Bringing People with Disabilities to Jesus
Why would a church that had only one family with a disabled member make it a point to reach out to those with disabilities? Why make the investment? Good, thoughtful questions for which West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, had a response.
According to the church’s A-Team ministry leader David Zimmerman and former leader Craig Bell, who is disabled himself, the answer is simple: heart and, surprisingly, numbers.
Craig offers Mark 2, Luke 7 and 14, and John 8 as New Testament examples of people with disabilities who came to Jesus. “Salvation is for everyone,” he says.
David cites the 2010 census. “Nineteen percent of the population has special needs. There are a whole lot of people out there who need to hear about Christ.”
In 1984, the church put money where its heart was. The A-Team, the church’s ministry to adults with intellectual disabilities, took off under David’s leadership. He served until 1997 and has returned this year.
A-Team is one of several ministries at West Shore for people with disabilities. The church has a deaf ministry and ministries to learning disabled children, middle, and high school students. One thing hasn’t changed through the years: the church’s commitment to help people with disabilities, says David. “It amazes me.”
David’s passion is spending time with people. “I have a pastor’s heart.” Each year the church hosts a special needs prom. This spring an A-Team member set up and served. David enjoyed the time they spent together. A movie night with some of the guys, sharing the Gospel—building relationships—is what growing the A-Team means to him.
At the ministry’s beginning, David stretched the group by taking them on wilderness trips. It didn’t stop there; the group also went on mission trips to London and later Kenya in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008, where they visited children in orthopedic hospitals in connection with CURE International, a Christian non-profit offering surgical treatment and the Gospel message.
Who’s Ministering to Whom?
While the membership has changed, and the group has taken on more challenges, “the church has changed the most,” says Craig. “The church is proud of the A-Team.” One of Craig’s favorite things to witness is watching the jaws of church members drop as they see what the A-Team can do.
For instance, West Shore’s young adult class wanted to connect with the A-Team, so both classes arranged a joint bowling event, the young adults certain they would win. What a dream! But he A-Team had a powerhouse who could and did bowl seven consecutive strikes, taking the A-Team to victory. Afterwards one of the young people started working with the A-Team and later made a career change so she could work with disabled people.
A young man in A-Team decided to leave the group, but someone suggested the unorthodox idea of making him a leader. The plan worked. He not only stayed, but now he’s also helping and loving others by getting coffee, opening doors, and assisting those who have trouble entering the building.
“He is teaching others about leadership and following Christ,” Craig explains. “You follow Christ to the end. This young man got it. These people need to belong to the church. They need to serve, and we need to find ways for them to serve.”
One of Craig’s favorite stories is about a tall, socially self-conscious member of the A-Team who normally needed to let others approach him. He was not at all a greeter-type, but he tried to do the job. At first, church attendees didn’t know how to respond to him. But after about three months, congregants from nine months to 90 years warmed up to him, helping him realize that he was part of the family.
It’s Not Always Easy
Ministering to people with disabilities can have its messy moments. Craig recalls a strong, violent young man who had the IQ of a three-year-old. He hated attending church. “I was even scared of him,” Craig recalls. “We had a mess.”
Craig persevered and visited the young man and his family. “You have to disciple people; you have to go through it so you can fix the situation.” They worked together to develop a behavior plan at church for the young man. He had a goal for each Sunday. “There is a life change when Christ comes,” says Craig. “The congregation put a loving arm around him, and he became one of the best people in A-Team. He would say, “I love Jesus.”
What’s ahead for A-Team?
New ventures for A-Team include reaching out to widows. Many of them use walkers, and others are not be able to drive. Partnering with organizations like Feed My Starving Children is also on the list. Forty per cent of the food packaged for the organization is done by people with disabilities. And, David has only started to think about all those in the armed forces who have returned home disabled.
Last year, Craig fielded a question from a college student preparing to teach people with disabilities. “What can I really do?” asked the student. Craig pushed a desk out of the way, removing the distance between them. Then he said, “All you have to say is, ‘Let’s have lunch; I’d like to get to know you better.’”
“It’s as simple as that. All you have to do is love them, because sometimes they don’t consider themselves lovable.”
Learn more about West Shore Evangelical Free Church.
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