Camp Agape


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Retreat and Camp Agape

a Christian retreat experience for the mentally challenged community

Memorial Day Weekend–Friday, May 23 to Monday, May 26

at Life for Youth Campgrounds

Vero Beach, FL

The cost depends of the functioning life style of the person attending and ranges from $190 to $240.  We will provide transportation from Brevard County from four pick up points.  To request an application, call Linda Howard at 321-773-2691 or email at lhoward@specialgatherings.com.  Or you may leave a comment.  You will be directed to the correct person with whom you need to speak.

If you would like to attend, act quickly.  The available spaces are filling up quickly.

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looking at her watchShe is never early.  Always late.  He cannot speak without using offensive or vulgar expressions.  “I’M marching to a different drummer” is her excuse for breaking all the rules and acting selfishly.  He only seems interested in hurting others, if he doesn’t get his way.

I’ve deliberately left out names.  Because we all can fit into any of those statements but for the mercy and work of God in our hearts.  In fact, even though we have come to Lord and asked for his saving grace, one of the greatest tricks of our enemy is to erase from our memory the place where we dwelt before God’s forgiveness entered our hearts and lives.

sitting in a boxWe’ve been told by the Lord, “Do this to remember me.”  Often to the Church, Jesus is saying, “Remember me so you can be reminded of the point where you started.  Remember where you were; and you still are a sinner.  You need a Savior.”

My heart desires to reach out and slap some folks I know.  They aren’t following the Lord up to my standards.  Or they are giving to the point of hurting the people they want to bless.  Their lives shout, “I need a Savior.”  Yet, their eyes are blind to their own needs.  They can see the fault of everyone around them.  Nevertheless, they cannot see their own needs and sins.

Others are like me.  We are born-again but we still walk through life succumbing to sinful desires.  Or there are those of us who have become self-righteous looking through our salvation binoculars at everyone who does not know the Lord as their Savior.  Carnal or baby Christians are an anathema to us.  We cannot understand why they can’t get their lives together.

We understand God’s amazing grace in our lives but we want to customize the way God’s deals with others according to our plan and our dictates.  We have forgotten our starting point.  We’ve become self-righteous to the core.

crossroadsPaul instructed the church to never forget from where we came.  The Lord wants us to lead by example; not proclamation. Each year, Special Gathering ministry takes about 175 people who are intellectually disabled on a four-day retreat experience.  In my first year at Camp Agape, one of the hardest things for me to learn as a new staff person was the principle of “leading by example.”  I wanted to tell everyone what to do and where to do it.

The problem is that telling is much easier than leading by example.  Nevertheless, God has given us an airtight way to overturn our self-righteous ways.  “Remember where we came from.”

Image Crossroads (C) by www.martin-liebermann.de“.

On Sunday evening at Camp Agape, we had a bread and cup service.  Each year, the members of several programs of Special Gathering gather for a spiritual retreat in Vero Beach at Life for Youth Camp during Memorial Day weekend.  This year we had about 180 people who attended from seven of our programs.  People came from as far south as Port St. Lucie and as far north as Jacksonville.  We are rrestricted in the number of cabins we could use.  Therefore our numbers dropped from approximately 220.

Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  We exist to do classic ministry, discipleship and evangelism.  This is our purpose and our mission.  Camp Agape is a set-aside time to get into the skin of our members and for our members to get to know each other.

Each day at camp we eat our meals together.  We sleep in the same cabins.  We play games, do crafts and slide down the waterslides.  The highlight of the weekend is the bread and cup service.  Here, we remember the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus.  We also want to embrace the time of fellowship that this meal represents.

As in years past, we have served the bread wafers and the small cups of grape juice in two lines. Each person is given the invitation, “If you are a friend of Jesus, come.”  During the mingling in the aisles as people wait for their turns, there is a stirring of the love the Lord has for us shown by the fact that he would come to die for the bad things we do.

Five years ago, when The Twins (two young women in their early 20’s) came to me to be served, I realized that this was the first time in their lives they would be served the wafer and the cup.  I gave the bread to Ariel with the explanation, “This is a small piece of bread.  Take and eat it.  Jesus said that this was to be done to remember that his body was broken for us.”  I explained the cup in a similar way.  Ariel solemnly took the wafer and small cup.  She ate and drank it.

Then it was Clara’s turn.  She is blind.  She is unable to walk and is confined to a wheelchair.  I placed the wafer in her hand and explained.  “This is a small piece of bread.  Jesus said that we are to eat the bread to remember that his body was broken for us.”

Clara felt the bread with her other hand.  “Jesus said that?  Wow!” she said.  Somehow her simple exclamation did something new in my spirit.  The wonder of his sacrifice was magnified as I encountered anew the privilege his sacrifice affords us, giving us access to the Father.  My heart exploded with joy.

I gave Clara the cup and my feeble explanation.  Clara took the cup and said, “Wow!  This is for me?  Wow!”  By now I was weeping.  How can a simple “Wow” renew and even transform my understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice?  I have no idea. But I was acutely aware that access to the heartbeat of God is mine.  What more can be said but “Wow”?

As Clara’s simple exclamation made my heart sing, how has God opened your eyes to spiritual truths by the actions or reactions of your members?

It is difficult to understand how much God loves us.  While few of us will admit it, much of our lives is spent waiting for God to slam the judgment hammer into our skulls.  Working within the mentally challenged community, I’ve come to understand a bit about unconditional love.  I am area director of Special Gathering, a ministry to people whose IQ’s are lower than “normal.”  Our mission is evangelism and discipleship of the wonderful community the Lord has given to us.

Please understand.  People who are intellectually disabled are not immune to sin.  Bad behavior is as common within our community as any other gathering of human beings. Yet, there is a common strain that runs within every part of our cloistered sub-culture.  That is unconditional love.

Wendy knew that I was angry with her because she had deliberately disobeyed the rules at camp this past weekend.  We let it slip the first three or four times; but by the fifth offense, I confronted her regarding her inappropriate behavior.  My voice was stern, firm and steady when I explained that she would no longer be welcomed at camp if her behaviors continued.

Wendy’s head reaches almost to my lower chest.  She looked at me with wide eyes.  “I love you, Linda Howard.  I so sorry,” she said with her eyes welling up with tears.  “Will you forgive me?  I love you, Linda Howard.”

She grabbed me around the waist and repeated, “I love you, Linda Howard.”

Understand, her emotional outburst didn’t loosen my resolve to enforce the camp rules.  She was obviously wanting me to know that she loved me even though I had told her that she might miss coming to camp. I could not help but appreciate her unconditional love.

Once again, I was surprised by the joyful spirit Wendy extended to me.   Sure, many of our members are depressed.  Some of them are even depressing.  However, the over arching surprise package is their joy.

Learning from them has become an easy pill to swallow, especially when I am again and again surprised by joy.

 

As they entered the bus, everyone was happy and excited to be going home.  Even though the four days at The Special Gathering spiritual retreat had been great fun, the members who attended were nearly as ready to go home as the volunteers.  Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  We form to evangelize and disciple people with intellectual disabilities.  Almost glowing from the time of fun and fellowship, it was the normal chatter that filled the large bus transporting them back to First United Methodist Church of Melbourne, our drop-off spot.

Yet, one young lady began gripping almost immediately after embarking the vehicle.  She especially didn’t like the way that I was trying to get everyone quiet so that I could take the final checks, to insure that everyone was on the bus.  She mumbled in a loud voice, “I’m sick and tired of her yellilng at all of us!”  Her sour face frowned back at me from the back of the bus with every name that was called.  From the back bench, The Grumbler had positioned herself so that seven people were directly next to her.

As I drove my car back to the church, I was reviewing the good time we experienced during the four days.  So many lives had been touched for the Lord.

It was Ashley’s first retreat.  She and her friend, Terri, had stayed up late each night giggling and teasing.  They shared boyfriend jokes and laughed at me when I did something stupid.  Ashley had come to the altar for prayer when the invitation was given.

Eric came expecting a good time; and the Lord met him.  I overheard him asking probing and interesting questions of volunteers.  The inquiries seemed beyond his intellectual abilities.  But the volunteers kept the answers simple; and he went away rubbing his chin and grinning with satisfaction.

Ashley, Terri and Eric were among the seven travelers facing The Grumbler.

The bus arrived at the church ahead of me.  As quickly as I could, I dispersed the medications to parents and caregiver and got on the bus to dismiss everyone.  As each person got off the bus, I noticed their tone and attitude had completely changed.  There were no smiles.  No thank you’s.  No one gave me the usual hugs.   “I hate camp.”  More than one person mumbled.  “I’m never coming back.”  I was shocked. Then I looked at the back of the bus and realized The Grumbler stared at me.  Her arms and legs were crossed.  But now, she was smiling slyly.

Ashley said, “Everyone was yelling and calling each other names on the bus.  I don’t want to come back.”

Eric was so completely agitated that he wasn’t able to talk.  He stomped and fumed, yelling at anyone who dared to look at him.  Of course, the volunteers had come to the church.   They anxiously waited to see all the campers for the last time, expected the hugs and warm good-byes we get each year.  But this year was different.  The Grumbler had made her conquest.  Her smile said to me, “I won!”

I ignored her, trying to camouflage my deep disappointment.  After everyone left, the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart, “Never discount the influence of ONE, for good and for evil.”  Of course, we have often seen how one person can pour buckets of ice water on a meeting or experience.  But the Lord was saying, “…for good and for evil.”

Driving away, I quietly prayed, “Lord, I’ve too often been The Grumbler. The Spoiler.  And, somehow, I felt it was my Right.  Help me in every situation to be the influence for good in the lives of others.  Let me be the blessing, not the curse.”

It was the annual gathering of Special Gathering members.  Each year nearly 200 mentally challenged people meet in Vero Beach at Life for Youth Camp for Retreat Agape.  For almost 30 years, we have met there from Friday morning until Monday morning each Memorial Day weekend.  It’s a gloriously fun place for our members who are intellectually disabled.  There are water-slides, a lake for boating and swimming, go-carts, putt-putt golf, a game room, crafts, bingo and a petting zoo.

Our morning and evening chapel services are as loud and roudy as a spiritual retreat is supposed to be.  Yet, there is a great deal of love shared as the members of Special Gathering reconnect with people from other cities.  Christ’s love flows freely as we praise and worship the Lord, ministering to each other.  This year, powerful things were accomplished during our chapel services.  We know that because the enemy of our soul was busy causing disruptions and distractions.  The overhead projector went out just as we began our Saturday night service and one member became agitated and headed out the campgrounds, planning to walk home which is 75 miles away.  The air conditioner went out for the Sunday morning service; and there was a huge thunderstorm at the climax of the Sunday night worship.

The climax of Retreat Agape is always our Sunday evening worship service.  We end this service with the Lord’s Supper.  Yet, as the thunder began to roar violently overhead, fear raced through the members with squeals and moans of concerns.  We had to end our service abruptly, giving the bedtime medications in the chapel.  Then we raced to the cabins sharing umbrellas and raincoats.

A pastor of a local church who was volunteering had agreed to help us with the Lord’s Supper.  He looked at me inquisitively, “What happened?  We aren’t having the Lord’s Supper?”

“Flexibility is the key to doing ministry within the disability community,” I said to him, laughing.  “Fear took over the emotions of our members; and there is no way we should continue the service.”

Sometimes,we simply have to make the best with what is dished out to us in our lives as well as in our ministries.  There are events that seem to ruin even the greatest of spiritual experiences.  I, honestly, do not understand how the Lord will use this disruptive thunder storm for our benefit; but he has promised that all things will work for our good.  Therefore, we know that God will use it.

There are thunders storms that attack our lives, changing our plans and even our destiny.  Our husband or wife dies.  We lose our jobs.  We are forced to do things that seem hard.  Our children don’t respond in ways we desire or planned.  Flexibility can help us to walk into deeper water in the love of Christ.  Using flexibility to make-do when life throws us off kilter can harden and strengthen our relationship with the Lord, teaching us to love the Lord more than we ever thought possible.

Today began the myriad of e-mails that Special Gathering staff will exchange in preparation for Camp Agape that will be held May 25 to 28 in Vero Beach, Florida.  Actually, the e-mails, faxes and memos began in January but they were mostly to other businesses or organizations: transit operators, business owners, and professionals that we need to contract with to start our preparations.

I know camp is well on the way when we begin the MANY decisions regarding health and safely.  Each year should we hit a snag, we methodically endeavor to fix that error by the next year.  The one thing that Richard Stimson, Special Gathering Executive Director, tries to drill into each new employee’s head is that the safety of our members, especially at camp, is the paramount thing.

Those of us who consider ourselves deeply spiritual try to discount his concerns.  After all, “The Lord will provide.  He keeps watch and guards over the weak,”  we mumble to ourselves as we walk away from our less spiritual mentor.   It is the spiritual well-being that we must be concerned about and let the Lord take care of the mundane things like health and safety.

Then one day the truth of his assertions slams us square in the face.  Usually it about noon time the first day, we have total responsibility for a person, group or activity.  It could be something small, like Joanie who stumbles over a shoe lace getting up one step leading to her position where she will sing with the choir.  And you suddenly realize that in her fragile physical condition, she could have fallen and seriously hurt herself.  Checking shoe laces becomes a priority from that day forward.

Or it could be a large rock that bops you in the forehead.  My least favorite shocker was the day that someone dropped off a new person at the front door of the building where we were meeting and then drove off.  I had no information, no phone number, no way to reach anyone should there be an emergency.   You didn’t know the person’s name and he was non-verbal.  I didn’t have to be told again that the safely of our members becomes the hippopotamus in middle the room that can rip the heart of your program into shreds.

You see, in this ministry to people with special needs, we cannot continue to survive unless we take care of our members in a safe and professional manner.  When we come into a new community, we intend to be there forever.  We aren’t there for a year or two but for decades.  However, we must build the trust of parents before they will entrust their children into our care.  That means sweating the little details, like proper shoe care and getting up-to-date information about each of our members.

After a time, you realize that God will methodically take care of the spiritual needs of his children.  Of course, we prepare for the spiritual needs, also; but it is ultimately, his work and his work alone.  Only a supernatural power of the Holy Spirit can open and change a heart. allowing us to understand his love and grace.   But we are his hands and feet making sure that the shoe laces are tied and the information sheets are up to date.

Is there one thing that you have found is vital in the operation of your program?  What safety factors have you put in place?

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