InterVarsity is committed to reaching every corner of the campus, so we have focused ministries to particular populations: ethnic specific chapters, International Student Ministry, Athletes InterVarsity, Greek InterVarsity, Arts Ministry and more. But one area that is often overlooked is ministry to students with disabilities. About 11 percent of college students have some type of disability, and it can be difficult for them to plug into Christian community.
Kathlyn (“Kat”) Walker is a senior at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, majoring in management and leadership with a minor in psychology. She became a Christian during her freshman year at her InterVarsity region’s fall conference. Kat also has a disability called TAR (thrombocytopenia absent radius) syndrome, caused by a genetic mutation with no cure. She is missing her arm bones, so her hands are attached to her shoulders. Kat’s experience with her own disability has motivated her to reach out to other students with disabilities on her campus. Al Hsu, senior editor for IVP Books at InterVarsity Press, interviewed her to hear more of her story.
Al: Tell us about your faith journey growing up and in college.
Kat: Being a miracle was the main center of my life journey during childhood. I have a physical disability and went through a lot medically. Luckily I don’t remember most of it. All the odds were against me surviving, but God had other plans. By the age of four most of the major medical issues were fixed. After that I led as normal a childhood as I could.
My family was very involved in a Bible-believing non-denominational church near our house. As I grew up everyone in my church always reminded me about what a miracle my survival was in the first place. I knew that God had a purpose for my life but I just didn’t know what. In high school I wasn’t living my life at all the way God wanted me to.
When I came to Rider I realized I was seeking something more. That led me to my InterVarsity chapter’s large group in September of 2012. At the end of October I was supposed to go home for the weekend, but instead God was telling me that I needed to go to the Big Event instead. The Big Event is a retreat at a camp in New York where over 400 students come and spend a weekend learning about Jesus.
During the weekend one talk was about giving up all control of your life to Jesus. That made me realize how much of my life I needed to give back to Jesus and make him Lord over my life. Because I have given my life over to Jesus, I am able to do God’s will and be God’s light in the world with everything I do. A verse that resonates with me is Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” God has given me the purpose I was looking for and has blessed me in so many other ways. I have grown deeply in my faith as I listen to him about where he wants to send me. A big part of that was deciding to grow this disability ministry.
Al: When did you start thinking about ministry to and with those who are differently abled? How did God get your attention?
Kat: I started thinking about creating a ministry for college students with disabilities in September 2014. God first got my attention when I was on my way to an InterVarsity event with my staff, Jenna Garrison. At the event the message was all about building God’s kingdom by starting new ministries. I wrote as my response to start a disability small group, but that didn’t happen right away. After that it took me until after the Ambition conference [in January 2015] to actually start the small group. God continually had to get my attention a few more times that semester, but I finally listened.
Al: What did you experience at the Ambition conference?
Kat: I experienced God in the community of believers that were there, in the worship, and in the speakers. There were a lot of takeaways from the conference. I got the courage to listen to God about what demographic he wanted me to minister to and how he wanted me to do it. I learned how being intentional for your missional activities is the most important thing. That planting something new involves a lot of sacrifice and failing logistically.
Al: How have things been going?
Kat: At the first meeting that I held, two students came. We had a discussion and I got to share the gospel with them. And those students kept coming back throughout the rest of the semester.
Scheduling times to meet has been the hardest part so far. Students with disabilities have to be very strict with their time because a lot of everyday activities take longer than expected. I have also been learning to let go of my own fears of rejection and failure and leaving the results up to God.
Al: How would you encourage others to connect with students with disabilities? What would you say to someone who’s been thinking about this but is nervous or doesn’t know what to do?
Kat: I would encourage others to connect with those who are disabled by treating them like they should be included. Don’t make it obvious that you are doing something differently to accommodate them. Accommodating them will make them feel loved, but announcing or making a big deal about it will make them feel embarrassed.
I would tell someone, “People with disabilities need Jesus just like everyone else. If you feel led to start something for students with disabilities, do so as soon as possible. A lot more grace and patience is needed than with the average student, but the fruit you will see is very worth it.”
Al: What’s next for you? How might readers pray for you and your community?
Kat: My next step is to grow my small group to have five members and create a mission for making the university more handicap-accessible and accommodating. Prayer request: that I can connect with freshmen students with disabilities that have curiosity for Jesus and for a few missional Christians that have disabilities to partner with me. For the six students last semester that showed interest, that they would continue to have softened hearts. For myself, that I can find balance between my studies and building this community.
Last fall Kat began field-testing a series of Bible studies designed for students with disabilities on the theme of belonging. If you are interested in trying the Bible studies with your own small group, contact Debbie Abbs for resources.
Al Hsu is senior editor for IVP Books at InterVarsity Press, where he acquires and develops books on church, culture, and mission. His younger son, Elijah, has Down syndrome and autism and has helped their family learn about God’s grace in the midst of life with disabilities.