3 Lessons on Building a Courageous Community – What I Learned as a Leader from a Man with Down Syndrome

Adam Bright

For a season, I pastored a small church in North Carolina. When I booked the local pool for our church baptism service, I couldn’t have known that we were about to meet the person who would teach us some of our most powerful lessons about what it meant to be a courageous community—and that he would be the most unlikely person I could imagine.

This person happened to be in the pool when we arrived for the service, slowly walking back and forth from end to end. He made no move to exit as we set things up and gathered, about eighty strong, around the pool. Finally, I walked over to him to let him know that we were about to start doing baptisms and ask him to “swim” after we were done.

As I got closer, I could see that the man had Down Syndrome. I went ahead and introduced myself, explained what we were doing, and made my request that he leave the pool.

“I like root beer.” That was all he said.

After repeating my request a couple more times and receiving the same response, I accepted that this guy was not going anywhere, and decided to continue with our service. Our silent swimmer paced back and forth behind us the whole time.

After the service, we had a picnic and family time around the pool. At this point, the silent swimmer happily got out of the pool and started helping himself to food. Several of us tried to engage him in conversation, and all received the same response as before: “I like root beer.”

Eventually, we learned that this man’s name was Steve. Steve had participated in various churches and other organizations, but for some reason, after that baptism service, he stuck with us. And over time, having Steve in our midst began to have a profound effect on how we interacted as a community.

Here are 3 lessons Steve taught us about what it takes to become a courageous community.

Lesson #1: Tell Your Whole Story

We quickly discovered that Steve was Steve, and we had to learn to love him for who he was—the good, the bad, and the awkward.

Steve would come to our meetings and sit with whomever he thought was pretty. Sometimes this was a visitor. This wasn’t a big problem until Steve decided to play with the visitor’s hair, much to their alarm and our amusement (Steve loved playing with hair). He also had a knack for making inappropriate comments at the wrong times, and for vomiting in our cars when we drove him home (which happened at least every other week).

Being around Steve forced us to get over our reputations and discomfort with his behavior and just accept him. In the process, we learned that this was how we needed to be with everyone in our community. We needed to be willing to fully be ourselves with one another, without trying to hide the less pretty aspects of our stories.

I think this is why the Bible has so many shocking stories about people we today consider to be great women and men of God. David committed adultery and murder. Peter cut off an ear. Rahab was a prostitute. There are so many stories of people who were not so great all the time. These stories help us to know that even when we make poor choices, there is redemption waiting if we are willing to go through the process.

Steve taught us that in a courageous community, we learn to truly see each other and love our whole story, not just our highlights and successes. This gives us a healthy identity and reminds us that we can make it through difficult times together.

Lesson #2: Clarify, Own, and Live from Your Core Values

The second thing Steve did was to get us to really examine our core values. What type of church were we going to be? What would we really stand for? Steve, in his “Steve” way, showed us that we wanted to build a community that loved and served people.
Steve demonstrated consistent and generous love for people. For example, every time my wife and I traveled, Steve called within minutes of us arriving back home. His words were always simple but so impactful: “Hey, it’s Steve. I missed you. Glad you home. Bye.” (We had by now established that “I like root beer” was his favorite phrase, but he could make himself understood with short sentences.) After a few incidents of this, I found out that while we were away, Steve called my house multiple times a day asking for me. He wanted to be the first to welcome us home.

Steve also expected us to return the same kind of love to him. He always needed a lift to church, and usually called two or three the leaders each week asking for a ride. Whoever showed up first was the one he went with. The number of times I or another one of our leaders showed up to get Steve, only to find him not at home, were too numerous to recount. When we arrived at church, Steve would come up and say, “You late! You fired!” (This was before “The Apprentice” made it famous!)

Because Steve constantly, and in various ways, challenged how deeply we believed we were to love people—not matter the frustration or inconvenience—it gave us incredible clarity on our core values of loving and serving. This clarity made us feel safe as a community. There was a season where we didn’t have a church building, and had to move every three months. At one point, we even met in the middle of a cornfield during the hot North Carolina summer. But the community stayed together because we were made courageous by this clarity. The more certain you become about your community, the greater the risk you can take in the adventure of moving forward.

Lesson #3: Empower People Who Are Learning

Steve became so much a part of our community that he started asking at times to pray publically or for individuals. At first, this challenged me, until I remembered the story in Matthew 17.

Jesus sends the disciples out to do what He had been doing. They encounter a demon-possessed boy, and try unsuccessfully to cast out the demon. Jesus’ response is simply to teach them how to do better. Jesus was okay with the disciples not getting it right all the time. He knew mistakes were part of their growth. They needed space to make mistakes and still keep the connection strong between them. Jesus’ goal for His disciples was not success—it was a relationship close enough that they would try anything.

Steve, in his creative way, often reminded us of this fact. Many times after Steve prayed, or visitors met Steve with all his wonderfully quirky behaviors, we heard comments from people about him. These comments never focused on uncomfortable behavior or comments, but on how loved they felt! Some visiting speakers remarked that Steve was a gift God had sent us and commented how they wished they had a “Steve” in their church. The message in this was clear: We didn’t need to get it right all the time—we just needed to keep our hearts connected.

Though our time serving that church came to a close, I look back on our time there with deep fondness and gratitude, because I got to see a group of people become ridiculously courageous in learning to love, serve, and build connection. That season proved to me beyond doubt that courageous community is an essential key to growth and thriving for every one of us. When I am struggling to find courage, I still think back to Steve and the lessons he taught us.

P.S. Adam Bright is one of our featured speakers at our upcoming Loving on Purpose Summit in Orlando, Florida! If you live in the area, please join us September 20-22! Find more information here

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