Woodleaf is a holy place to me. It’s the first place I took kids with disabilities to camp and watched the Holy Spirit transform them. It’s the first place I saw typical kids embrace our friends with disabilities so fully. In fact, Young Life’s Woodleaf was recently recognized as the most diverse Christian camp in the world!
This past summer I saw the beauty of that diversity again in a fresh way. A group from Bishop, California came with 12 guys and their 2 leaders. Mostly athletes, this was a high-energy group who embraced every adventure and challenge with physical prowess and excitement that only an adolescent male can know. Night one, I watched them make their way down to the obstacle course in their camouflage gear, mud caked under their eyes chanting a call and response, but I was struck when I noticed the last guy in their group who was calling out their cheer to which they responded. John had an undeniable place among this cabin of boys. He rallied them on, hyped them up, called them forward, motivated them, all the while struggling to keep up as his four-foot-five-inch frame carried a lot of weight and moved slowly. In any other setting, it would be clear that he has developmental delays, but here they disappear when he is in his role of motivator and cheerleader. I watched his calls carry his friends through the obstacle course and watched as they would complete a task then turn, without skipping a beat, as a group and reach arms over walls, under nets, through tires to pull, lift, and even carry him through as though it was the most natural act of teamwork. They were one.
John seemed to be about 100 yards behind this group anywhere in camp that they were moving just because of his own struggle physically to move, but not an inch behind their hearts and participation. Cabin unity games, mud wars, high dive contest, he was central to who they were. There wasn’t a struggle to include or a burden to make him part of their group—he just was. On more than one occasion, John somehow ended up on stage in a game, in the center of the water regatta or dancing as the program characters entered and all of a sudden, his 11 cabin mates would jump up next to him to join him, chant his name, or cheer him on. They were the first to celebrate him.
I’ll never forget him as the last man standing in a game one night on stage in club, his 11 high school aged friends began to chant his name in celebration of his victory and in response, 370 typical high school kids and their leaders sprung to their feet to join—a standing ovation by 381 people who called him by name in celebration and embrace. I don’t know many places on earth that our friends with disabilities are so fully invited, welcomed, and celebrated than in Young Life, a young man who the world might find unlovely or unwanted totally embraced into a family, a young man whose loss of his own father is being filled by Godly male leaders walking alongside of him and embracing who he is with joy, acceptance, and adventure…. This is John’s experience in his Young Life area. It was no surprise to me that on the last day at Say So, John stood, took the microphone and exclaimed “I’m comin’ home to Jesus, man!” and the camp once again erupted in cheers, laughter and tears.
Woodleaf continues to be a holy place for all of us who experience this kind of embrace. We are all made more whole, feel more healed, and sense the welcome of our Heavenly Father when we watch the Johns of our community invited in, welcomed, and celebrated. We need them!