During lunch with four pastors, a volunteer and a teenager who all work with people who are mentally challenged, the question was asked, “Should we go and see the movie Tropic Thunder?”  In case, you don’t know, I have been told–because I haven’t seen the film–that this a movie that contains some demeaning and even profane references to persons who are developmentally delayed.  It takes the degrading term “retard” to a new low.

 After a brief discussion of the movie and the pros and cons about viewing the movie, one of the teenagers who was sitting at the table asked, “Why would you even want to go and see that?

Perhaps the greatest problem with this kind of thing is that you want to be current and relevant.  In fact, won’t your opinions be dismissed if you don’t spend the time and actually see film?  Doesn’t being able to speak with authority mean that you must know what you are talking about and doesn’t that also mean that you must see the movie?

Balancing on the other foot, paying to see the movie only promotes the profits, encouraging other movie makers to copy-cat the experience.  “Sure it was a controversial movie but look how much money they made” could become the rationale for more of the same.

I happen to agree with the teenager at the table.  However, there would be great satisfaction in going to the movie, then walking out and asking for my money back.  Yet, if this is my plan and purpose, isn’t that a bit deceitful?   

As it often does in a free flow of ideas, the conversation morphed into one pastor telling about a private Christian school in Florida that had a contest at lunch time called “Retard of the Day.”  This contest was to humiliate the misbehaving students and help control them during this rowdy time.  I think, as a group, we left the lunch table with the disturbing realization that there seems to be no good way to handle this issue.  We were also smacked in the face with the understanding that abuse is allowed–even in Christian circles–in regard to this population and the mental health population that would not be allowed with any other sub-cultures. 

However, I was so grateful that these important people in our culture aren’t being warehoused and ignored.  I was raised in the South.  I remember the days when the mantra of the white population was “they don’t care and they don’t know any better.”  We found out in technicolor reality that we were acutely wrong and things began to change.  The South of today is not perfect by any means in regard to race relations; but so much better than the South of the ’50’s.  Yet, blacks and whites will tell you that it has taken years of pain and suffering on all sides to reach where we are. 

I didn’t march in any demonstrations to make things better.  But I did reach out and touch my brothers and sisters of color who lived in the South and love them.  I did voice my opinion in mixed company.  I did monitor the use of offensive words to insure they weren’t used by me or my children.  

Perhaps the movie, Tropic Thunder has given the mentally challenged community a resounding slap that will back fire into society as a whole.  Perhaps professionals and pastor will stop ignoring the offenses and begin to speak out and reach out in love and grace.  We can only pray that this will happen.

How do you plan on handling this offensive piece of Hollywood cinema?


Of course, she won’t come or bring her two children because she ended the telephone conversation with “I’ll think about it.”  In polite language that means “No.”  And I don’t blame her.

I’d called this mother to invite her to come and bring her children to our Special Gathering that meets on Sunday morning at First United Methodist Church in Melbourne.  I liked her immediately.  The vibrancy and confidence of her personality was exposed in her voice.  She was polite and careful not to reveal the offenses she’s experienced over the years.  But I’ve worked with The Special Gathering of Indian River which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community for almost 20 years.  We do classic ministry, evangelism and discipleship. Too often I’ve heard the signs and her conversation screamed with desperate undertones of rejection. 

There are several reasons why she won’t entrust her precious treasures to The Special Gathering.  The most obvious reason is that they are her children and she isn’t convinced that I care enough about them to care enough about them.  Too many people have promised to care, only leave her and her treasures stranded in that all-too familiar corridor called Hope.  Unfortunately, in our world, Hope usually leads to an empty room labeled Loneliness.  She’s seen her children sitting quietly in Loneliness too often.  She chooses to not risk the hurt this time.

Second, they’ve been rejected by normal society once too often.  Rejection by her church was more than she could bear.  “Can you imagine how much it hurts to see everyone else included and my children left out more times than I can count.  Every single time.”  It was a retorical question.  She didn’t expect me to understand.  So there was no question mark and she didn’t wait for an answer.  But in our 20 minute conversation, she repeated her question three times.

Third, she doesn’t know me, Linda Howard, well enough to trust her must precious gems into my care.  My schedule doesn’t permit me to go to Saturday bowling anymore because I’m in Vero.  She mentioned it to me, “I don’t remember ever seeing you at Saturday bowling.”  If I really cared, wouldn’t I be at the things her children care about?  Wouldn’t I show up at least some time?  Sure, I’m busy doing a van route during that time and I’m at their workshop weekdays but she isn’t there during the week.  Where am I during the rest of the week?

Fourth, her children aren’t able to speak and she’s not confident that her children won’t be ignored, again.  “They have no behavior issues.  So they are usually shuttled into a corner and left to stare. That’s normal for them.”  She explained that she’s learned how to engage them but most people don’t even try.  While I endeavored to explain that our program is geared to minister to mentally challenged individuals, she ears and head heard but her heart was not listening.

There are probably several other reasons why she won’t come now.  But she will sometime in the future and the children will become more confident disciples of Christ.  God will work in her heart as I pray and reach out to her children.  She’ll begin to develop at trust level with The Special Gathering program because she really wants to be able to trust the Church, her church, again.

But for now, she won’t come.  And I don’t blame her.   

Leonard is an artist.  His bold brush strokes and the movement created on the paper defy the imagination and seem to go beyond his natural abilities.  He was a good friend and faithful member of our Daytona Special Gathering for about six years.  Then one Sunday night, he was gone. 

Leonard has no family.  I picked him up at the group home each Sunday night.  I inquired but the owners of the group home didn’t know where he had gone.  His social worker had called to say Leonard had a new placement and they wanted his bags packed by the early afternoon.   Four years later, I found him at a workshop in DeLand.  I was overjoyed but Leonard, who displays the deep effects of autism, didn’t remember me or he chose to not acknowledge my overly enthusiastic response to our reunion.

It’s been 10 years now but I miss his quiet enthusiasm and wish he was still a part of my life.

Howie was born with Down’s Syndrome.  He was a royal pain that extended from the top of your neck down to your toes.  He was moved to Miami by the State into a behavioral home.  I was able to keep in touch with him for many years because he joined a sister ministry located in Dade County.  For several years he would call every week because he got three free long-distance phone calls.  Then he started calling collect.  Knowing he could call for free, I stopped taking his calls.

Last month, I’d written about Howie in an article published in Space Coast Business Magazine.  Doing the rewrites I realized how much I had learned from him in my early years at The Special Gathering, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  Because of his candor, I could always trust his reactions in regard to what was the appropriate way to conduct ministry for individuals who are mentally challenged. In many ways, he shaped the way I approach my life within this cloistered sub-culture.  I owe Howie a great debt of gratitude.

In almost twenty years, Lynne is the only one of my members who has ever hit me.  She is about a foot and a half taller than I am and out weighs me by at least 200 pounds. She was a faithful member of our Saturday programs and sang in the choir.  We had traveled all over the state together; and she had always shown the greatest respect for everyone.  Then her meds got out of whack and my dear friend quickly began to lose control.

 One evening, after the choir had sung in a large church, we were standing outside the auditorium waiting for an appropriate time to enter the back of the sanctuary. I wouldn’t allow her to leave the group to search for a plastic bag filled with some of her papers because I knew a volunteer had taken them into the auditorium for her. There was a slight verbal exchange between us when she cold clobbered me.  Stupidly, I turned my back on her and she wacked me again.  I was stunned and hurt.  But we had been friends for about six years. Therefore, after the appropriate punishment, it was easy to forgive her. 

Yet her life spiraled downward as her medications continued to effect her emotional equilibrium.  After a couple of confrontations with the city police who weren’t as forgiving, she was also moved to a behavioral home.  The last I heard, the home wasn’t quite sure what to do with her and her meds weren’t straight yet. 

Before Lynn moved, she would call everyday.  I didn’t think it would ever happen; but I miss her plaintive, “Me love you.  You love me?”

Sara came up to my waist and she was the perfect lady.  Yet she was the first mentally challenged person who told me off.  It was Sunday afternoon my first year at Camp Agape. I was too exhausted to climb onto my top bunk bed to take a 10 minute nap.  I laid down on her lower berth.  She scolded me unmercifully with five words, “Get out of my bed!”  I’ve  never gotten on anyone elses’ bunk since that time.  Sara moved to the central part of Florida after the hurricanes of 2004.  I’ve not seen her since.  I speak to her mother often but I wonder if Sara would even remember me.  I hope so.

Perhaps the hardest thing about ministry within the mentally challenged community is the realization that friendship and deep relationship can be broken quickly and permanently.  Parents die and no provision has been made.  There are no group homes in the area and independent living would be difficult.  A friend is moved unceremoniously across the state. 

 Meds become unpredictable; the person changes in unhealthy ways, maybe tempers flair.  Of course, the public must be protected but you are left with a void where once a vibrant friendship had flourished.

There seem to be no good answers.  Only the realization that you must hold tightly to the love and friendship God gives you today.  Because tomorrow they could be gone. 

Are there people who have been snatched from your life?  Have you found an effective way to tract them down?  Or is it too painful to try?

I don’t think Greg liked The Special Gathering. He was enthusiastic when he called me inquiring about becoming a volunteer.  Special Gathering of Indian River is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  We do classic ministry, evangelism and discipleship.  Greg spoke about his ministry in northern Florida and was eager to come and be a part of our Vero program. 

After attending one chapel program, he took me aside for a serious talk.  “Your members aren’t able to participate and join into the worship,” he said.  “They can’t enjoy what you do.  You have to loosen up and let them be a part of the ministry experience.  You should let them come to the front and sing during praise and worship.”

Of course, I understood where he was coming from.  There seems to be two schools of thought in ministry to people who are developmentally delayed.  The first is the lassi faire school that believes that mentally challenged people should be allowed to have free rein over the ministry.  They should be able to come and go as they please.  They should be able to interrupt the speaker with questions and comments.  They should be able to come up front to “lead” in praise and worship, if they desire.  Whatever they desire is fair game. 

This can be an effective way to minister to this population.  There is a wonderful ministry in Canada that allows this kind of freedom of movement and expression during the ministry time.  The members are effectively discipled and trained in Christ-like living.

On the other hand, there is the more structured and discipled type of ministry.  This is much the way The Special Gathering functions during our chapel time.  There is a program leader who conducts the meetings.  Members, who are among the leadership, elected by the members, are invited to conduct our prayer lines.  Members take up the offering.  Choir members may be asked to help with praise and worship or they may sing special music.  Members are not allowed to interrupt or come to the front without permission.  They are discouraged from leaving the room during worship.

During Bible study and the small group studies, however, the members are invited and encouraged to discuss the lesson.  They ask questions. It’s exciting for our teachers to see a member press an opposite point of view regarding a Scripture.   

I personally like the form of worship to which SpG subscribes.  There are several reasons.  One stems from my childhood.  My father had a mentally challenged cousin who occasionally visited us.  He was also a self-proclaimed evangelist.  On the Sundays that he would come to church with us, he would sit on the podium with the preacher.  Even as a child, I felt that this was out of line and that the visitor should’ve been corrected and asked to sit in the pews with everyone else.  But because of his disability, our pastor never corrected him.   I guess that even at 7 years old, I made a pretty good pharisee.

Later, as I become an adult, I saw non disabled children and adults who were allowed to push and shove their way “to the podium” demanding attention during worship in a way that was rude and inconsiderate of others.  Often, their behavior wasn’t corrected and people generally tried to avoid them. 

I appreciated that the members of Special Gathering and the volunteers were asked to follow the same rules.  Volunteers aren’t allowed to interrupt and rudely take up everyone’s time–neither are our members during the chapel programs. 

At Special Gathering we have found that our members act in a discipled manner and they are able to behave appropriately.  Even those who don’t have much disciple at other places seem to enjoy the limits.  In fact, staff and volunteers seldom have to remind the members of the rules because our members effectively monitor each other. 

What is the form of ministry that you feel is most effective?  Why do you feel this form works best?  What Christian principles do you think are being taught in the manner of worship your program uses? 

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?




Does God care about my Everyday Life?

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

The servant said, “Lord, you are the God of my Master Abraham. Allow me to find a wife for his son today. Please show this kindness to my master. Genesis 24:12


There are a lot of people right here who have had miracles happen in their lives. Terri needed a home and God sent her to us. Susan has been able to live in her own apartment for many years now. It’s easy for me to see why God would give Susan or Terri a miracle but would he do the same for me? God loved Abraham but what about his family and his servants? Have a member read, Genesis 24:12.

Tell the story of Eliazer, Abraham’s servant, going to find Isaac a wife fourn in Genesis 24. Servant went to Mesopotamia to search for a wife. He stood by a well and said, “repeat the verse.” ..

        II. This is an important story because it shows that God doesn’t just care about important people like Abraham and Terri and Susan. He cares about ordinary people like me and Eliazer, the servant. How did God show Eliazer that he loved him?

          First, He answered Eliazer’s prayer.Second, he made Eliazer‘s job easy.

          Third, he led him every step of the way. What if he had gone to a different well? What if he had asked the wrong question.?

          God wants you to know that he will answer your prayer, make your way easy and lead you in the way you should go to please him.


  2. He asked God to give him a sign. I will ask a young woman for water. If she is the one let her say, “Drink and I will get you water for your camels also.”

    Before he finished his prayer a beautiful young virgin woman named Rebekah came up to the well.

    God answered his prayer and Rebekah became Isaac‘s wife.