In the summer of 2013, I had my first experience at Joni and Friends Family Retreat. These retreats were envisioned and put forward by the Joni and Friends ministry and Joni Eareckson Tada as a means for families affected by disability to enjoy a restful and accessible vacation. Joni Eareckson Tada, as some of you may know, was injured in a diving accident in 1967 and broke her neck, causing her to become paralyzed from the chest down. This ministry has successfully launched 25 retreats in the U.S. and is now making it possible for retreats to be held in countries around the world as well.
When I first signed up to volunteer at Joni and Friends Family Retreat at Castaway Club in Minnesota, I had no idea what to expect. I had been told that I would be matched with a family affected by disability and that I would spend the week with them, assisting the family or person with a disability as needed. What I didn’t anticipate was being assigned the role of worship leader. I am a worship leader at my home church, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to consider this role, but for some reason, I was reluctant.
I quickly learned that my reluctance was due to my lack of connectivity. Due to my role as worship leader, I found it was difficult to develop relationships. I would lead in a time of worship each morning for both the adults and short term missionaries, but I found the afternoons were almost uncomfortably quiet. I wanted to meet people and make friends, but it seemed that everyone was busy doing their own thing or helping their camper’s family.
Once in awhile I would find myself in a five-minute interaction: lending an STM my Tablet so her camper could watch a video, dipping my feet in the pool and chatting with another STM and her camper, sitting in the coffee shop talking about accommodations with yet another camper… Each interaction was meaningful and such a necessary factor in making me feel needed and valued.
But I left camp feeling empty. I knew I had been instrumental in leading everyone in worship, but that’s where the value stopped for me. I felt as if I really didn’t know anyone, and as a result, I questioned if I had truly served. Although I saw the benefit in the Joni and Friends Retreat experience, I couldn’t see myself returning in the future. It wasn’t that I was looking for that “good” feeling or gratitude from others; I just wanted to feel as if I had accomplished something.
So you can imagine my sense of uncertainty when I received a call in early August of this year from the program committee in charge of lining up program leaders. The Minnesota retreat was without a worship leader, and they asked me to return to fill that spot. I didn’t say yes or no right away; instead, I prayed and asked God what He wanted me to do. I also made the necessary plans to leave town should I decide to go.
In the end, I decided to go, and it was the best decision I could have made. I quickly found that my time at retreat the previous year had been a training ground and stepping stone to this summer’s retreat. It was in the midst of leading worship and the five-minute interactions that I found the true heart of worship.
As I sang over the microphone, I could hear the voices raised with me, and often there was the distinct sound of a voice not quite on pitch, behind the beat, and the words delayed by speech impairments. I expected that this would distract me from staying on point and maintaining my own pitch, but surprisingly, I think it enhanced my time leading at the piano. These people with disabilities, despite their challenges, sang with full voice and didn’t hold anything back. Even though the pitch was off and the words were muddled, it was one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard.
I observed as an STM played her harp and another STM sang; the joy on the camper’s face as they played and sang “Jesus Loves me” brought tears to my eyes. Another STM shared the story of how she lifted her camper’s hands in worship as I led in the singing of “How Great is our God;” to know that the camper was engaging in worship with the help of his STM enhanced my own personal expression of worship.
In those moments, all of the uncertainty and doubt faded away. This is why I had come to Family Retreat. All of the five-minute relationships and interactions had been brief, but those moments had led me to embrace this offering of worship. There was no way I could ever know each camper and STM by name, but I had caught a glimpse of the heart of the collective, and it was breath-taking. It is remarkable that I could even continue singing! We came from different backgrounds, different disabilities, and at retreat we held different roles, but in the end, we were all worshipping the King… with one voice, one heart… and it was beautiful.
*You can learn more about Joni and Friends and Family Retreats at http://www.joniandfriends.org.