Yesterday, The Special Gathering Choir of Indian River sang at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Indialantic, Florida.  The Special Gathering is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  Our mission is to evangelize and disciple people who are developmentally disabled.  However, we realize there are many misconceptions about our population; therefore, our ministry to the Church is to help educate them to the spiritual needs of people who are mentally challenged.

After the choir sang their two selections, they received a resounding, standing ovation.  They exited the church, all smiles and returned across the river to Melbourne Special Gathering to catch their rides home.  I stayed for the entire service.  After the benediction, the pastor, Rev. Elmer Floyd, graciously asked me to stand at the door of the church and receive the members as they left the sanctuary.  That is an honor that is sometimes given to us by hosting churches.

The response of the congregations is always extremely emotional and overwhelming.  Almost everyone who spoke to me had tears brimming their eyelids.  Old hardened housewives, who long ago quit hoping for a better day, took my hand and were speeching, barely whispering, “Thank you.”  Tough, tall young men in their twenties, with their tattooed arms and fingers, gripped my arms tightly, looking directly into my eyes and mumbled in a gravelly, shame-faced voice, “They touched me.” 

Long ago we learned to understand but underestimate the emotional effect the choir have on audiences.  Because emotions are temporary vapors that are whisked away in the wind.  Yet, there are always several people that are deeply effected by the choir.  Not on the emotional level but in the inner recesses of their spirit, God does a miracle.   One family who spoke to me was touched deeply, beyond the emotions.  Their hearts were bent and perhaps healed a bit by seeing the choir’s ministry.

It was a grandfather and grandmother.  The husband spoke for both of them.  “Our granddaughter was born with Down’s Syndrome,”  he said, not resisting the tears that slowed worned their way down his wrinkled cheeks.  “What a comfort to see what God can do with a person who is mentally challenged and willing to be used by the Lord.  The choir gave us such hope that our granddaughter can we used by God.”  His tone softened,  “Our granddaughter is greatly loved.”

My thoughts raced back about 18 years.  The choir I was directing was singing for a women’s conference.  After the performance, I asked the choir to line up in the front of the auditorium and pray for the women there.  After a member of the choir had prayed for her, Betty came over and hugged me tightly.  Betty and I were friends.  I knew she had a young son who is mentally challenged.  In my arms, she wept deeply. 

Wiping the tears away, she explained, “My great sorry for my son was that I thought God could never use Tony in ministry.  Now, I know that God can use him even with his developmental disabilities.”  Again, she cried.  This time I wept with her. 

A couple of years later, Tony, her son, became a part of Special Gathering.  About a year ago, Tony joined the choir.  Yesterday, this was the song he sang,

Jesus, You alone are worthy,

And I lift my voice to you.

Jesus, You alone are worthy.

I will worship none but you.

 While emotions are an important part of our human make-up, they can’t always be trusted.  However, God’s economy is amazingly green.  He can be trusted to turn what some people consider unusable into life-changing treasures. 

Has God used someone that you thought was unusable in your life?  How have your members ministered to you?

The hardest part about directing a choir of mentally challenged people is teaching them to look at me.  In the twenty years that I have been a choir director for persons who are developmentally delayed for The Special Gathering, this has been a constant and consistent problem. 

In the 1960’s when the Jesus Movement was sweeping across America, my husband and I were swept into the miraculous wonder of the Holy Spirit’s healing touch.  Though I was very young, almost daily, I had the privilege of praying for people.  Occasionally, these were African-American women who were visiting our home.  With this wonderful population of women, I was always faced with the same problem.  They refused to look at me. 

No matter how bold they had been in conversation, when it came time to pray, they all took the same posture.  They would sit with their heads pressed to their chests and their hands clasped in their laps, too timid to move or speak. 

I felt that the Lord told me that part of what was needed for them was to insist that they raise their heads and look at me, eye to eye.  At times, I had to physically force their heads upward.  Amazingly, once these women began to look up, there was a visual transformation that happened every time.  They seemed to come alive with joy and acceptance.   Laughing and crying at the same time, they would say, usually in a reverent whisper, “I’m free!”

I wasn’t totally surprised to also have this problem in the mentally challenged community.  This cloistered, sub-culture is made up of individuals who are told all their lives,  “Sit down.  Be quiet and don’t draw attention to yourself.” 

Even if those words are not spoken, they are told that a million times in their lives in a multitude of different ways.  I remember a funeral that I attended.  The father of one our members had died.  At that time, Nora was in her mid-thirties.  She is a high functioning, well-spoken, sophisticated woman.  Several times before and after the funeral service, her mother, brother and two sisters gathered in a circle.  Comforting each other,  they joined in a large group hug.  Nora was never a part of the hug.  She stood on the outside grasping her arms close to her chest, weeping alone. 

I don’t care how tonally correct the members of the choir sing but I do care whether they look at me or not.  For some of the members, this is especially difficult. For it is not only part of our culture to not look people in the eye; but it is also part of their disability.  Yet, I have never had one person who has not learned to overcome his training and disability.  They have all learned to look at me. 

Each new member thinks I’m incredible horrible when I harp on them, not allowing them to look away for a second.  Usually by the time they have trained themselves to look at me, another person will join the choir. Then she sees that I have to go through the same thing with the new, fledgling performer.  Almost, without exception, she will say in a patient, mentoring voice, “You can do it.  I had to learn and you can too.”

There is an element of self-worth that is essential in maturing in the Christian faith.  Through Christ’s sacrifice, God makes us his children, not his slaves or lackeys.  Perhaps the greatest joy I have when the choir performs is not the musical quality or the correct enunciation of all the words but 12 sets of eyes that meet mine and look at me, eye to eye.  Equal partners in ministry, holding our heads and hearts high. 

It makes me want to have a large, group hug with no one left outside grasping their arms.

What have you found to be the hardest thing for your members to do?  Have you found that making eye contact is important to self-worth?  What are some other signs of a good self-worth?

Recently, while teaching a class on humility, I carefully explained the concept.  Then I asked the class of adult students who are developmentally delayed, to name someone they knew who was humble.  After they all raised their hands, I said, “Now, if you were going to say me, we need to go over the teaching again.  Because I may be many things; but I am NOT the most humble person you’ve ever met.”  The class laughed because they knew that statement was certainly true. 

I do try to show humility but I have to admit that I enjoy center stage.  The bigger the audience, the better.  I am energized by being in front and in charge.  For me, the easiest joy you can give me is to make me president or chairperson of a project. 

When I first came to be a part of Special Gathering, one of my duties was choir director.  Though I had no formal training in conducting, I took on the position with zeal.  While I had years of experience in teaching and speaking, coming to The Special Gathering meant that I became a part of a world that I hardly knew existed.  Because the church has not often known what to do with this population, being active in the life of my church all my life had provided perfect insulation for me from the mentally challenged community.  I had much to learn and working with a small group in the choir setting was good training.

Secretly, I had wanted to be a choir director since I was a child.  I had been in choirs most of my life and I relished the magical tones produced by the blending of voices.  I carefully studied the various choral directors’ techniques as I sat under their direction.  I evaluated their conducting methods, noting which of their techniques helped the choir become one voice and which ones didn’t work.

As teenagers, we were given formal choral conducting classes in my church and at denominational music retreats.  As instructed by the class teacher, I would stand in front of the mirror and practice my conducting technique.  However, I never imagined that I would have the chance to use the grand gestures.

There is so much about what I do that has been the fulfillment of a lifetime of dreams.  However, I think the most exciting thing about being a choral director is that I am able to see other people taking center stage.  Watching the glow of excitment while others use their musical skills to share the Gospel message has been a great joy in my life. 

Terri can hardly speak.  When she does talk, only a few of her closest friends can understand her.  But she sings with amazing clarity.  During her solo work, Terri shines.  Her strong voice speaks clearly and passionately about her relationship with her Lord.  When Steve joined the choir, he was not physically able to look at me.  It was part of his disability.  Together we struggled to help him be able to overcome this part of his frailty.  Now he can look at me without even thinking twice.  Larry had been an introvert all of his life.  He also has severe sleep apnea.  He struggles successfully to keep awake during our choral work because he wants people to see the Lord working through him.

While humility is not part of my make-up, I never mind giving up center stage for a group of people who work frantically hard to be able to communicate the love of Jesus through song.

Have you seen changes with people as they have learned to express themselves though music?  What part of being in a choir do you enjoy the most?  What are some spiritual truths that you have learned from seeing mentally challenged people taking center stage and expressing their devotion to Jesus?

One of my first responsibilities when I went on staff at The Special Gathering  almost 20 years ago was to direct a choir.  We had no money.  Therefore, there was no way to buy music or equipment.  While I’ve had extensive music background, I am a terrible pianist and there was no one to play any instruments.  (I have taught people to direct choirs who have only a little musical background.)

Therefore, I began to improvise.  First, I had a pianist friend tape some songs.  I remember trying to get my extremely bad tape recorder to record a decent sound track.  I ended up recording from the bottom of the piano.  I sat under the piano and held the microphone close but not touching the bottom of the piano.  It worked.

Later, I discovered Maranatha Double Praise CD’s.  Most of the songs have two tracks.  First, there was a track with singer.  Then the same sound track with the melody played by a lead instrument.  These were wonderful and gave me a great deal of flexibility. 

Several things I learned quickly.  1)  The choir must be a discipled effort on the part of the choir members and the director.  Be sure that you know the music back and front.  Know when to come in and when to stop.  2)  Choral directions are vital for a mentally challenged choir.  Don’t stand with your hands to the side.  Use your hand, your mouth, anything you can to get the choir members to understand your directions.  Several directors have devised signs for each word.  They sign the words for their choir.  I have so little eye-hand-coordination that I have never been able to pull that off.

However, I do mouth the words to my choir and beat out rythym of the music like most directors do.  I improvised simple signs that work to help me clearly tell each choir member if he/she is  singing too loud and when to come in and stop singing.  My sign for the choir not the sing is a closed fist.  If one person is to stop singing or comes in incorrectly, I put my closed fist in front of him, signaling that he is to not sing.

 In mouthing the words, I try to pick songs that have rests between each musical phrase.  In this way, I can mouth the words before they sing.   I try to choose songs that have simple lyrics that are repeated several times.  For example, the first song we did in this manner was “Lord, You are So Precious to Me.”  The words are “Lord, You are so precious to me and I love You.  Yes, I love You because You first loved me.” 

The choir learned the song in the first practice.  They were excited.  There was orchastration and they choir sounded great. 

 Are there some tricks that you have learned in directing persons with developmental disabilities in a choir?  How important do you think first impressions are?