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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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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 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?

At Camp Agape

At Special Gathering, much like your own ministry, there is much debate about health and safety.  For a couple of weeks our executive director and area leader for several counties has been fighting a virus that doesn’t want to go away.  Even though he is no longer contagious, he simple doesn’t feel up to par.  He would much rather stay in bed than get up and run his weekly programs.  But he gets up and he goes in spite of his feeling of weariness.

There is no doubt that without someone to be in charge of a program, we cannot have the Special Gathering program.  Yet, what do we do in emergencies?  For about seven years, I had in place a plan for what would happen if my husband died on the weekend when we were having Special Gathering or during camp.

A few years ago, our South Carolina program director started taking her members on cruises.  The agency could not send paid staff; and so she went as an unpaid volunteer.  On occasion, she would ask me to go with her as an additional volunteer.  Again, we put into place what would be expected should our mother or my husband died.

When we were out of the country, we asked that we not be contacted because there was nothing we could do until we came home.  At camp, I’m less than an hour away from my home.  Yet, we put the same plan in place during that time.

Fortunately, the Lord was gracious and we didn’t have to put our plan in place but the instructions were there.  Honestly, at times, I balked inwardly at having to do this kind of preparation.  However, the reality is that we deal with medically fragile and vulnerable adults.  Once an event is in place, we don’t have the luxury to stopping to meet a personal emergency.

As a caveat, the Lord has been gracious.  No emergency has ever happened during a time that was not “convenient.”  (Can an emergency ever be convenient?)  In addition, I’ve seen all our my grandchildren within 24 hours of their births. And they were all born at least a thousand miles from our Central Florida home.

Whether you are involved in a ministry for a special needs population or not, I’ve come to believe that all of our lives should be lived in a state of preparation.  We need to exist  much like the Lord’s parable that tells us that we should not begin to build a house until we count the cost of the construction supplies and labor.  We should not go to war unless we have the troops and will to win.  We must count the cost but He plans and knows our future.

Some say he could be one of the wealthiest men in the county.  His mother died about 10 years ago.  He has a beautiful home and a new car.  He has plenty of money.  There are two bankers and two lawyers who take care of his financial, investment and legal needs.  Unfortunately, his caregivers are not consistent and change frequently.  Fred is a 64 year old man who is in great health; and he is a part of the mentally challenged community.

Recently, we did a survey of sort with our members of Special Gathering.  We were at Camp Agape which is our annual spiritual retreat for persons who are developmentally delayed or intellectually disabled.  We had drawn a circular target on a piece of paper.  It’s the same kind of target used for darts.  There’s a small circle inside a larger circle, inside a larger circle.

We asked our members to put their best friends and closest family in the bull’s eye or smallest circle.  Then close friends and other members of their family in the other circle.  The final and largest circle would contain the people who work with them and they know in an informal way.  Perhaps people who are especially nice to them but may or may not be their friends.

Fred’s entire target contained two names.  They were in the bull’s eye.  Fred had written the name of one other member of Special Gathering and my name, Linda Howard.  When I saw his target, I cried.  My tears were from sadness and joy.

Of course, I was sad that this fine man.  How lonely it must be to feel that you have only two people on which you can depend.  I was struck that no amount of money can buy friends and loved ones.  And perhaps, his money and lawyers and bankers have insulated him from not only hurt but also genuine friendships.

But mostly, I cried that I have the honor to be a part of Fred’s life.  In the twenty years we have been friends, I have seen Fred grow spiritually and emotionally.

I had known Fred for more than five years before I saw any emotion from him.  He often laughs now and his smiles are frequent.  Fred will never be an overtly affectionate individual; but these days he usually will give me a sideways hug after our choir sings.  If he has a solo,  his grin is from ear to ear.  In the past four or five years,  while driving him around in the van for Special Gathering events,  I can hear him giggle.

We all reach from the dark to find hope, joy and satisfaction in life.  Being a part of the mentally challenged community does not erase the desire for love and acceptance.  I praise God that I’m a part of The Special Gathering and that God gives us the opportunity to reach out and find finger tips of hands that are also reaching.  Perhaps with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, I can even touch and be a significant part of a important life–a person for whom Jesus gave everything.

Is there someone that you have touched in a significant way?  Have you seen your members ministering to each other.  How have they been able to do that?

God gives us the Power change our lives

Ephesians 6:7

Central Theme:  God wants us to serve others.

Introduction–A friend told me that he saw a man mopping up a spill in a local 7-11 store.  He said to the man who was mopping, “I assume you are the manager.”  The bosses in stores get to do the dirty work.  God’s way is to promote us into becoming a servant to everyone Have a member read Ephesians 6:7.

       I.     Tell the story of James’ and John’s mother contrast with the story of Dorcas. 

          A. Mom wanted James and John to be number one in the Kingdom.

              B. Dorcas knew how to be number one.

                   1.  She was a servant to everyone.

      II.     At Special Gathering, no one gets too big to do the dirty work.

              A. Show the fanny packs we use at camp.

                   1.  They have rubber gloves because the people who wear the fanny packs get to clean up messes–nasty messes.

              B. We had a staff one time who told me that he didn‘t clean up messes any more that he had paid his dues–that was the wrong answer.

     III.     God wants us all to be the servant.

              A. Our deacons are voted on by you–the members.  These men and women are asked to do the jobs that no one else wants to do.

              B. They don‘t get to push the wheel chairs or do the fun things that other members get to do. 

              C. They get to clean the floors, set up tables and chair, etc.

Conclusion  The heart of a real man of God must be to serve others.