The Rest of the Story
Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church
PREFACE: Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church began its special needs ministry as a result of two founding members’ prayers. Lee and Leigh McCarty walked “alone” owning the responsibility of their first born daughter Brooke McCarty who was touched by special needs. Walking that out for over 30 years inspired Lee and Leigh to go to their knees in prayer asking God to assist our incoming families touched by disability. They then began earnestly asking our elders, Christian Education department and our families to also own this responsibility covenantally. This was the rekindling of our special needs ministry called Sonbeams. Our ministry name was taken from a community summer outreach the church began when Brooke was a child spearheaded by the McCartys.
Now…for The Rest of the Story…
What happens within a church family when members and regular attenders, youth and adults, are thrown into a gym full of “different”? Going outside of their comfort zone, the membership of Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, Mississippi began a bi-monthly Parent’s Night Out for families with special needs that has grown into a Sunday School and into a special needs classroom in the church-associated Christian school. Brad Ingram has served as a volunteer in Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church’s ministry to families with special needs. He describes special needs ministry as an “excellent example of God’s redeeming work in all of us.” Here is his story of what God has been up to in his home church.
MNA SNM: Please tell us a little about your church’s disability ministry story. How did you first get involved in special needs ministry? How long ago? What does disability ministry look like in your local congregation?
I started attending Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church 4 years ago. Almost immediately, I began attending Parent’s Night Out events as a regular attender. I was drawn to it as a way to give back to families who are needy in a very unique way. As a pediatric neurologist, I try to reach out to my patients and their families but am often limited by time or circumstance. Disability ministry is a great way to use the skills God has given me to reach out to people, person to person. I also wanted my children to grow up seeing and experiencing life with people who look “different” so that they could learn to see the similarity in each of us. At Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church, we have a steadily growing ministry that God has truly blessed over the past several years. We started with a children’s only “Parent’s Night Out” that was held in our nursery with church volunteers that occurred one Friday night every other month. Eventually, with a well-timed addition of a gymnasium to our church’s facilities, we were able to expand this night to also include adults. We are very blessed to have an active special needs ministry group called Sonbeams that coordinates this ministry. Over time, it has expanded to include Christmas visits in the children’s homes by church members, a Sunday school class and even a special needs class at the Christian school associated with our church.
MNA SNM: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing individuals and families touched by disability?
I think the one constant and universal feeling is loneliness. These families live in a different bubble than the “norm.” They face challenges on their time, their relationships and are often left with grief over the child they expected to have. They are ON all the time with no time for relaxation. And this is all before they leave the house. In public, other people often ignore the family with special needs “who just don’t want to stare.” A trip to the grocery store can be a very emotional experience as they are both ignored and pointed out for their differences. Even in a church environment they can be silently neglected or unable to attend activities, as there is no appropriate childcare. Personal relationships, play dates, dinner parties, Sunday school dinners, church small groups, Bible studies are often not a part of their day-to-day life. They are removed from human fellowship like no other group that we can minister to.
MNA SNM: What are the biggest barriers you’ve had to overcome to help your congregation develop a “comfort zone” with this type of ministry?
We are raised to be polite, but removed, especially from anything “different.” This presents a challenge when a ministry throws us into a gym full of “different!” I have to admit that I feel that very few of us will start off with a “comfort zone” with special needs ministry. That Godly fulfillment (and growth), I think, comes from the uncomfortable zone.
It bears remembering that Christ’s ministry was directed at children and those who were ill, often one on one. I encourage anyone interested in special needs ministry to start with one child, one family. Hold a baby with a birth anomaly for an hour or play basketball with a teen with Downs syndrome and talk to him about himself. Have a lunch with a parent of one of these children and embrace them with God’s love and watch what happens. Exposure to unique families and people, like anything else, brings comfort. But I believe that is part of the reciprocal ministry so often found in special needs ministry, and I am humbled by God’s
design. I promise that God will use your discomfort to His glory and that the ease will come with relationships!
MNA SNM: What practical steps have you taken to help your congregation that way?
Acknowledging that we are relational people and that this is a unique ministry, we do two specific things to help the congregation interact with these amazing children and adults. First, recognize who people are. If a woman’s gifts are rocking a baby or doing a handicraft, then station her doing those things. We have tremendous participation among the youth, many of whom play basketball with the older kids. One member of our church plays the piano for 2 hours, because one of the special needs boys loves it. They are most at ease doing what they can bring to the table. Whatever the gift God can use it!
The second step is to maximize the one on one nature of this ministry. It works better if people are assigned one child or adult to interact with and minister to. This is both a logistical answer, as well as a ministry one, as both the special needs individual and the church member develop a relationship, and God works in them both!
MNA SNM: In what ways have you seen your congregation grow in “owning” ministry to and alongside people touched by disability?
Youth! I think that one of the most amazing, and for me unexpected, was the reaction of the youth group to this ministry. Teens are an age usually obsessed with the norm and not sticking out, but God has really used this ministry in our youth group. About half of our volunteers are under the age of twenty, and some of them are not members of our church. The youth are matured by the responsibility of having a “buddy” and develop a new worldview about God and conformity. The youth group has also started taking teenagers with special needs on their retreats.
In addition, our church ministry has blossomed into offering a special needs Sunday school class as well as a kindergarten class at the school associated with our church. We are building an accessible special needs family bathroom this summer in the nursery area.
MNA SNM: How is your congregation a different place because people with disabilities and their families are part of the church family? How has God used your local church to usher in the power of the gospel into the lives of families touched by disability?
I think that our church family is enriched because of these unique families. They are our best teachers in the special needs field and God uses them in my personal faith regularly. Learning to communicate with them about their children and siblings has been a ministry to me in my life.
Practical items are the best way to reach out to and support these families. Simple things like handicapped bathrooms and wheelchair ramps can completely change their experience at the church—and show that their needs matter to the congregation as a whole. One of the most amazing changes that we made was to remove a chair in the sanctuary every 6 rows so that a wheelchair could sit there, out of the aisle. The families were AMAZED (as were we at their response) and got a real sense of welcome because of that provision.
Another real practical problem is Sunday school/church events. Families with special needs often do not feel comfortable leaving their children in Sunday school or the nursery, a luxury that many of us take for granted and enjoy. We have a Sunday school class for visiting individuals with special needs, but try to transition our regular attenders into whatever age-based class fits them best. Also, we have raised money in the church for equipment that a child might need and given it to a family who otherwise might not have been able to afford that equipment to help their child.
Spiritual support comes from meeting people where they are. The fact is families touched by disability are overwhelming un-churched. At our Parents Night Out, there is always a Bible study for the attendees. But we also meet with these families outside of these events, pray with them, and really try to show them God’s love for ALL of the members of their family. One of the palpable parts of this ministry is that love and interaction are often like water in a desert to these families. Using simple love and pointing them back to God, as the source of all love and fulfillment is our key goal in working with these families.
MNA SNM: What Biblical truths have been demonstrated in three dimension through the work of God displayed in the lives of people touched by disability?
For me this is really a direct outreach of the ministry of Christ. He was continually reaching out to and healing the sick, blind and epileptics. In particular He loved children and those with a child like faith, and I think that these are also features of this ministry. But special needs ministry is also an excellent example of God’s redeeming work in all of us. At our core, we are no different from these individuals, and can often be more removed from God because we actively run from Him. I often tell my own children that while these children and adults may have broken bodies, they have souls just like you and me. We are ALL in need of the redeeming and healing power of God.
MNA SNM: How has your involvement with families touched by disability inside your congregation caused you to reach out to others outside of your church’s walls?
One of the most amazing things about special needs ministry is the frank revelation of who we are as people. Interacting with people with disabilities requires you to break down your comfort zone and lets God build you up as someone new, more able to see people, all people, as a loved child of God. At the end of the day, we all live in a sinful, fallen world, populated by loneliness and despair. Only the healing touch of God can reach in and give us joy and fulfillment. God has used this ministry to encourage me to acknowledge special needs individuals all around me as his beloved, but also to reach out to their families as people who would benefit from an extra smile or round of love. But it has also made me see the needs of other people with other “special” needs. I am constantly convicted of my witness to the widow in the neighborhood, the elderly people I interact with, even my Muslim coworkers because this ministry has taught me that ALL people needs God’s light in their lives.
MNA SNM: What’s your “next frontier?” What is the area in which your church recognizes that it still has a long way to go?
For us, children’s ministry was much easier than adult special needs ministry. When you are ministering to children, the question eventually arises, “What happens when they grow up?” Adult special needs ministry can be more of a challenge, but it is something that we feel called to address. This includes the question of integration with the youth group, as well as Sunday school classes.
We can always do more outreach into the community where the majority of these families are and meet people where they are to show them the love of Christ. This will always be a mission with plenty to do.