Written by Teresa Goodnight

Natalie Stitt’s article has already touched so many. We’ve had families thanking us for approaching the subject both for schools and for churches. It’s opened my mind beyond where God started me. I pray with this little story God inspires you to move into action. It’s really that simple.

Forming a ministry for those who are differently abled is incredibly difficult. Right?

Wrong.

Few things could be further from the truth. Our two-part series with Natalie’s senior thesis challenges us all on our role as the Church (and as Christian Schools) to go into the community and seek out those with disabilities to bring them to God.

Job 29:15 (NLT) says, “I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame.” The Bible is full of references to God’s heart for those with any kind of physical or mental needs. However, many of us have unknowingly created a world where they don’t seem to belong. Does that even sound right when you read it? Not in a Church called to reach the least of these, it doesn’t.

There are scattered churches in our area, who have made wonderful efforts towards reaching these souls for Christ. However, as Natalie referenced in her thesis, the needs of those with a handicap of some kind aren’t really “special.” They have needs just like any of us—to be loved, included, cared for, part of the Body of Christ. So many people believe a lie Satan puts in their minds that ministering to those who are crippled in some way is difficult. Eastland Assembly is one church who has proven otherwise for 26 years now.

“Eastland’s ministry started with puppets at Hissom Memorial Center (a residential training facility for mentally disabled children).” shared LaDonna Harper, who now has the reigns for the ministry with her husband, Al Harper. She went on, “The church launched the ministry with Jason Couch, one little member. It grew quite quickly by word of mouth. It has been steady ever since.”

Jason was an autistic boy. He was also the pastor’s son. If we think about the newfound awareness for autism we have these days—it’s better than it was, but still very misunderstood by most. So, 26 years ago, it was really a shot in the dark to begin this ministry. LaDonna said, “Since then, we have 150–170 people each Sunday who attend the service. That includes caregivers. We have about 100 people or so with special needs, but we also have the 75 or so caregivers. That’s a captive audience, because the caregivers bring them to ­services at their request.” LaDonna continued, “Most of the ministry on Sunday mornings for the service is done with songs. You talk about pure praise. It is just beautiful.” When she mentioned the caregivers attending services, being fed the Gospel, it even further opened my heart as to why this ministry is so critical to a church in their efforts to reach the world for Christ.

LaDonna said, “There are separate services but sometimes we bring both groups together with our regular service. Those in the 0–21 category attend the regular children’s and teen programs. They would have someone from our church with them full time if they needed someone from the church or they might have their own caregiver. The adults have their own class.” In Eastland’s program, the parents get a needed break with their children being so well cared for in the classes. Just a little extra attention really ministers to the entire family when you think about it. All parents know parenting is incredible, but a little break goes a long way. When a child has a disability, that can be even more true. It’s really a ministry to so many different people when you think about it.

LaDonna explained, “We use the ‘Action Bible’ chronologically with the Bible stories. It looks like a comic book, but it’s amazing. We just go through it with them.” LaDonna said, “Sunday school at 9:15 and 10:00 service so that they can have their meds at noon. That’s about the biggest bit of advice we have, because everything else is just holding a regular kind of service. That timing gives them room to get back to their facilities and homes for the medication.”

One other tip LaDonna had was to skip the donuts. LaDonna laughed, “We used to have a larger Sunday school when I brought donuts. It did get them out of bed, but the sugar affects their behavior so much. That leaves their staff dealing with those impacts when they get back. So, we steer clear of the donuts now to create the right situation for everyone.”

LaDonna shared, “We have parties for holidays like the 4th of July and of course we have a big Christmas party. We give them gifts. Sometimes that’s the only gift they get. Many are wards of the state. They are aged from their early 20’s to 75 or so. Actually, half of our congregation has been here the whole 26 years.”

We give them gifts. Sometimes that’s the only gift they get. 

I was in awe of what LaDonna was doing. However, realizing she had ZERO training in special needs ministry or education was the biggest surprise. LaDonna said, “We decided to fill in when the team left the church to try to help other churches start ministries like ours. I would come in and sing, but I didn’t really think about being part of the ministry. My husband is an engineer. We just never thought about this ministry. It’s been an amazing journey. Most people that come see them in worship can’t watch without crying. My mother in law was Presbyterian and is now Baptist. She just sits down and cries at the service. It’s something to see.”

LaDonna shared, “There are many times when you go through struggles in life. Sundays are more like salvation for my husband and I. I know that Jesus truly is our salvation, but there’s so much love
in this service; it just gives you a peace
for the rest of the things going on in
your life.”

It’s quite beautiful and contrary to popular belief, quite simple. That’s really the message here. Of course, there will be challenges once in a while, like with any ministry. However, if your church isn’t doing it—then maybe God is calling you to be the one to get the ball rolling? Maybe? It may not be anything you’ve ever even thought about before reading this article. However, if you drop in on Eastland Assembly for one service and take a tour, it might ignite your heart with fire you never even knew were burning inside of you. God certainly lit LaDonna and Al with a fiery passion, equipping them with exactly what they needed to bless these families. #GoDoBe

LaDonna Harper invites people from other churches to come check out their services to get ideas and inspiration on what you might be able to do at your church. Their door is always open. She said, “I’m not worried if someone starts another ministry that we lose attendees. If the new location is closer to them, then it’s better for them. This is about what’s best for them.” Stop by one Sunday. See if this might be the God has prepared in advance for YOU to do.