By SARAH MCLAUGHLIN
Catching up with CJ Stewart:
Bearing fruit, impacting lives
Mississippians know CJ Stewart as the U.S. Army medic from Madison whose life was changed over a decade ago in Afghanistan. CJ spent 18 months recovering in a Washington D.C. hospital from severe injuries caused by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). After recovering, he soon got to work impacting young lives — something he continues doing today in new ways.
Attacks on CJ’s 101st Airborne Division in southern Afghanistan were normal. But the mid-morning attack on June 15, 2010, proved life-changing for CJ. When the RPG struck the wall of their outpost, debris ruptured an artery in his bicep, concrete left a life-threatening injury in his thigh, and his right arm was all but gone. In the midst of the chaos, pain and disorientation, CJ remained calm under pressure as he put a tourniquet around his leg. Over the next five days, CJ was taken to Kandahar, Bagram, and Germany for several crucial operations before finally landing in D.C., where at Walter Reed Hospital he underwent most of the 43 surgeries on his arm. That’s where his life truly began to change.
For 60 days, CJ was bedridden and his feet never touched the ground. It was there in his physical healing that God began to spiritually transform him. CJ explained that he was a believer in Christ before he got hurt, yet not truly a follower. Meaning, the injuries he sustained in Afghanistan were not an accident – they were evidence of God’s sovereignty, the truth that He works all things together for our good.
Today CJ remembers this, saying, “If God’s not your life, then He’s not in your life.” CJ says his injuries were the beginning of a journey where Christ showed him one of the purposes for his life: impacting the lives of others. CJ’s mission became to “love God, love others, to share the truth and bear the fruit.”
But what is this fruit, and what does this mission look like?
When CJ asked God to reveal a new assignment for his life, that mission first came in the form of founding the CJ Stewart Foundation, which eventually became Camp Down Range in Clinton. Camp Down Range began on what was previously the 193-acre Camp Kickapoo. Camp Down Range used experiential outdoor learning to shape the lives of young adolescents and teach them how to overcome obstacles. CJ’s vision was to show others how faith can be strengthened through challenges.
During this time, CJ was also connected with Jackson Academy’s Soar program, which made use of the obstacle course and outdoor learning opportunities at Camp Down Range. CJ eventually became director of the Soar program, which was established on the basis of Isaiah 40:30-31 — “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall, but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (emphasis added).
CJ cultivated distinct goals based on the program’s title. “Soar” stands for: service, opportunity, adventure, and relationship. Whether students were on a rafting trip or obstacle course, or serving in the Jackson community, the students realized, as CJ put it, that “we look different on the outside, but on the inside, we have a lot in common.”
One year, a team made up of football players and one school band member had to complete an obstacle course. At first, the football players overlooked their team member from the band and assumed he wouldn’t be able to help. But soon they realized only the band member had the patience and creativity needed to complete the course. This taught them that, in the body of Christ, they all needed one another (1 Corinthians 12:27). When the boys got back to JA, they were friends who had a deeper appreciation for each other and for the unique skills God had given each of them.
Although CJ’s role with both the Soar program and Camp Down Range have shifted recently, he’s continued seeking opportunities to impact others. Today this opportunity has taken shape through CJ’s involvement with Sunnybrook Children’s Home in Ridgeland. Sunnybrook began in 1963 with a mission of helping children ages 6 through 20 who need basic familial care that they otherwise would not receive.
Although Sunnybrook has been around for decades, it continues to evolve alongside the ever-changing approaches to foster care in Mississippi. In response to legislative changes in the state, Sunnybrook created the Transitional Living Program in November 2019, around the time CJ and his wife got involved with the organization — and CJ became the Transitional Living Program director. The program, CJ explained, helps young adults ages 15-20 who need, as the program’s title suggests, help transitioning from adolescence to adulthood and independence.
Also at Sunnybrook, CJ and Danielle, Danielle, are in the process of becoming houseparents for six teenage girls.
The guidance that CJ and his wife seek to give others started with the journey God took CJ on after his injury in Afghanistan. CJ explained that “God had to wreck my world to save my soul.”
Every day, CJ explains, he deeply feels that he wakes up with a purpose, a need to fight — and since his time at Walter Reed, he’s continued to fight for the lives of people who’ve gone through adversity. “At the end of the day, life’s hard for everybody, and we don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose how we respond to it,” he said.
CJ knows that young people who’ve endured hardships need truth to cling to, something to hold on to when they’re in the midst of darkness and difficulty. In many ways, his hopes for young adults point to David’s words in the psalms as he wrote, “When my heart is faint … lead me to the Rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy” (Psalm 61:2-3).
Sarah McLaughlin is a junior at Mississippi College, and plans to graduate with a B.A. in English education. She attends Pinehaven Presbyterian Church in Clinton. You’ll often find her reading, listening to vinyl records, and drinking coffee.