Tim Rogers drives an hour and a half to attend worship services at First Baptist Church in Fenton, Missouri. The single father says he really likes the pastor and has many friends in the congregation, but the main reason he makes the drive every Sunday is because his daughter, Jennifer, loves her Sunday School class. Jennifer is 15 years old and profoundly retarded.
Harpeth Heights Baptist in Nashville, Tenn., just started a special education class for mentally and physically handicapped people like Jennifer. Already one family has joined the church specifically because of the program.
Carlton McDaniel, senior pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., says several members of his congregation were caring for handicapped children at home and could not attend services before Highland began its special education Sunday School class 14 years ago. The class has proved mutually beneficial. "For our church, the students are a tremendous blessing," said McDaniel.
These Baptist churches and hundreds more like them across the country have discovered a whole different kind of ministry outreach. Special education classes minister to the mentally and physically handicapped every Sunday with finger-paints, music, and Bible lessons. They also serve their families and non-handicapped church members by teaching acceptance, friendship, and unconditional love.
"I was a deacon when my church started a special education Sunday School class about 12 years ago," said Harold Eaton, who now assists in Heritage Baptist Church's program in Annapolis, Md. "The workers needed help, and I really felt the Lord wanted me there. I wouldn't trade this ministry for the world. It's changed our congregation. At church suppers, our handicapped students used to sit by themselves as a group. Today, it's much more integrated. Other church members have learned to treat them as adults even though they are basically children in adult bodies. It's a very gratifying ministry."
Initial wariness of the handicapped is fairly common, says Gene Nabi, a special education consultant and training leader for the Sunday School Board, whose 35-year-old son, Scott, is mentally handicapped. "Only about 20 percent of Southern Baptist churches have special education programs. Many people just don't understand their needs because they seem so different. But we have to remember that Jesus spent the majority of His time with people who were different. The mentally and physically handicapped in our communities should be a reminder to Christians that we need to reach out to everyone."
"All you have to do is attend your local Special Olympics to see the number of families who need ministry," said Joan Eyster, children's education director at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. Calvary church started a special education program in 1985 and sent workers to Ridgecrest for special ministries training. This year, the men from Calvary who attended Promise Keepers have each adopted a child or adult in the program and committed themselves to pray for them. The church has also provided scholarships for students to attend special education camps and produced an informational video about their Sunday School class which they share with other Southern Baptists statewide. "We have a deep compassion and commitment to these students," said Eyster. "But I think the real ministry is to their families who wouldn't be in church if there weren't a place for their children."
Terry Coker, associate pastor of education at First Baptist Church in Fenton, said the need for a special education ministry goes beyond activities for the handicapped. Already, one couple in his church has divorced because of the pressure of caring for a mentally handicapped child. "Among married couples with a special needs child, 80 percent will divorce. We need to help them." First Baptist's Sunday School class, which Jennifer Rogers attends, is small, but growing as the congregation catches the vision for the ministry. "We know people in our community can use this class; they just don't know about it," said Coker. "In addition to sending out community mailers and holding Special Education Awareness Day, we also encourage the congregation to be aware of their neighbors and invite them in."
Heritage Baptist Church had only two or three people attending their special education class until about a year ago when workers approached the area group homes for the handicapped and offered to coordinate their participation in Heritage's Sunday School. Now nearly 50 mentally and physically handicapped adults attend the program every Sunday and the church is planning for a children's class as well.
The group, called "Exceptional Learners," uses regular Baptist Sunday School curriculum enhanced with lots of singing, activities, and, of course, food. They have a corporate prayer time and read Scripture together. "We try to get as much participation from each student as possible," Eaton said. "They ask questions about God and about Jesus. They get more from the class than many people think."
The one-on-one contact in classes makes all the difference for these students, said Rogers. "Because I was in the Coast Guard, we moved a lot and I have attended many Southern Baptist churches. Some classes just let Jennifer sit there. She can't talk, so many people assume she can't communicate or interact. But she's like everyone else; she needs and wants to be with people. We used to get mixed reactions at other churches. Some were very receptive, but didn't have the special education class she needs; and others were afraid and didn't know what to do with us. They'd never say it, but you get the feeling that you're not welcome."
It's simply a lack of proper perspective toward the handicapped in our churches, said Nabi. "The presence of a mentally handicapped person is a confrontation to superficial theology. Many people think these ministries are a great service, but that's it. Some will question whether the handicapped can come into the Kingdom because they look and act different. God doesn't say everybody can come to Him except those who can't walk or talk right. If salvation is open to all, then, regardless of a person's disability, we need to use these Sunday School classes to reach out to everyone with the Good News. That's our only responsibility -- to present the gospel."
"Remember the parable of the hundred sheep," said Nabi. "One sheep was lost, so the shepherd left the ninety-nine and went in search of the lost one. We always think of the lost person down the street as that one sheep," said Nabi. "But what if that one sheep were severely retarded. Would we still go after it? Jesus would. These classes really make a difference in the lives of handicapped people and their families."
And the rewards for the sensitive, accepting church family are limitless. "This group has brought the greatest blessing to our church," said Eaton. "They show us the true meaning of Christian love. They're not claiming turf in the church. They're authentic and genuine. The Lord has blessed this ministry, and we, in turn, have been blessed through it."