All Saints Chapel has never seen such a party. With the DJ busting tunes and the neon lights flashing, Joni and Friends makes the walls shake with their joyful noise and dancing feet. An hour and a half in, those feet complain but "Cupid Shuffle" blasts through the speakers and back to stepping they go. Though awesome dance moves vie for top billing, undeniably the most captivating element of this evening with Joni and Friends is the joy. It's tangible. Walking through the doors of the chapel is like walking into a wall, but instead of smacking into brick and cement you run headfirst into jubilant peace. There is a big happy goofy grin on every single face. This is what Joni and Friends does: they serve up heaping scoops of joy with every topping you can imagine: peace, love, acceptance, grace, goodness, encouragement. And the cherry on top? Hope.
Joni Eareckson Tada, founder of Joni and Friends, saw a need and did something about it. She started an organization that "communicates the Gospel and equips Christ-honoring churches worldwide to evangelize and disciple people affected by disabilities. For 35 years, Joni and Friends has been impacting the global disability community through their programs like Family Retreats and Wheels for the World." To reduce their mission to one word, Joni and Friends is about service. While Joni and Friends does all kinds of outreach, Camp Allen gets to witness their family retreats. Joni and Friends Program Manager Becky Ellis believes in this mission because she watches family retreat revive families each year: "It is the hope that one week or four days here can provide for a family... through a simple week hope and the joy of Christ can be found."
For three weeks of the summer, Camp Allen staff juggles the demands of hosting 3 sessions of J.A.F. family retreats while also putting on a great summer camp for a new batch of 200 happy campers each week. Hosting two large entities like this certainly keeps staff moving, but there is no chance we'd have it any other way. Why? It's that one word previously stated: service. At times we work overtime to accomplish the to-do lists that grow with each new morning, but the gifts we gain from witnessing and serving this group, who is all about service, is worth crashing into the pillow at night.
My eyes still smile as I remember what I witnessed while Camp Allen hosted Joni and Friends. The space they create for their participants, disabled and not, is safe, joyful, fun, and uplifting. Words fail to describe the atmosphere when our two worlds collide for 3 weeks here in the piney woods. It's how this writer imagines the tiniest sliver of heaven might taste. In fact, though specific and intense, that's a common description heard amongst volunteers, families, and Joni and Friends staff. It's impossible to not take personally what this ministry does, even as a bystander. It is life changing. It's as if the doors of the Kingdom cracked open and poured some holy beauty down to earth and we got to feel it for just a second. Here, there are no differences between those who have and those who have not. Everyone is the same and everyone can be friends. The dance floor is covered with shoes under feet and bodies in wheel chairs and scooters and all happily "Wobble" and "Nae Nae" as one. The feeling of this collaboration and care, this atmosphere of community and family, this air of acceptance and love, it is the physical embodiment of joy. Guileless, no limits, no limitations, cheeks hurt from smiling, joy. Jennifer Simpson is a participant who has given and received such abundant "friendships and acceptance" that she returned this June for her 19th summer.
If Joni and Friends is a machine, the output is joy and the fuel is service. It's like an ecosystem that keeps recycling back into itself. STMs (short term missionaries who raise support to come and be "buddies" to each of the participants with disabilities) pour themselves out on behalf of others only to recount in nightly debriefings about how they feel full. Despite lack of sleep and busy days, they are being filled. Pouring themselves out for those who physically cannot reciprocate fills them up. And yet joy does not need hands or feet to express itself. It is not bound by physical disability. The transference of joy flows from STM to participant and back again. Only in Kingdom mathematics does this equation make sense, that humbly giving oneself to another, without expecting anything in return, would actually be an uplifting experience for both the receiver and the giver. One STM, Madi Johnson, describes it this way: "I come here and I just feel joy. The people here are different. There's a presence that's just overwhelming. Everyone wants to help everyone, everyone wants to love each other." Another STM, Joy Kelly, states it this way: "God's love is so genuine at camp that it's tangible. The love of God is thick here. It's just special. There's no pretense." The joy that glows at Joni and Friends is the fruit of people laboring and serving one another out of selfless Christ-centered and Christ-motivated love.
Joni and Friends also seeks to love the families of the disabled. In many cases, parents of children with disabilities are unable to take any time of rest. Their unique parenting job rarely allows for breaks, but by conversing with them and by watching their faces light up while they cheer on their children as they experience new things at retreat, you learn that though painful and exhausting at times, it is their joy to care for their child with disabilities. Yet J.A.F. knows the demands of these parents and seeks to alleviate some of their duties during their stay here. The STMs play with kids so that parents can enjoy times in the schedule specifically carved out for them, such as bible studies, spa sessions, a split dinner where they're served a 3 course meal while their kids have a shaving cream war and eat pizza outside, and a talent show where parents are able to sit back and enjoy the talents of their children. The siblings of the disabled also get to do fun activities that they normally would not, like play on the Iceberg and Blob, ride horses, and defeat the challenge course. Kelly Alvey, wife to Greg and mother to Benjamin, Emma and Sam, expressed her gratitude for their time at family retreat: "It's like home. They look forward to it every year. I don't know what we would do if we didn't come here. It's just so fun, the fact that y'all are accommodating, all the staff... Beautiful. It doesn't matter what disability they have, you guys and Joni and Friends are so willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen."
We are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. We are so willing to serve this organization that is all about serving. It is our joy to enable Joni and Friends to wash the weary feet of those who come to this retreat for the friendships, acceptance, empathy, joy, hope and fun. There is no end of delight in this kind of service, and there is no logic in being filled by pouring oneself out on behalf of another. Yet, there is no logic in God sending his perfect Son to earth to die for sinners. In this kind of love, in this bold spirit of grace, in this pure heart of service is that glimpse of heaven. It is no wonder God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, because in that kind of service to one another we find His heart. Gospel love is considering others better than yourself. To love is to serve. Truly, "Greater love hath no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)