Full Circle Journey
Pastor Wendell R. Vinson baptized 10-year-old Steve S. Kramer at Highland Assembly of God when the Bakersfield, California, church had 50 attendees.
Today, 36 years later, the church, now renamed Canyon Hills Assembly, has six campuses and 4,000 adherents. And Kramer has reunited with Vinson, as director of the Vulnerable Initiative of CityServe International, a collaborative network co-founded by Vinson that resources local congregations by offering solutions in matters of brokenness.
Such a scenario seemed unlikely when Kramer entered the world 11 weeks premature, weighing barely 3 pounds. As a baby, doctors diagnosed Kramer with cerebral palsy, which affected his ability to adequately control body movement and muscle coordination.
When it came time for Steve to enter school, he and his parents, Randy and Linda, had a new battle to fight: prejudice. His parents vociferously, and ultimately successfully, argued for Steve’s inclusion in a public school program after his teacher, counselor, and superintendent all advocated placing place him in a school for the disabled.
Because of the cerebral palsy, Steve’s movements appeared uncoordinated, prompting classmates to tease him cruelly and to even throw rocks at him. Kramer lived most of his childhood in a wheelchair, on crutches, or using a walker.
He underwent a dozen surgeries on his legs, knees, and hips in attempts to loosen stiff spastic muscles. Sometimes he spent months at a time hospitalized, encased in a body cast up to his chest. Randy and Linda sensed the operations growing more experimental than helpful; at 13, they concurred with Steve’s decision to stop the operations.
Randy asked Canyon Hills churchgoers to pray for a healing in lieu of yet another recommended corrective surgery. Six weeks later, X-rays revealed that Steve’s displaced right femur had returned to its socket. Doctors couldn’t account for the reason.
Soon after, at a family day at the beach, a giant wave came ashore. The receding water washed Kramer’s crutches out to the ocean, never to be seen again. Steve saw it as divine intervention.
Around the same time, he sensed a specific call by God to become a missionary to the Netherlands. Kramer, a graduate of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, spent a decade in Holland pioneering Chi Alpha Campus Ministries chapters and helping to plant churches as an Assemblies of God world missionary. Damascus Road International Church in Maastricht, Netherlands, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary.
The handsome, articulate, good-natured, and extroverted Kramer joined CityServe last fall, following five years as U.S. missionary director of Chi Alpha at the University of Oregon. Kramer chartered the group at the Eugene campus of his alma mater and also helped plant Praise Community Church nearby.
But Kramer, as a person with a disability, couldn’t pass up the ministry opportunity to help the vulnerable in his new CityServe role. He remains a U.S. missionary, now with Intercultural Ministries.
“Steve is passionate about using his own testimony to inspire and encourage others to live courageously, in spite of challenging circumstances,” Vinson says.
The AG’s SoCal Network initiative for compassion ministries called CityServe resulted in part from a Canyon Hills-owned 165,000-square-foot structure that functions as CityServe’s primary distribution center. Canyon Hills has long been involved in innovative compassion ministry methods, even “dog food evangelism.”
Overall, CityServe has developed initiatives dedicated to 10 people groups, including orphans, widows, prisoners, the addicted, and the hungry. Kramer is focusing on the vulnerable: the disabled, mentally ill, at-risk kids, and the unborn.
Kramer credits his parents and three younger siblings with helping to shape his ministry philosophy.
“My family never treated me like I was disabled,” Kramer says. “My parents knew that the limitations others set on me weren’t what God planned. God knew before I was born what purposes He had for me. God doesn’t look at the doctor’s chart before He calls you.”
Kramer, however, knows his limitations. He uses a cane and he walks with a limp. Stairs are difficult to negotiate because of trying to keep his balance. Rather than walk long distances, he opts for a wheelchair.
“I am disabled,” says Kramer. “But while many people see limitations, I see possibilities. God can be glorified through weaknesses.”
Julie, Kramer’s wife of 15 years, is assisting in the ministry. She spent 1½ years working in a Mexico orphanage for the handicapped before the marriage and for the past two years working with severely disabled students in Oregon public schools. The Kramers have two children, Kees, 10, and Sela, 6.
Although he helped plant a church in a red-light district in the Netherlands and pioneered a Chi Alpha group in largely secular Oregon, Kramer sees his CityServe role as his most challenging ministry endeavor.
“People feel ill-equipped and fearful about ministry to the disabled,” Kramer says.
Much of his portfolio will involve raising awareness in other churches about the need for special needs ministry.
“So many churches want to reach hipsters, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Kramer says. “But we also need to reach the broken.”
Rather than limit his ministry, Kramer believes his disability has actually opened doors. But that’s not how others view him, necessarily.
“If I am sitting in a wheelchair, people may talk to Julie rather than me, like I won’t understand,” he says.
Such experiences convinced Vinson that Kramer is a perfect fit for his new assignment.
“At times, Steve has felt firsthand what it’s like to be marginalized and left out,” says Vinson, 60. “Many times our churches aren’t prepared to respond to families with special needs. Steve is more predisposed to a greater sensitivity to the needy.”
Part of Kramer’s efforts through CityServe involve helping other congregations develop plans to accommodate special-needs children, youth, and adults.
Canyon Hills has made that a priority. For instance, Champion’s Club is a specially designed state-of-the-art building on the main campus for children with special needs. The area contains specific sensory, exercise, and music rooms. Vinson says many families with kids who have special needs, especially autism, quit attending church services because they don’t feel welcome.
“We have picked up a lot of dechurched families at Canyon Hills,” Vinson says. “We think it’s important for parents, particularly single parents, to feel their special-needs child is being cared for in a church program.”
Photo: Steve Kramer (center) has reunited with his childhood pastor Wendell Vinson (right) in a ministry in which his wife, Julie, assists.