Sitting in the main sanctuary at Southeast Christian Church on a Friday afternoon, taking in the volunteers trickling in, all decked out in their nice attire, was not what my average Friday looks like. Most of the sanctuary was empty except for a few sections of volunteers who were listening to some helpful information on how the night would go. While I was trying to tune in to what was being said, it was hard not to focus on just how nervous I was.
The sanctuary was quiet, but the rest of the church was beginning to buzz with activity. It was the beginning of the Shine event or the Shine Gala as the church has officially named it. The Shine Gala is a party. I know that some refer to it as a dance, but to single this event out as that one activity is not giving it enough credit. For adults 18 years and over with developmental disabilities, it is a night of games, activities, karaoke, and yes, dancing.
During the previous two years, my family and I have volunteered in the “cheer” section. My wife and two daughters made posters and used noisemakers along the entry to the church and cheered on attendees. The whole goal is to make everyone feel as special and important as possible starting the moment they are on the property. Imagine how you would feel pulling up to an event and having people cheer your arrival all the way up to the red-carpet entrance at the front door.
Yet, this year, I felt a call to do more. The cheer section and all other volunteer opportunities are vital, and I do not want to downplay what they do, however, for me, I felt that if I did anything less than an escort, I wouldn’t be doing enough. The first year, I felt almost as if I took the safe way out by cheering. I was too uncomfortable to be an escort. I did not know enough. I had no training. It would be too difficult. I wouldn’t know how to handle every situation that came up. There were just too many moving parts involved with that and I could still “check that box” on my list saying I had participated in the event.
Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. I am not saying that everyone cheering, or that everyone who did not sign up to be an escort was in some way taking the easy way out. This was only how I felt, and it was such a strong call that I felt that when sign-ups were announced, and I scrolled the website for opportunities, I knew that my only option was to be an escort.
Fast forward to waiting nervously in the sanctuary. Did I mention how nervous I was? My anxiety kicked up a notch thinking about who I would be paired up with for the night. Would it be just one person or multiple people? What would happen if they did not like me? What if I said something wrong? What if they wanted to dance all night and I did not want to do that? What if I couldn’t understand what they were saying and had to ask them to repeat it over and over again?
As I sat there running through the list of everything that made me nervous, I sent my wife a short text with something along the lines of “Man, I am pretty nervous.” I did not have to go into detail. She knows me well enough that she already knew I was probably making a bigger deal out of the small things than I should. She just said, “Be yourself and make sure they have a great time tonight.”
That is all it took for me to realize how selfish my thinking had been. I was worried entirely about me at an event that was completely and totally not about me. I shifted my thinking from “I am nervous about who I am going to be paired up with” to “How can I make their night more awesome and more comfortable?”
Our group of escorts was eventually moved to the entrance where we would be paired up as guests arrived. This was one of my favorite parts of the night. As guests made their way down the red carpet, they did so amidst cheers, welcomes, shouts, and compliments. I don’t know if I have ever seen someone smile so big.
When I walked down to meet my guest, Sam, I must admit from the start, I was able to meet the gentlest soul that I have ever met in my entire life. In fact, as the night went on, I kept thinking to myself, W.W.S.D (What would Sam do?) when approaching a situation. This was not his first Shine event so not only was he familiar with the activities, but he also was pretty well known, frequently running into others he knew from Special Olympic athletic events. I felt at times as if I was escorting a celebrity. So many people knew Sam and every single person was excited to see him. It was the type of excitement one has when they have not seen the other person in a long time.
Once the Night Started
For some reason, and I cannot really explain it, the minute I shook Sam’s hand, my nervousness went away. Everything I worried about sitting in the sanctuary was no longer a concern and for the rest of the night, it was just two dudes hanging out and having a good time. Sam wanted to do every activity that was available, so we did exactly that. I was most impressed with his courage, something I looked up to the entire night. He wanted to try karaoke and preferred country music. You see, Sam wasn’t timid like I would have been. He had no issues at all walking right up to the DJ and requesting some country music to sing to. Then he grabbed a microphone and stood on stage ready to sing. I was blown away. I know for a fact that I would not have had the guts to do that. When it came time to make our way to the dance floor, I asked him what he would do if he saw a girl he wanted to dance with. “I am going to ask her to dance,” he said. And he did just that. Maybe the next time I feel too shy, timid, or wanting to hold back, I should think W.W.S.D.?
Several years ago, had you told me I would be volunteering at the Shine Gala as a guest escort, I would have probably thought you had me mixed up with someone else. I would not have been comfortable at all. And if you had asked me why I would have been comfortable, I know now that I wouldn’t have had a great answer.
At the end of the day, it came down to finally removing that invisible barrier and seeing the truth that we are all more alike than we are different. I did not see the night as an event for special needs adults. It was an event. I did not see it as adults with disabilities out on the dance floor. It was just a bunch of people dancing. I saw a church filled with everyone enjoying themselves and having an absolute blast. No barriers. No judgment. For those precious few hours, it was perfect.
Why make such a big deal about this?
Events like Shine and Jesus Prom are a great start, but we still have such a long way to go to be an inclusive society. When talking to others about being at Shine, the comments I heard were confusing, surprising, and disappointing. Here are a few:
- “I wouldn’t know what to say to those people.”
- “Oh, that’s cool. I worked with a guy who was kinda autistic a few years ago.”
- “Why did you have to be an escort?”
- “So, what kind of people were there? Did they, like, have wheelchairs?”
Clearly understanding and inclusion are further away than I thought. Not ideal answers at all but it did allow me a chance to correct some misconceptions.
Also, this is a population of people largely ignored. This is a people group navigating a world that is harsh and not always made to be inclusive. Worse yet, many do not have a church home. In my time with Ability Ministry, it has been heartbreaking to learn that out of the 380,000 churches here in the United States, that over 350,000 of them have no intentional outreach to the disability community. With so few churches reaching the disability community, it was amazing to see our church make such a big deal out each guest’s arrival and to make this one of the most amazing nights ever for those affected by disability.
When I finally got home and tried to process the night, I found myself scrolling through the photos that I took. It left me feeling happy and fulfilled knowing that Sam had such a great night. Before we left, he asked if I was on Facebook and I showed him my profile photo so it would be easy to find me. When we connected as friends, I saw his status update about the night which was full of exclamation marks. All my fears about what to say, what to do, and how to act paled in comparison to knowing that Sam enjoyed the evening. I can only hope and pray that the other 1300 guests had the same experience.
As the Night Ended
I was trying to find a clever way to wrap this up and summarize it, but all I can come back to is being stuck behind that invisible barrier most of my life. A barrier that I am unsure how it ever came to be, but one that has held back so many important moments and experiences. You might be reading this as a seasoned expert having attended numerous events like Shine. You might also be reading this in the same place that I was a few years ago and thinking “That sounds cool and I wish I could do it, but it just isn’t something I feel comfortable with.” All I can say is that the barrier that is there now is so easily knocked down. Those uncomfortable feelings are so quickly overcome. When it is all said and done, your feelings of “I just don’t think I can do that” are replaced with “Why haven’t I been doing this before now?”
Jason joins the Ability Ministry team and brings over 20 years of graphic design and marketing experience to the table. He has handled projects from local start-up businesses to publicly owned internationally based companies, including a Shark Tank company. Jason currently reside in Louisville with his wife, two daughters, and dog Pepper. In his spare time, he is a Master’s competitor in USA Weightlifting. His family attends Southeast Christian Church.