This post comes at the request of my supervisor, Rev. Joel Boot. It's the acceptance speech I gave when presented with the Christian Service Award from Bethesda Lutheran Communities on September 10, 2014, in Madison, Wisconsin. Joel told me that it would be good to take note of this occasion as an opportunity to highlight that this recognition of me is also a recognition of the work of many people over the past 30 plus years that Disability Concerns has served the CRC. I heartily agree, and I hope that comes through in what you read below.
I’m honored and humbled to receive the Christian Service Award, especially when I consider both the depth of service to humanity that Bethesda Lutheran Communities has offered for over 100 years and the list of people who have received this award in the past. But as far as I’m concerned, this isn’t just about me, or what I’ve done, it’s about the power of connection. First let me show you what I mean by the power of connection. (I have permission to share the following story.)
Barb and her son Ryan left their previous church because they were not welcome there. Ryan is in his 30’s, has intellectual disabilities, and sometimes acts out. Later, Ryan became involved with a Friendship ministries group, and eventually both he and Barb began attending Sunday morning worship at the church that hosted the group. Barb was hesitant about that, considering their previous experience with church. One Sunday morning, sitting in middle of row, Ryan was having a very hard time. Several times, during the sermon, he made shriek-like screams, frightening noises. He was scaring people in church. Pastor Steve wondered what to do. About the fifth time, he stopped his sermon and asked gently, “Are you okay?” Then he prayed for Ryan and Barb. After that, Ryan felt peace, and he and Barb stayed put till the end of the service. But what would happen at the end of the service? Would they be asked to leave this church too? No. Afterwards, people surrounded them in their pew. They loved Ryan and Barb. They said things like, “Please don’t let this keep you from coming here. Please stay.” Just two weeks ago, Barb made a profession of faith at that church, and Ryan was baptized.
If just pastor Steve had been kind to Ryan and Barb, but they had received ugly comments from other people, they would not have stayed. But it was the power of the many connections in church that kept Barb and Ryan from slinking away in humiliation. Ryan and Barb were held there in a web of loving relationships. They stayed, they joined that community of faith because they knew that they belonged.
When Mark Stephenson receives the Christian Service Award, it’s not just about Mark. This award is a recognition of the work of a large number of people who have been involved with Disability Concerns in over 30 years of ministry.
- In the late 1970’s, people in my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, began talking together, meeting, planning for how the churches could minister with people who had disabilities.
- Rev. Ted Verseput, and Rev. Dr. James Vanderlaan, my predecessors, served as directors of Disability Concerns, They and numerous other Disability Concerns staff over the years contributed their gifts and enriched this ministry.
- A network of hundreds of regional and church disability advocates volunteer thousands of hours each year to make Christian Reformed Churches the kinds of communities where everybody belongs and everybody serves.
- I have had the privilege of getting to know many people who live with a wide variety of disabilities, and others who love people with disabilities. These folks who are affected by disability, whom society often writes off, have taught me so much about love, grace, identity, giftedness, and belonging.
That’s the power of connection.
Our ministry has been enriched significantly by our connection with the Disability Concerns ministry of a sister denomination: the Reformed Church in America. Together our two ministries produce a newsletter, Breaking Barriers, available in print and online. We produced two editions of a handbook for Disability Advocates called Everybody Belongs Everybody Serves. We have hosted conferences. We have created a variety of resources for churches including the latest: we sponsored a four hour conference last month on engaging children and youth with disabilities in church life. All sessions were recorded and will be available on our websites soon. We host regional gatherings of advocates either face to face or electronically in the U.S. Southwest, the U.S. Midwest, the Chicago area, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada. These regional groupings have sponsored conferences, hosted events, and inspired all involved to keep on keeping on.(It was at the Chicago area group that I first got to know your own LauraLee Wright and Don Boden!) The power of connection.
Besides this important connection with the Disability Concerns ministry of the Reformed Church in America, we have important connections with a variety of other ministries as well.
- Friendship Ministries (Recently, I was appointed to serve on their board, and I still miss the many connections with my late friend, Nella Uitvlugt, Friendship’s former director.)
- Diaconal Ministries Canada
- Christian Horizons
- Hope Network
- CLC Network
- Elim Christian Services
- Joni and Friends, and
- Bethesda Lutheran Communities
The power of connection.
I’m so thankful for my wife who has been so supportive of the work I have been doing, even when that support came at great personal cost to her. Bev’s and my children have taught us so much about God’s love. In this context, I want to highlight our oldest daughter, Nicole, who is 26 years old and lives joyfully with severe, multiple disabilities. She is a model for Bev and me for living with mindfulness, living in the moment, taking joy in simple pleasures, living with contentment. The power of connection.
Finally, as a Christian, I firmly believe that these connections have their foundation and their strength in the connections of the trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are an intimate community. We are invited into that community, and through the blood of Jesus Christ we can join that community. Through Christ we can experience the power of connection with God both now and throughout eternity.
Thanks so much again for this great honor of presenting me with the Christian Service Award!