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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  1. I have a 2 yr old son with ds and am a pastor of a small church in western Kansas. I was touched by this article and just wanted to say thx for writing it. We also have experienced the power and communal empowerment that flows from honoring one another’s whole story and most importantly staying connected in love even when difficult and even sinful actions flow out of a family member!

    1. I’d love to meet him someday and I look forward to hearing his story through His story. Thank you for your encouragement and keep loving your people.

  2. I felt the Love of the Father as I read this article. Bless you Adam for sharing courageously your experience with Steve.

  3. Thank you! I have seen and experienced this before. You have written about it so well!

    Although I do not have DS, I have had many personal challenges including PTSD from being in war as a young child and spending much of my formative years in boarding schools…which I loved! but entailed being separated from my parents. I had to do a lot of growing up in my adult years. I felt awkward…and WAS awkward. I felt anxious when people visited our farm that my spirit had not vetted as "Safe".
    I felt the Lord ask me once, why I didn’t want them to come. Was it because of MY reputation? Did I want to wait til I had it all together and they could see how composed and "on top of it all" I was? OR Did I want them to experience how God lived with us here…in the midst of the turmoil; the mess. I told Him they could come.
    Over and over, I have had people respond that on our farm, they can "Breathe"; that it is a Refuge.
    Interesting how His Presence with us and in us transforms the perceptions; the reality!

  4. "…loving our whole story…" Sooo good!! Thank you for writing this. I’m realizing that my discomfort with other people’s whole story is related to my discomfort with my own whole story!!

    Like how often do I squirm from the limelight when I don’t feel like it’s hitting my ‘best side’!? Too many times I can honestly say! And I totally do the same when people’s ‘low lights’ are on display ‘too loudly’…

    So help me God! Give me Your eyes and Your heart for myself and people. Amen!

  5. This is so passionately REAL! My 71 year old disabled brother in law has this affect on our church members but he is non verbal.. and knows he is LOVED and accepted there.

  6. I am apart of a leadership community of a street ministry. We have many street involved people we love. Substance use disorders, mental illness, homelessness and and many other opportunities for healing, deliverance and generosity. I struggle with yelling. It rattles my soul. I feel shame when I feel unable to stay present and engaged. My body sometimes begins to shake and I have informed my partner I need to go on more than one occasion. I have witnessed my partner love people yelling at him. I have watched God transform the individual who yelled into a genuine friend and servant of God. Certain behaviours need dealt with as they affect others. I don’t even know where to begin. Can you tell me if this article is applicable to the above situations. How do I get more courageous? (Sunday school answer – Jesus) Sounds like I need healing to me?? Any insight would be appreciated. I enjoyed this blog entry. Made me think. Brought back memories. We have more than one optimistic – joyful individual who uses shorter sentences and behave counter intuitively to me and perhaps I to them. Al says Amen at the end of many sentences. He listens and that Amen sparks a rejoicing in my soul. He serves diligently and in the name of Jesus lives that way. His default is wonderful. People say, it’s like he never left the garden of Eden.

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