RIDGECREST — “Go, Bobby! Go!”
Below the blindfold that covered his eyes, a broad grin spread across Bobby Shifflett’s face. His classmates laughed and cheered as the 44-year-old Shifflett, who has Down syndrome, tried to spoon cotton balls into a bowl without being able to see what he was doing.
The uninhibited enthusiasm continued as class members went on to answer Bible lesson questions during Special Friends Vacation Bible School (VBS), part of the special needs ministry track offered at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center during a weeklong emphasis on “The Power of the Connected Sunday School” July 10-13.
“Have any of you ever shared Jesus with anyone?” teacher Jo Ann Banks asked.
“Yes!” replied adult learners who had disabilities ranging from intellectual disabilities to autism to genetic disorders.
“He died on the cross for our sins — so we could have eternal life,” said Rob Powell, 39, in a strong, matter-of-fact voice. Powell has Williams syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder.
Across the hall, parents, advocates, church members and Sunday School teachers learned key elements of establishing and improving special needs ministries. The information included tips regarding ideal space needs, teaching tools and outreach methods.
For some participants, the conference’s lively VBS was their first opportunity to get hands-on experience in a class full of special needs students.
Dianne Reynolds of Gainesville, Fla., was drawn to the LifeWay conference as leader of a task force to form a special needs ministry at Northwest Baptist Church in Gainesville. Her son Jason, 13, has multiple diagnoses, including Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a degenerative nerve disease.
Ronda Bradley of Belmont, N.C., whose daughter has special needs, said she attended the conference to learn more about how churches can reach “the most unreached population in our country.”
“Nobody thinks they get it,” she said.
“Oh, they get it,” said Banks, who started a “Special Blessings” adult Sunday school class nine years ago at Woodland Hills Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C. “We apply it to their everyday lives — and we make it fun.”
Banks has more than 25 years of experience in special education, leading a troop of Girl Scouts with special needs for 10 years, building a ministry called A.D.A.M. (Adult Disability Activities Ministry), and raising her special-needs daughter, Kelley, who is 30. Banks has learned that individuals with developmental delays are capable of more than coloring or being read to during Sunday School. She said purpose emerges as churches learn from them.
“They can have that childlike acceptance we’re all supposed to have,” observed Ellen Beene, a special needs resources editor at LifeWay. “If you want someone to pray for you without ceasing, tell the special needs class. They also laugh and have fun with a joy that a lot of our adult classes have forgotten.
“They are totally uninhibited when they worship,” Beene added. “It doesn’t matter if someone is off key. No one’s judging them. Theirs is the most sincere worship I’ve experienced.”
Conference instructor Susan Foster, who writes for LifeWay’s “Special Buddies” curriculum, said, “We’re continuing the ministry Jesus started,” explaining that Jesus spent a lot of time among people overlooked by mainstream society.
Volunteer Scott Hurdt, 22, a student at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., often helps Banks with special needs retreats. His experience has taught him how much he enjoys working with people with autism. “If you do it once, you’re hooked,” he said.
Jon Ponder agreed. He volunteers, along with his wife, Darlene, in Banks’ Asheville class.
“What cool people,” Ponder said. “We had a girl in our class in a wheelchair, and she would pray for Jesus to make her be able to walk, but then she would say it’s OK if that wasn’t until she was in heaven. You just can’t hear that enough.”
During a break after an outdoor game, group home resident Ralph Moore, 53, who has developmental delays, turned to Banks and thanked her, carefully reaching for the right words.
“You are just a fabulous, sincere person,” Moore said. “You’ve got a much more good way of teaching — that I can understand.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Higgins is a freelance writer for LifeWay who makes her home in North Carolina. For more information about special needs ministry resources and events, visit LifeWay.com/specialneeds. View a multimedia production from the camp.)