The Barnabas Effect

written by Kat Bair
7 · 25 · 23

As a youth pastor, I took a group of high school and college students to a place called Camp Barnabas every year. Camp Barnabas is a summer camp in rural Missouri for children and adults with physical and mental disabilities. The camp functions by pairing campers with high school and college-aged volunteers who become the campers’ bunkmates, buddies, and primary caregivers. The volunteers’ role is somewhere between camp best friend and parent, and it can be intense. Many campers are non-verbal or non-ambulatory, requiring teenagers to manage diaper changes, feeding tubes, bathing, and complex medical needs. Even campers with disabilities like Down Syndrome often need help getting dressed or encouragement through crises over changes in schedule or homesickness. The first year I went, I watched one of my 17-year-old students try to de-escalate a full-blown meltdown as her camper threw punches and shoes and eventually ripped a pretty good handful of her volunteer’s hair out. As the shell-shocked “save me” look ran across my student’s face, I found myself counting down the moments until we could go home, as this was clearly a bad idea. 

But by the end of the week, I watched that same student artfully dodge shoes, pre-empt tantrums with an understanding of what her camper needed, and create a deep bond with this little girl. And I was awed. I learned this student was capable of much more than I had imagined. I learned that she had grit, creativity, and compassion in deeper measure than I had known. 

And more importantly, she learned that she had grit, creativity, and compassion in deeper measure than she had known. 

And that knowledge changes everything. No matter what hard thing she faced after, she went into it knowing she could face hard things. I brought 25-40 young people to that camp every summer, and while some portion of the students significantly struggled, had to tap out, or stepped away from the challenge, it gave me this cadre of young people who were unusually confident in their own resilience. They didn’t always know what they were doing, but they knew that when the rubber met the road, they were capable of more than they imagined.

We called it the “Barnabas Effect,” and it was probably one of the most significant gifts that the ministry gave those teenagers. Of all of the experiences we put together, lessons I wrote, and trips I planned, nothing was ever as transformative to young people as the experience of spending a week singing Frozen, going down slides, and sitting up in the middle of the night holding a camper crying from homesickness. 

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul says that God’s grace is made perfect in our weakness. In some translations, God’s grace comes into its own in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9). I wonder if that’s some of the power of Barnabas. When we reach the edge of what we are capable of when we fall short, we have the opportunity to experience God’s grace in full. 

In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, he paraphrases one of the beatitudes like this,

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and his rule.

Matthew 5:3 (MSG)

It is when you’re up against the edge of your own capacity that you learn that, with God, that edge can move. Grace grows us. 

Most of us won’t go to Barnabas, but we still run into those edges – having children, taking care of loved ones, starting organizations, finishing school, writing books – all of those things can call you into being more than you ever thought possible. And in those challenges, we have an opportunity to experience profound grace. We aren’t called to seek struggle, but I hope that when we inevitably find it, we can experience it as a window into experiencing God’s goodness in a new way and joyfully greet the new parts of ourselves we find on the other side. 

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Kat Bair

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