Capernaum Club always begins with dancing.
Dylan shifts his body frontward and backward, humming to a song no one else can hear.
Emily casually sways around the room, holding her head high, a guitar case strapped around her back.
Britney and Stefan, who are girlfriend and boyfriend, sit off to the side, their arms around each other.
Kelsey uses her walker to greet and smile at those streaming into the Eastridge Church’s back building.
Lad, a Capernaum Club student leader, changed his shoes for the occasion, pointing at his new Sketchers and spinning around to Phil Collins’ “Strangers Like Me.”
This club is not 21 and over, nor does it have a bouncer at the door.
The club is Young Life Capernaum Ministries, a youth group for students and young adults with physical and cognitive disabilities.
“Some of these guys are incredible dancers,” says Jason Gibbons, a volunteer Capernaum leader. “And it’s just so fun to see them let loose with no inhibitions.”
Though Capernaum Club starts at 7 p.m., Capernaum-goers, ranging from 14 to 26, start filing into the building around 6:30, greeting each other with hugs and the occasional group-hug-pig-pile accompanied with uproarious laughter.
While the students and young adults filter in, Danny Kesl runs up and down the stairs preparing for the night’s activities.
Kesl is an associate staff person for Young Life, a national ministry that works with students in middle and high schools. He heads the Issaquah/Sammamish Capernaum.
His official title is Capernaum coordinator, and he supervises Capernaum volunteers, including some SPU students, who help pull off club each week.
Kesl got involved in Capernaum after he graduated from Western Washington University. His friend Dylan, a long-time neighborhood friend, attended Capernaum.
Kels said he was excited about the post–high school opportunities of activities to be involved with Dylan in, which is why he is here today.
At a young age, Kesl started hanging out with Dylan out of guilt after his father caught him using the word “retarded.”
“My dad pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, I’ll support in anything you do, but I won’t support you using that language,’ ” Kesl said. “So I hung out with him out of guilt … and then I was like, no, this is not a guilt thing now. This is way more for me.”
Kesl said Dylan did not grow up in a religious family, but when he came back from his first Capernaum camp, he started talking about Jesus.
“When he went home, somebody asked him, ‘What was camp like, how was being away from home?’ He just said. ‘Jesus loves me,’ ” Kesl said.
Dylan’s mother started going to church after Dylan continued to attend Capernaum.
“I wouldn’t have pegged Dylan as a disciple right away, but he heard a simple message and he’s spreading it,” Kesl said.
SPU senior Kailee Cunningham runs the music at club, switching from songs from the movie Frozen, a crowd favorite, and songs like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
Cunningham, hired by Kesl, is the team coordinator for Capernaum.
Almost every Capernaum Club has a theme.
The theme this evening is the Olympics. The majority of the 30-some students come adorned with their Special Olympics medals or sports gear.
On the agenda tonight are games like making a human pyramid in groups of six and wrapping a volunteer leader in toilet paper.
“We’re going to do this in preparation for camp,” Kesl said.
Every year, there’s a Young Life Capernaum camp during the summer.
Within seven minutes of this upcoming camp’s registration opening up online, it was filled up.
Camp is done usually in conjunction with another Capernaum Club, so there’s a larger group of students. Last year camp was held at Washington Family Ranch in Northern Oregon.
“One morning, one of the kids, Geoff, he came up to me with a razor and he said, ‘I need you to shave my face.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ He was like ‘Yeah, my dad shaves my face every other day. You need to shave my face.’ So that was an incredible bonding moment,” Gibbons said.
According to Geoff’s mother, Pat Rowen, Geoff has the date he goes to camp downloaded onto his phone’s calendar and talks about camp every day.
“We’ve looked at every video and every picture and every everything I don’t know how many times,” Rowen said.
Rowen also has a daughter, Katie, who attends Capernaum. The Rowens have been with the Issaquah/Sammamish Capernaum since the founding meeting in 2009. This particular Capernaum club was started by an Eastlake High School special education teacher Natalie Knell, who quit her job in order to work on Capernaum full time.
After the Dancing
After the dance and games, the night concludes with songs and a short message.
Emily unzips her guitar bag that had been on her back all night and pulls out a white electric guitar covered in boy band stickers.
She joins volunteer Michael Worotikan, an SPU sophomore, at the front of the crowd to lead worship. With the strap around her shoulder and the guitar neck in her hand, Emily indiscriminately strums the strings, swaying her body side to side to “Firework” by Katy Perry.
After a boisterous, engaging rendition of “I’m Trading My Sorrows (Yes Lord),” Kesl stands up in front of the group.
On the projector, he jumps through images of garbage made into art. He draws a connection to garbage and sin and says that Jesus gets rid of the “stinky, smelly” garbage and makes things new.
“Jesus is our best friend, champion and hero,” Kesl says. “He is bigger than Spiderman and Superman.”
In the messages given at Capernaum, Kesl says they incorporate the five senses to communicate better with the students.
“I might be able to reference good smell and bad smell, and if they had questions, I would lead them to the garbage or give them something they can take away, something they can feel,” Kesl says.
At the end of the night, Cunningham and some volunteers pass around gold medals to everyone to symbolize Jesus being a champion.
“When people ask, ‘Do you have to dumb [the message] down?’ [I say], ‘Excuse me? We simplify it,’ ” Cunningham says. “Our friends with special needs are really supported by visuals, so as often as I can … I try to paint a visual in their mind. It helps a lot, and I try not to simplify it too much.”
Cunningham’s first exposure to Capernaum was on a “Red Robin Night,” a regular Capernaum event.
“It was chaotic. I didn’t know my place yet, so I just sat,” Cunningham said.
A special education major, Cunningham got involved in Capernaum this year. Over the summer, she had to raise the $8,000 needed to fund her position over the course of this year.
“I’ve been involved in Young Life my entire life, and I have a little sister with a disability, so I wanted to be involved in Capernaum, and Danny bugged me until I couldn’t say no,” Cunningham said.
Capernaum’s Red Robin Night
At the most recent Red Robin Night, an entire section of the Issaquah Red Robin was partitioned off with eight full round tables of Capernaum attendants and volunteers.
Kesl and Cunningham bounce from table to table, making sure dietary restrictions are met and that everyone is satisfied.
Red Robin night signals how much the Issaquah/Sammamish Capernaum has grown.
At its conception, around 15 students attended. Now the number is close to 40 students and young adults.
“I remember coming here a few years ago and we would only have maybe three tables, and now they had to section off this whole area so we could fit everybody,” Gibbons says.
Gary, a Capernaum regular since its start and now a Capernaum Student Leader, strolls up to Gibbons and gives him a bro hug.
“Next time you see me, say, ‘G-money.’ That’s my name on Facebook,” Gary says.
Gibbons got involved in Capernaum two years ago when he attended a Capernaum club with Gary. Gibbons and Gary grew up together and lived in the same neighborhood.
“Through him I kind of attended one of these. I got involved and then really just became really good friends with the other leaders. It has inspired me to want to be more and to contribute,” Gibbons said.
Gary, now in his 20s, holds a job at Trader Joe’s and is one of the older members of the Issaquah/Sammamish Capernaum.
The expanding age group of Capernaum attendants is something Young Life is trying to resolve.
Kesl said parents of Capernaum-goers keep asking what the next step should be after Capernaum.
“As much as that’s a tough conversation to have, I love working for Young Life because they’re not an organization that says, ‘You snooze you lose. You’re 26 years old.’ They’re an organization that says, ‘…You know, Capernaum Club is 16- to 26-year-olds, but I want to introduce you to some pretty awesome people at this church.’ ”
Kesl said Young Life is looking for a system that ushers people with special needs into church communities beyond Capernaum.
As Kesl takes a moment to wolf down a burger, Dylan, now a Capernaum student leader sits down next to him.
“Hey, I was just talking about you,” Kesl said.
“Yeah?” Dylan said.
“Yeah. I was talking about how we met when we were 5 years old and that we’re friends right?”
“And then best friends.”
“Yeah,” Dylan said nodding his head.
“What do we say we are now?”
Dylan paused for a moment looking at Kesl as he tried to verbalize a word.
Kesl started making a “buh” sound.
“Brothers,” Dylan said, his eyes squinting up into a smile behind thick, fogged-up glasses.