One of the joys of tutoring children at Sixty-First Avenue UMC was how much they taught me!
The church is located in an inner city neighborhood (now gentrified) in West Nashville. The focus of the ministry in the after school program was elementary age children.
Jason Paul, better known as JJ, was one of our kids. He had medical issues that required him to be confined to a wheelchair his entire life. I never thought of him as disabled because what he brought to the picture in spirit seemed to also bring balance that precluded those kinds of limits! I rarely tutored JJ. He had a faithful mentor named Ceil. She had his number! And she provided him the gift of knowing his value and working with him to gain all the potential God gave him.
Space doesn’t allow all the memories that might offer the story of hope he brought.
We had a camera ministry that provided the children with digital cameras, without instruction. They were encouraged to photograph whatever they wanted. We eventually had a gallery show of their untouched prints. They were amazing!
JJ did not have the strength to press the shutter button. So, we became part of his process in taking photographs, not by choosing the subject matter, but by putting our fingers lightly over his to press that seemingly little button. It was an experience in itself to see the world as he saw it.
Always looking up. Objects seemed huge from his vantage point in his wheelchair. My computer housed the photos and albums the children took over some period of time. I would always allow the awe that was deserved to wrap me in the grace that was JJ. Seeing his photos from his view changed my view.
One fall season we had an outdoor celebration in our back yard with all the children excited to participate in a scavenger hunt and pumpkin fest. It was a glorious day, beautiful weather, laughing children, adults engaged in the joy of being together without homework! The terrain was not amenable to JJ’s wheelchair but he had a great friend in Dr. Rick. He carried JJ all over that yard, from hiding place
to hiding place for pumpkins and treats….to the challenge of the scavenger hunt. He did not miss a thing!
JJ died in 2015 from complications related to his long term illness. His sweet parents and siblings were honored by the love shown for JJ in providing the resources for his funeral….even the clothes he wore. A donation was sent from a sister of a gentleman who had been a part of that camera ministry and tutoring program; he had died a few years ago. She lived on the east coast. She had never met JJ. I mention this to frame the importance of connections and relationships and how widely they spread.
Food was delivered. Many, many attended his service of celebration, including school teachers and principals. All evidence of long term relationships that were brought together by one little boy.
As I mentioned in the “about” section of this blog, I have been mentored by many people and many very good books. Written by scholars and theologians and community organizers and pastors and on and on. That information has provided tremendous structure, much needed to navigate a new way of looking at the news made real!
I have learned a great deal from reading books around all the ways we might be in ministry, how we might do that most effectively and indeed our responsibility in doing so. I am grateful for the knowledge, the concepts, the philosophies, the applications.
But, as I age and a little wisdom starts to offer itself, it comes through relationships. Through sharing stories. Through experiences that are real. Often messy. Often very different from what I might experience in my personal life.
But, new friends are my personal life. Even if they are “different” than I am, hold different views, live out different values. When joys and sorrows are shared, the landscape changes.
JJ added another color to my life. I love that phrase, shared by my friend Shannon! Isn’t that a perfect description of how we embrace each person on our path?
Knowing JJ begs the question…do we know the philosophies but not the people?
I will add a little poem I wrote when JJ died.
Turns out, he tutored me.