The first time I walked into a Special Gathering almost twenty years ago,  I was fascinated and confused.  Fascinated with the caring and accepting Christians I encountered all of whom were disabled.  My most recent experiences–with my brothers and sisters in the church –had been troubling.  Because I was often a speaker in groups, I was accustomed to being warmly welcomed.  But these people were different.  They genuinely were happy to have me come. 

In addition, the number of people at the meeting left me confused.  Where had all these people who were mentally disabled come from?  How could it be that there were twenty or thirty people living in my city who were developmentally delayed and I had missed them?  

 In reality there are more than 1,200 mentally challenged people who live in our county.  Special Gathering currently ministers to about 300 to 400 people each week. There are eight chapel programs in four counties in Florida and one in South Carolina.  I was convinced that I had entered a cloistered sub-culture and it was a culture I wanted to explore and become a part.  I was not a parent, sibling, professional or neighbor.  Yet, I had felt a deep calling to ministry to people who were mentally challenged.  I looked for more than 20 years for an entry into this community but I had not found a door that was open to me.

 Now I understand the hesitation on the part of parents and professionals.  Abuse is rampant in our community.  You need a ticket to gain entry.  I had no ticket.  But Richard Stimson, founder of the ministry, had given me a ticket.  He asked me to write a book about The Special Gathering.

Perhaps I am getting the cart before the pony and I should explain what Special Gathering is.  The Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  There is a general worship time (about 45 minutes) and then we break into small Bible study groups divided by functioning levels.  At that time, there were three programs.  Each program functions similar to a community-wide youth group, like Young Life.  However, our members’ average age is about 35.  I had been asked to write a book about the ministry.  In reality, God had brought me home. 

The adventure began that day.  I had so much to learn that I felt overwhelmed.  As I walked back into the stark Florida sunshine, I knew that my life and ministry had changed forever.  Peter with his studdering vocal patterns and shy Kim had won my heart and I wanted to pour myself into their lives.  Learning and teaching has been the avenue that we have trod together.

Do you have any negative reactions to a segregated ministry, like Special Gathering?  How did you become a part of the mentally challenged community?  What is your favorite thing about our population?

 

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