(ABP) — Starting a ministry to special-needs individuals is as simple as a smile, handshake or hug, according to many who lead such efforts in their churches.
Parents of a disabled child often feel awkward in a church setting because they fear their child is bothering the rest of the congregation, said Michelle Guppy, a leader in the special-needs ministry of Graceview Baptist Church in Tomball, Texas. They notice church members acting uncomfortable around their children. Sensing this, many of the families choose not to attend church.
By greeting the child and touching his or her hand during conversation, church members go a long way to overcoming the discomfort, Guppy said. “As a parent, all they want is to feel welcome,” said the mother of a 10-year-old autistic boy. “We're not going to church to be healed but to be welcomed. We want to go somewhere our children will be welcomed, and someone will tell them about Jesus.”
Many special-needs families know each other, Guppy said. When a church welcomes one of the children, word quickly spreads to other families that the congregation wants to minister to the special-needs population.
“If you welcome them, they will come,” Guppy said. “They're out there.”
Graceview Baptist members did more than welcome special-needs individuals — they sought them out. Program director Denise Briley followed the special-education school bus to each home in the community to enlist participants. The church also advertised a weekly four-hour time where volunteers would care for the children while the parents relaxed.
At Antioch Baptist Church in Heathsville, N.C., a 161-year-old rural congregation, the traditional members fit easily into three small Sunday school classes. But the fellowship hall now overflows with the new “Smiles Class.” The church recently began an outreach to developmentally delayed adults from group homes and families in the area. And, like Graceview Baptist, the North Carolina congregation sought out participants.
Pastor Joy Heaton approached LIFE Inc., which operates 30 residential care facilities for developmentally delayed adults in Eastern North Carolina, about ministry opportunities with residents.
Before Antioch began the Smiles Class, the special-needs residents occasionally visited other churches but had no regular place to go or targeted program of religious education. “Usually I have to go out and hunt places and ask if we can come,” said Charles Jack of LIFE. “So we very much appreciate the ministry offered by the church.”
On an average Sunday, a dozen residents, accompanied by several caretakers, make their way to the Smiles Class, presided over by Carolyn Vick, whose interest led to the formation of the class. Vick is assisted by her son Dean, who is mildly disabled. Ernie Vick, her oldest son, occasionally dons biblical costumes to illustrate Bible stories.
The youngest class member is 23, the oldest is in her 50s. A typical class begins with coloring, which some members enjoy more than others. One member, who colors with great vigor, snaps one crayon after another. “All broke!” he says with a smile.
The class always includes a time for singing that is as joyful as it is off-key and often includes hand motions. There are Bible stories, refreshments and crafts. While the class members are appreciative, the blessings work both ways, Vick said. “They've done our hearts so good.”
At First Baptist Church in Longview, Texas, all the special-needs individuals — ages 10 to 75 — are in one group to begin Sunday school. They sing songs and do hands-on activities such as crafts and plays. Then the group divides into smaller classes.
Dale Sage, founder of the special-friends ministry, tries to put individuals into classes of people that are the same age and learning ability. Those who are able to sit through the worship service do, she said. The group tends to sit together with the teachers, who can help when needed.
Sage admits it is difficult to know how much each person comprehends, but she said she believes they need to know God loves them. “We feel strongly that it is not teaching them the Bible story or a memory verse that is important,” she said. “We believe it is most important to teach them God loves them.”
Sage tries to recruit leaders from among the area's public-school teachers, who receive state training in handling special-needs individuals. But she also trains those with a passion for helping disabled individuals.
Finding a church that ministered to her autistic son was a blessing to her whole family, said Michelle Guppy of Graceview Baptist. “It brought the joy back,” she said. “We've been blessed with faith through our journey.”
Special-needs ministry also blesses the volunteer workers and the congregation, leaders agreed.
“It gets to the point you don't even see their handicaps,” Sage said. “They're just Jane and Bob and Sue.”