Capernaum Young Life Club, Portland
Snow came early to the Capernaum Christmas Club meeting. The next day, Portland would be hit by a fierce storm (by Portland standards) that would have cars skidding into each other before being abandoned along the roads, but it was a different kind of snow indoors at Capernaum Club. Kids and leaders took paper towels, wadded them up, and threw paper snowballs at one another. Blake Shelley, the leader of the club, seemed to take the most “snowball” abuse, but he accepted the hits cheerily.
I’ve led and participated in many such activities at Young Life Clubs through the years. (Young LIfe is a non-denominational Christian organization that reaches out to adolescents.) Most of the other things we did that evening are things I’ve seen at other Young Life Clubs: games, skits, singing, and a message -- the difference was the students attending. Capernaum Young Life Clubs minister to teens and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This was true of the kids at club that day, and it’s also true that they were delightful kids.
Blake Shelley, from his wheelchair, greeted the leaders and students as they arrived. (As happy as everyone was to see Blake, they seemed even more excited to see his companion dog, Stanley.) The big screen TV was playing A Charlie Brown Christmas, and a table was set up for decorating Christmas cookies. Everyone went to work applying frosting, though many cookies were eaten before there could be any appreciation of their aesthetic worth.
Mindy spent time talking with Melodee, the first student to arrive. Melodee told Mindy wonderful things about Capernaum Club and about her church, though Mindy had a difficult time keeping track of which organization Melodee was talking about at any given time.
During the cookie decoration time, I asked different kids what they liked about Club. Marcus said he liked the chance just to hang out with his friends. Victoria said that she loved camp, which got quite a number of kids talking about how much they loved camp the previous summer and/or how much they were looking forward to going to camp next summer.
They were anticipating going to Washington Family Ranch, a camp in the high desert of Central Oregon owned and operated by Young Life. Blake takes the Portland club there most summers. , and Capernaum students usually have individual counselors that look out for them at camp, but also experience a week of independence, excitement, and fun that is absolutely unique in their lives.
Back to the Christmas party. Students were divided into two teams to decorate their leader as a Christmas tree with lights. Since we were guests, Mindy and I were given the honor of judging the competition -- which was fine as far as getting to declare one team the winner, but less fun having to declare which team didn’t win. But all the kids were good sports about it, so it was okay.
Blake screened two silly videos from JibJab, the digital entertainment studio that allows you insert faces into pre-existing animation. The first was of Santa’s reindeer dancing a Yuletide Macarena, with leaders’ faces inserted and the second was of rampaging carolers using the students’ faces. Both videos were greeted with great snorts and guffaws of recognition.
We sang Christmas Carols including “All I want for Christmas” (the Justin Bieber version), “Jingle Bells,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Joy to the World.” Jeffrey, one of the students, kept requesting “Jingle Bell Rock,” so Blake relented and said we could sing it at the end of club. (Jeffrey did not come to club alone. He had a stuffed penguin with him which was also named “Jeffrey,” which was certainly easy to remember.)
At the close of club, Blake gave a talk (as he does toward the end of almost every club gathering). Because Blake has cerebral palsy, it can be difficult to understand his speech, so one of the other leaders “translated” Blake’s talk. Blake replayed Linus’ reading of the Christmas story from Luke to remind the group what Christmas is all about. He expanded on the message, “This is the coolest thing. God came into the world to have a relationship with us.”
The next day Mindy and I had breakfast with Leonard Shelley, Blake’s dad. Leonard is a good friend of my brother Dale’s, and we’ve known each other since elementary school. Leonard told us about what led Blake to get involved in Christian ministry.
When Blake was in high school, Leonard was driving him home when he said, “Dad, I know why God made me this way.” This got Leonard’s attention, and he listened as Blake told him that having cerebral palsy would let him to share Christ with other people who have disabilities.
We hear, perhaps too often this time of year, “that’s what Christmas is all about.” But if I had to describe that afternoon with those special kids with special needs at Capernaum Club (and at this point, I do have to describe the experience), I’d say, “That is what Christmas is all about.”