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A night for celebration and joy

by Carla Williams

Travis Bailey was the homecoming king in high school. His peers good-naturedly referred to him as “The Mayor,” because he knew everyone and was universally liked. He naturally draws people into his joy. He’s also a proud member of Southeast’s Disabilities Ministry. 

The first time “The Mayor” came to Shine, he was treated like a king.

Shine is an annual prom-like event for those with developmental disabilities in the Louisville area. It’s a huge night of celebration and joy. The Blankenbaker Campus is transformed to match the year’s theme, and hundreds of volunteers come together to create one memorable night. There’s dancing, karaoke, games, and a full salon to pamper the guests like royalty. Travis came for the first time in 2016. When his family pulled into the parking lot, they were greeted with the welcoming cheers of countless volunteers. With the contagious joy of a massive celebration ringing in his ears, Travis rolled through the crowds in his wheelchair, right up to where Senior Pastor Dave Stone was waiting to give him a high five. Travis brought him in for a hug instead.

The experience inside was just as magical. The familiar Atrium had been outfitted with a country fair theme. Guests and volunteers were decked out in plaid shirts and cowboy hats, and their smiles of delight filled the whole building with excitement. After a night of spectacular fun, Travis had no doubt that Southeast Christian Church loves and values him. He couldn’t wait to come back the next year.

Travis has the advantage of being able to communicate verbally. Despite his paralysis and other developmental limitations, he can tell his family and friends what he needs. He can talk about how he feels, and he can explore some level of spiritual discussions. For many of the guests at Shine, this isn’t the case. But when they come to Shine, they don’t have to be verbal to be able to communicate the pure joy they’re experiencing. For these sweet children of God, Shine is a rare and lovely gift. It’s a night to celebrate who they are, and an event designed specifically to let them reflect God’s light with all their smiles, dance moves, and contagious laughter.

There are few events that bring so many different people together like Shine does. Area churches, sports teams, celebrities, and families fill the parking lots to welcome the guests—waving signs, wearing costumes, and cheering with abandon. Hundreds of Southeast’s volunteers serve as escorts for the night, and their entire role is to give their date a great experience. There are people in place to help with every facet of the event.

One of those faithful volunteers is Chris Baxter. Several years ago, she attended a ministry volunteer fair at Southeast. She was looking for ways to get involved and connected with the church. Though she didn’t have any special reason to approach the Disabilities Ministry table, she found herself inexplicably drawn there. Chris has been serving with the ministry now for more than 15 years.

Chris has served at Shine almost every year since it began. For her, participating in Shine has become as natural as celebrating any other holiday throughout the year. There’s Christmas season, Easter season, and Shine season. After many years enjoying the event as an escort, she found her true niche in the Fireside Room, which becomes a catch-all problem-solving command center for the night. There, she combines her gifts for organization with her love of interacting with the disabilities community. She feels certain there’s a perfect fit for everybody.

It doesn’t matter how many times Chris goes— the tangible joy on that night never gets old. She comes back year after year because those huge smiles mean everything. Like so many other Shine volunteers, she has a hard time putting the blessing of the night into words. The experience is simply too transcendent.

Shine is easily one of the biggest events Southeast hosts each year, and it takes countless hours, meetings, plans, and volunteers to put it together. But all of that is worth it because of the value it provides to the guests and their families, the volunteers, and the entire church. For many of the guests who attend, Shine is the highlight of their year. Even before they leave the event, they’re already looking forward to the next one. They get to have a big party, but they also get to see all their friends each year. Guests come from all over the community, not just within Southeast, and it’s a fabulous opportunity to demonstrate God’s love with many who don’t experience anything else so impactful the rest of the year. 

For the parents and caregivers, it’s a chance for a well-deserved break, of course, but it’s really so much more than that. Shine provides the families an opportunity to hear “This person that you love so much—we love them, too! We can’t wait to celebrate them!” These families may often experience pity and insensitivity, but Shine is the opposite of that for their loved ones. It’s an affirmation of some amazing people whom God loves deeply and individually.

Shine also has a powerful impact on those who volunteer. Like so many areas where someone willingly serves another person, the volunteers at Shine tend to leave more blessed than they could ever have expected. They gain compassion, humility, perspective, empathy, kindness, gentleness, joy, and wisdom through serving at Shine. They’ll leave the event exhausted, but in the best kind of way. No one can serve as a volunteer at Shine without having it challenge and change them deeply.

Shine is not an event that benefits only those who participate. The entire Southeast family is blessed through the event. We don’t just get to celebrate a community of people—we desperately need those people. God’s Church includes those with many different abilities, gifts, and experiences, and when we embrace the disabilities community, we’re gaining valuable insight and unity. We’re all here for one another.

It’s this very belief in the value of people with special needs that fuels Southeast’s Disabilities Ministry. Travis Bailey’s family was attending Southeast, but it wasn’t until they became connected to the Disabilities Ministry that their faith grew. Now, they’re members with the church, they’re involved in classes and groups, and they see steady growth with their walk with Christ. Travis was even baptized in a special chair during Southeast’s Baptism Weekend in January 2017.

Travis loves his church. He volunteers weekly in Café 920 and eagerly joins his Bible class every weekend. Travis engages with anyone; he’s never met a stranger. He lights up everything around him just by being himself every single day. But on one special night of every year, he really gets to Shine.

This article is from the October 2018 issue of NEXT magazine.

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