by Nate Jones
Duane, Nick and Randy are some of the best youth pastors I know, especially if the goal of a youth pastor is to teach students to follow Jesus and to understand the way of the Kingdom. For the past three years these men have poured into my students and showed them what it looks like to follow Jesus. In addition to this, they have showed me more of what the Kingdom looks like than any book I’ve read or theology class I’ve taken.
Duane is in his late 50s and can’t talk coherently. His vocabulary is limited to less than 10 words so he mainly communicates through pointing and grunting. Every time I see Duane, he points at his girlfriend next to him and grunts at me as if to make sure I know she is taken.
Nick is in his 20s and has Down syndrome. He loves wrestling; you know the kind we all watched as kids with Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. You hardly ever see Nick without a John Cena T-shirt on and flexing his muscles.
Randy is in his 50s and also has Down syndrome. Every time I see him he tells me his birthday is coming up and that he will be turning 21. My students and I get to hang out with these three guys every other Thursday night along with around 100 other friends with special needs. Over the past three years Duane, Nick, and Randy have become some of my closest friends and the greatest teachers I’ve ever known.
It all started a little over three years ago when I began a teaching series with my teenagers about what the Kingdom of God looks like here and now. We began looking at how Jesus made the Kingdom of God tangible by eating with the sinners, being with the weak and marginalized, and touching the sick and unclean of their society. I began to ask God who are the weak, marginalized, and outcasts in my world? Truth is there are many in my world that would fit that category of weak and marginalized, but God had one specific answer for me that would forever change my life and ministry. I came across a startling statistic according to Dr. Brian Skotko, a pediatric geneticist at Children’s Hospital Boston, saying that an estimated 92 percent of all women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancies. I couldn’t stop thinking about how many in our society view people with special needs as inconvenient burdens. I had no doubt God was speaking to me and telling me to go and be with them.
The problem was I had no experience at all working with people with special needs. Our church is small and doesn’t have the volunteer base let alone the facilities to start a ministry. In other words, I was not qualified or equipped in any way to do this. Isn’t it amazing that our default as pastors and ministers is to start a ministry program? That was my initial reaction to God’s call. But God didn’t want me to start a program; He just wanted to show me more of Jesus.
To make a long story short, I began praying and seeking out what it is I should do. Through a series of random encounters I came across a church in our city that did have the facility and an ongoing long-term ministry working with families of people with special needs. It’s called “Parent’s Night Out” and is a respite care night for adults with special needs. It met on Thursday nights from 6–8:30p.m., and one Thursday night I decided to go and volunteer. We played Bingo, hot potato, and we read Scripture and prayed together. I remember leaving that place that first night thinking that I have never felt more joy, love, acceptance, and encouragement than what I experienced that night with that group. I was hooked.
Shortly thereafter, I began bringing students along with me—wouldn’t you know, they got hooked too. Our students began asking what else we could do besides our work with Parent’s Night Out. We came up with the idea of a pampering party for the women of Parent’s Night Out where we would give them manicures, pedicures, facials and massages for Valentine’s Day. A few months later we volunteered with the Special Olympics State Championships. We have many students who love sports so it was a perfect way to get those students involved. We made it our spring retreat and it was the best retreat we’ve ever done. We continue to work with Parent’s Night Out at the other church and it has taught our students the importance of churches working together to build the Kingdom in our city.
Parent’s Night Out has become part of what we do in our student ministry. What started as an opportunity for my students to serve has become my strategy for discipling teenagers. It hasn’t worked with all my students, but for those who have followed me in this journey it has been life changing. Every other Thursday my students are shown what Jesus looks like. The late Youth Specialties founder and youth pastor Mike Yaconelli said it best after he visited a special needs community: “I knew what it meant to believe in Jesus; I did not know until now what it meant to be with Jesus.” Three years ago I thought it was Duane, Nick and Randy that needed me. I no longer think that. I know now that we actually need each other. Bonhoeffer said, “Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak.”
Duane, Nick and Randy are the best teachers I’ve ever had. They have taught me that everyone is made in the image of God and that everyone matters. They have taught me to slow down and take time for people. They have taught me true acceptance and love without condition. They have taught me to be vulnerable and dependent. They have taught me true community and belonging. They have taught me to laugh and find joy in the simple things. They have taught me the art of listening instead of talking. They have taught me how to pray and worship God. Others may see them as weak, but as for me and my students we now understand how the least are actually the greatest in the Kingdom.
Nate has over 15 years of student ministry experience in small and large church settings. He currently serves at Plaza Heights Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, as the director of student ministries. In the fall of 2012, God put a burden on Nate’s heart for people with special needs. Nate is a die-hard Chiefs and Royals fan. He is married to Theresa and has two children: Kingston and Ruby.