camps in British Columbia, Canada, the Dominican Republic, The United Kingdom, Armenia and France.

Young Life also runs local Young Life clubs for high school students, held weekly and typically in homes (Capernaum friends typically do not meet in homes but handicap accessible dwellings), which include singing, skits, and where the Christian gospel is explained in short talks.

There are around 700 Young Life Club chapters worldwide, and usually one Club is associated with one high school. Webb's is associated with Ottawa Hills, with the goal of launching two new groups in East Grand Rapids/Grand Rapids Christian and Penn High School in South Bend, Indiana in the fall.

Each club is comprised of volunteers who contribute their time to mentor and assist students based on Christian values and principles.

"Our hope is that connection is bigger than their years at Capernaum but a lifetime of growth," said Webb. "In my role I get to help bridge those gaps for churches, for families and for clubs.

"To be whole in the church, we need everybody."



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Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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