April 2008

When Sally met Matthew, she said she loved him from the first.  Of course, Sally had never had a man give her any attention all of her 30 years.  A petite blonde, she had lived in a small town in North Carolina.  Her parents had protected her to the point that she wasn’t even able to go to a sheltered workshop to work.  Then tragic events brought her to our county to live with a distant relative that she had only met one time. 

After several years, the relative was overwhelmed with the responsibilities of a young woman with Downs Syndrome.  She turned to a local agency for help.  Sally was able to obtain a placement in a group home.  Within a few months, Sally was moved into an apartment.  Matthew lived in the apartment across the hall from Sally.  He was an experienced young man who understood how to win Sally’s heart.

Unfortunately, Matthew was the victim of abuse in his family.  Therefore, he proceeded to abuse Sally, beating her badly after their sexual encounters.  Because Matthew was also a mentally challenged individual and Sally refused to press charges against the man she loved, Matthew was never arrested or paid any price for his brutal beatings.

It is a well-known psychological fact that victims of abuse become abusers.  While we hate to admit it, this fact is true within the mentally challenged community, also.  While the story of Sally and Matthew is ugly and rare, it is true.  Perhaps the blame rests on the professional community, who believed that the indisputable principle of choice was more important than safety.  Perhaps it was the fault of APD who encourages the placement of people into apartments, whether they are ready for that move or not. 

It would seem obvious that Sally wasn’t prepared to handle Matthew’s advances.  Yet, she wasn’t moved from the apartment complex or given the kind of protection that she needed.  Perhaps, it is the fault of politicians, who can’t seem to find the money to provide funding for our most vulnerable citizen.  Perhaps it is the fault of an entie society who discount the value of mentally challenged people.

Perhaps, there are too many people who cling to a faulty and unsafe philosophy to point fingers to any one set of people.  Could it be that there are so many problems involved in the system that there is no good solution?  This is why we at The Special Gathering, a ministry within the mentally challenged community, must advocate for the community we serve.  Richard Stimson, the Executive Director of Special Gathering, has said, “A shepherd protects his sheep.  Therefore, advocacy must be a part of pastoral care.”

What do you think is the responsibility of a specialized ministry in regard to advocacy?  Even though Sally wasn’t a member of Special Gathering, did we still have an obligation to advocate for her?  What could be done for Sally, since she didn’t want any help? 


This is an article which I authored that was published in the SpaceCoast Business Magazine.  It is part of a series that I call, “Learning from the Non-Profit.”


In 2005 when David Cooke, president and CEO of Bridges, walked into The Arc of Brevard, he recognized he would be an agent of change.  The Arc, a national organization, embodied a trusted reputation and name recognition.  While the mentally challenged (developmentally delayed) community remains a cloistered, sub-culture, parents knew The Arc sheltered workshop was a safe haven for their disabled children.  The individuals Arc served depended on the organization as a good place to work.  Even more, the business community knew Arc could service their employment needs in an assortment of ways. 


But time required change.  The consumers were no longer satisfied with The Arc name, an acronym standing for The Association for Retarded Citizens.  The word retarded carried luggage and hurts.  Cooke knew a name change meant breaking with the national organization, a major step. 


Other problems existed as well.  There were two facilities, one in Melbourne, another in Rockledge.  Bricks and mortar were a major overhead expense.  Could a growing organization continue to justify this kind of expenditure in a changing, mobile world? was the question Cooke had to answer. 


Additionally, state and federal cuts in funding were regular and expected.  Each time the state cut funding, they mandated more services be provided with less money.  Unfunded mandates were part of the cost of operating.  Innovative funding sources were converted into a necessity, not a luxury.


Yet, Cooke clasped the need to maintain a respect and honor of the past.  Stories of historical conquests and prejudice had been left uncovered and untold.  Families who suffered misunderstanding and rejection had valiantly worked with and without community cooperation to bring change.  As an agent of change, Cooke knew that successful transition only comes stabilized and balanced with the hard work of past labors.


Cooke knew the first obstacle which often impedes change had been breached.  He had the unwavering support of the Board of Directors.  They envisioned and desired change.  The board held a vision for a seven day a week/24 hour a day service center.


Methodically and slowly, he began to implement his second strategic requirement–communication.  From the first day he sat behind the president’s desk, Cooke was communicating to parents and consumers his future plan.  “If change is ever to be achieved, communication is the operative word,” Cooke emphasizes. 


Making more services available to more people was the goal.  Marjorie Williams, Senior Administrative Assistant, stressed, “The greatest benefit of these changes has been that we can serve more people with a variety of different services.”  Pointing to the Family Liaison Program one of Bridges’ most innovative programs, Cooke said, “We work hand in hand with families, students and the school system to provide much needed sustenance.”  The program is supervised by Terry Tomoka and Jim Gerhauser.  “This has also provided us with another funding stream, the Brevard County School Board,” Cooke said.


Moving the Melbourne consumers to Rockledge became a natural outgrowth of the new philosophy of meeting needs every day, all day.  “Do brick and mortar make a good center?  Or do the services we are able to provide make the center high-quality?  We believed and endeavored to communicate the answer to these questions.  We wanted to help reluctant parents to understand that their adult children would receive a better quality of service in a consolidated service center,” Cooke explained.  Of course, some families remained unconvinced and refused to budge but the families who made the shift see the wisdom of the merger.


Backing of the board, communication, increased and merged services made the final change easier.  When the name was changed to Bridges, all ties were broken with the national organization.  Consumers and parents were smoothly united behind this final change.  Bridges—Building Bridges to Better Lives—became the new name and a better indicator of the overarching philosophy.


            Yet, Cooke believes that these changes can only be fully embraced through the well-focused lenses of the past.  An employee for 25 years, Barbara Pyle, Coordinator for Transportation and Social Services, heads a project to tell the story of the past.  While adopting the vision for change, Mrs. Pyle has lived the history.  Working with parents and individuals, she holds the key to this final stage in embracing change.


Explicit board support, communication, innovative expansion of services, and a new vision embodied in a new name made the changes of the last three years successful.  However, Cooke believes that all could have been lost had it not been coupled with a fervent and grateful celebration of the past.

It is inevitable that conflict will come when two people live, work, play or worship together.  An extremely quotable pastor from years past, Jack Green, once said, “If two people live together, there will be conflict, unless one of the two people is dead.” 

I’ve always assumed that if there is a conflict between two people at least one of those people is angry.  That does not mean, of course, that one of the two people is sinning.  The Bible clearly says, “Be angry and sin not.”  This makes it pretty clear that you can be angry and not sin.  

I am area director of Special Gathering of Indian River, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community. Our mission is to do classic ministry, evangelizing and discipling the people we serve.  Like every other pastor who ministers to a particular group, we deliberately tackle issues that are relevant to our members.  We talk about the sheltered workshop and having a job on the outside.  We try to deal with the issue of having to live with your parents FOREVER.  Proper behavior with your girl/boyfriend is a scorching hot topic.  Yet, I’ve never squarely faced with our members the issue of siblings–until last week.

Our sermon was on Jacob and Esau.  We are all familiar with the bitter rivalry that these men faced, even in the womb.  Both mother and father were guilty of fostering these battles, which eventually led to resentments.  This week in our sermon I explained to our members that their brothers and sisters have given up a lot for them.  Because many of them were sick as children and they always have had special needs, their siblings lives were different from others.  I urged them to say thank you to their brothers or sisters for helping them and for being kind to them.

I was surprised because one especially sensitive young woman, Michal, spoke up and said, “I don’t have to, my sister loves me.”  While I don’t often welcome interruptions during our devotion time, I was happy for this one.  As she spoke several of our members vocally agreed with her.  Obviously, I’d not made my point clearly.

“No!”  I tried to clarify.  “I’m not saying that they resent you so you need to say thank you.  I’m saying they have given up a lot for you, and for that reason you need to say thank you. Recently, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart and said, “You are so involved with what you don’t have that you don’t appreciate what you do have.”  

It is true that our members are discriminated against almost everywhere.  But in their homes, they often receive preferential treatment.  Siblings see it.  They may even be angry but it’s been my experience that few of them sin.  They embrace their disabled partner in family life and move on, helping where they can.  Siblings deserve a big thank you for their love, understanding, and caring.

Is there someone in your life that you need to thank?  Perhaps your husband or wife who does so many little things to please you?  What about one of your members who is careful to help you each time you meet?

I just read a loving recounting of a day in the life of a family that lives with a child with a disability.  Thought you might want to read it.  The title is “Just Another Ordinary Day.”  (I stole my title from her.) The blog is written by the mother in the household.  The blog is wordsmythe

Today, I spent a good part of the day resting.  My form of rest for today was gardening.  The spring sunshine was cool and refreshing on my skin.  I get such joy from trimming and digging and pulling, sweeping, bending, raking and then finally, taking a few minutes to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

There is a great deal of satisfaction we all achieve from a job well done.  As I read the blog, I mentioned earlier,  I prayed that this mother will know the sense of accomplishing a job well-done as she looks at her son, eating potato chips or sleeping.  After reading her musing, I think she will and somehow that gives me joy. 


A Quarrel over Wells

Call to Worship: I am with you and will watch over you. Genesis 28:15 

Live a peace with everyone. Romans 12:18

 Have one member stand and have some people tell something nice about that person. Then remind the members that their mother told them that if they can’t say something nice about people, then don’t say anything at all. Have a member read, Romans 12:18.

I. Tell the story of the Isaac and the wells from Genesis 26:12-22.
1. The people who lived there would not let Isaac live in the place where he wanted to live. He chose not to fight. He chose to move and dig more wells.
2. His father, Abraham had taught him that it is better to leave than to fight.
3. Finally, there was a place for him and he was happy.


II. God blesses us and many others when we chose to not fight others.



A. Do you think Isaac was a wimp or a wise man to do what he did? Maybe we should hear the REST of the STORY before we decide:
B. There are many wells in the wilderness of Israel. And many of them were dug by Isaac because he was made to move so many times. Millions of people over the years have been blessed because Isaac chose to not fight but to move.
C. It is an important principle. God blesses us and many others when we are men and women of peace.
III. Remember Isaac‘s name meant laughter. He wanted to spread joy and laughter and peace. He would move rather than fight.
A. In our workshops, at Special Gathering and at our job sites, we have many choices that we can make. Sometimes it is hard to be there. People make us angry; our feelings get hurt.  Maybe someone steals some of our stuff or gossips about us.
B. We can choose to be people of peace.

C. We can walk away from fights and arguments. Who knows what the end will be. We could save someone‘s life, like Isaac‘s wells have done.

Conclusion–God will bless us when we become people of peace. I believe one of the reasons God has bless America is because we have not usually been an aggressor nation. I know there are dark horrible times, like what we did to the Indians and slavary.  But usually we have wanted to help others and help bring peace into the world. We haven’t always succeeded but that has been our aim. If we are to be people of peace, God will bless us.


Today, I’m finishing up The Special Gathering’s monthly newsletter to our members, Connecting Point.  We named it that because we wanted our members to be able to connect with God, their local Special Gathering program, the community and each other.  It also has become a tool that we use to connect Special Gathering, which is a para-church ministry, to the congregations in our area.  At Special Gathering, our mission is to evangelize and disciple people who are mentally challenged.

Connecting Point is a pretty ambitious project each month.  There are twelve 8×11 pages.  However, we do pad the issue with three pages of puzzles and a cartoon page.  The post office also helps.  The postal rate we use to send it, requires that we employ at least a 20 point font.  There is a Bible study page and story page.  For years, one of our Bible teachers has authored the continuing stories for us.  She is E. Williams.  Ms. Williams is also a parent.

Each geographic area, which generally consists of two programs, formats their own front page, back page and two calendar pages.  These pages are personalized and oriented to the needs of the local groups.  The other eight pages are generic.  

Perhaps of all the things we do, this could be the most effective, other than our chapel programs.  Our members love receiving mail each month.  They especially delight in having their articles in the newsletter, seeing their names in print and finding our mistakes. 

If you would like to be added to our mailing list.  Just comment to this article.  Our e-mail address is lhoward@specialgatherings.com  Or our snail mail address is P. O. Box 6002, Vero Beach, FL  32961. 

What is the most effective tool you use to communicate with your members?  Have you been able to use the internet effectively to reach mentally challenged persons?  If so, what tools are you using to do that?

Last week we started learning new music at The Special Gathering Vero and Melbourne choirs.   I am the director of two of the six choirs at Special Gathering.  Our choirs sing in local churches and during our chapel services.  Our purpose in traveling to other congregations is to educate the church to the spiritual needs of people who are mentally challenged.  

Trying to keep the choirs more interested in the newer music we will learn, I let them choose the new songs.  Because our members memorize the music, it takes a bit longer to teach them the words and melody.  Therefore I begin about three or four months before they will preform the songs.  This new music contains the songs we’ll be singing in the summer and fall.

During the time we were going over the new selections, Anna kept wandering away in her mind.  Lucy and Nancy were nodding off.  Only Sheila was awake and perky during the half hour that we were rehearsing the new numbers.  After we had sung the new pieces once, maybe twice, we jumped into the older music that we knew.  Immediately, Anna was centered. Lucy and Nancy woke up with smiles.  Their grins returned and they were laughing and happy to sing our old melodic friends.

My philosophy with music and pretty much every project I endeavor is to learn as much as I need so I can do the job and leave the other stuff to people who compose, fix and invent things.  That is especially true with the computer.  After all, I don’t have to have all the music memorized to lead the choir in their first rehearsal of a song and I don’t need to understand the transfer of electrical currents to turn on a light switch.  Usually, my life philosophy serves me will.  That is until I try to invade a world where I need to understand more than I know.  Like blogging.

Our executive director gave me a wonderful gift last week.  It’s a manual on blogging.  Excited and happy, I immediately started reading it.  I underlined and tried to memorize as I went along.  You see, after about a month of blogging, I realized that I know so little about the internet that I don’t even know what I don’t know.  That, of course, means that I don’t know enough about what I’m doing to know what I need to know–much less know how to do what I need to know.  If you are confused by all this, imagine how I feel.

After a few hours of reading my rich treasure book, I needed to put it down–for a few days.  This was a fatal mistake.  I picked it up again yesterday.  I’d forgotten to mark the page I was last reading but that didn’t matter to me at the time.  Because I’d underlined key passages as I went along. I was confident that I could find my way back to my place.  The only problem.  I somehow didn’t remember any thing I had read.  I needed to begin from page one.

This time through I wrote out each acronym that I came to.  Therefore, I was not only remembering what the acronym means but I’ll understand the sentence better.  (My philosophy in reading is the Lemony Snicket Theorywhich is similar to my life philosophy.  I skip the words I don’t understand and usually the context of the material will help me to understand the sentence and the words I didn’t understand. This is not true in blogging.)

Jesus said that we should never begin a blog unless we understand enough about the internet so we can estimate the amount of time it will take us to complete each daily article and draw traffic to our web entry.  Of course, I’m paraphrasing but you get the point.  I’m not a quitter but I sure wish I could sleep through the learning process, like my choir. 

As I venture into a fresh project, I find I have much in common with my mentally challenged members.  It’s easy for me to lose interest in the new things as they become more complicated.  But that is childish, not child-like.  Struggle helps us to learn and survive.  Forcing, Nancy and Lucy to stay awake while we’re doing the hard work of rehearsal is beneficial.  Rereading those first four chapters will embed them into my brain. 

Have you found that your members are sometimes enthused to start a new project only to become totally disinterested when it’s a bit harder than they anticipated?  Have you found, like me, that you are sometimes enthused to start a new project only to become totally disinterested when it’s a bit harder than you anticipated?   Is it possible that we are more like our members, than we are different?



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