When our children were young, my wife Nancy and I read to them from Christian biographies, hoping they would grow to regard these saints as heroes. Our youngest child, daughter Anne, was captivated by the story of Joni Eareckson Tada. We discovered that there was a local branch of her ministry in our area and reached out to get involved. As we learned more about the ministry opportunities, Anne desired to go and serve as a Short-Term Missionary (STM) at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat.
Too young to serve alone, my wife accompanied her to Family Retreat. After their first day, my wife called me, choking on her words, so moved by the stories of the campers she had met. This went on for several years: they would go, serve, and come back with moving stories about the families they met. In my head, I thought, That’s great that you do that. Good for you. Keep up the good work. I told myself, I am a Pastor: I’m super busy doing’s God’s [other] work, and have [other] good gifts, and plenty of parishioners with whom to use them. I was safe, enthusiastically supporting [other] people’s outreach to people with disabilities. You go, girls.
Things continued like this until the summer when my wife was unable to attend Family Retreat with our daughter. My wife suffers from chronic pain and yet another surgery had left her in such a state that she couldn’t travel, much less work a week at camp. So, I reluctantly agreed to attend with our daughter. I was thankful for her Jesus-like selflessness and didn’t want her effervescence to be wasted. I pasted on a smile and sat through the day of training before the campers arrived.
Outwardly I smiled, but inwardly I was terrified about being assigned to a camper, perhaps one with a disability. I was only half-joking when I wondered aloud to another trainee, “How badly would we have to get hurt to be excused from this: would a sprain qualify us for deferment? Or would we actually have to break a bone?” I was open.
When families arrived on Monday, I was blessed to be paired with a young man named Jared. He was a delight and just right for my reluctant heart. His family was precious and very encouraging. I was moved by their deep commitment to Jared who happened to have Down Syndrome. He had two older sisters, and I was told how one of them quickly introduced a suitor to her brother saying, “This is my brother. We are a package deal.” Today that boy is her husband, and they are already set up to assume responsibility for Jared someday.
I’m ashamed to admit that until that week, although I’d been a full-time pastor for more than 25 years and a father of three, I had never spent a full five days just focusing on one other human being. Those five days changed my life, and my ministry. I returned to my congregation full of enthusiasm for disability ministry, and I quickly found there were others in our church with the same passion.
Before the Lord began to change my mind and heart, I was one of those pastors who thought that disability ministry meant hanging grab rails in the bathroom and building ramps over the steps. Today, I am privileged to be the pastor of a congregation that is working hard to not only build physical ramps, but to integrate and celebrate people with disabilities.
One of the many things that spurred this change in me during that Family Retreat training was watching a video of a Joni and Friends church liaison, a pastor with a son affected by disability. In the video, he said something that cut me to the quick: “Families affected by disability need churches… but churches need families with disabilities.”
Having become acquainted with so many precious families affected by disability, I now understand what he meant. Many of these families are outstanding examples of the grace of God under special-needs pressure. Inviting them to come to our church, where we hope to be well-prepared to receive them, has been a giant blessing to me and to our church family.
Check back on Friday for Part 2 of this blog series.
Dale Meador has been married to his wife, Nancy, for 40 years and is a doting grandpa to 3 (almost 4) grandkids. He is pastor of Bear Creek Church in Medford, Oregon, as well as a chaplain to the Medford Police Department. He is a strong advocate for disability ministry in his community and volunteers with Joni and Friends Southern Oregon. Last summer, his church sent over 100 people (both families and volunteers) to the Joni and Friends Twin Rocks Family Retreat in Oregon.