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One of the largest unreached people groups may be just outside the door of your church, Assemblies of God U.S. missionary Charlie Chivers contends, and yet it’s a group that passes under the radar of many congregations.
The disabled hail from every culture, says Chivers, who heads Special Touch Ministry, an AG-affiliated ministry reaching out to the disabled and their families.
"The disabled are a subculture within those cultures," says Chivers, who with his wife, Debra, is an Intercultural Ministries missionary. “Churches should become intentional about disability ministry and not reactionary."
The mission field Chivers describes is immense. The latest U.S. Census Bureau decennial statistics put the number of disabled Americans at 56.7 million people, or 19 percent of the population, close to one in five Americans. While the nature of those disabilities range from physical limitations such as mobility, hearing, and vision issues, to emotional and mental disabilities such as those found on the autism spectrum, there seems to be wide agreement this segment of the community is underserved by Christian congregations.
"A lot of people who have special needs have never really had a presentation of the gospel for themselves," explains AG Georgia District Superintendent Rick D. Collins. "Many of them don’t feel at home in our churches and they struggle. The vision is that the 'fields are white unto harvest' and many who are found there are using crutches, wheelchairs, and have disabilities."
In Georgia, Collins says, there are as many as 1.4 million people with special needs. For the past two years, the district has sponsored weeklong camps for disabled people. In 2015, nearly 50 people attended, he says, with encouraging results: 20 campers made first-time salvation decisions; 10 recommitted their lives to Christ; 19 reported healings, of which three were physical; six were water baptized and two were baptized in the Holy Spirit, with the evidence of speaking in other tongues.
"It’s a great opportunity to lead people to the Lord Jesus,” Collins says.
Chivers said Special Touch Ministry's emphasis includes the National Summer Get Away program, which is a faith-based retreat/vacation/camping experience offered in 10 states.
“Our chapter ministry charters local fellowship/ministry groups operating under guidelines as a marketplace ministry and brings people with disabilities and their families together with evangelical churches, business owners, and civic leaders in a given community," Chivers says.
The Get Away program helped spark a profound change in one young adult's life. James R. Sherman-Evans, 28, lives in Tomah, Wisconsin, and as a child was diagnosed with severe autism.
"In the beginning he was nonverbal, he would not acknowledge your presence," his biological aunt and adoptive mother, Becky, explains.
Years of work in school and through the Special Touch Ministry's programs changed that.
"Today, you would never know he was that kind of child,” Becky explains. “Social person, talks, is very friendly and outgoing, and very helpful to people."
The Special Touch Summer Getaway camps, Becky Evans says, provided just the right environment.
“It ministered to James on his level of ability, with dignity and respect, showing him love and acceptance, and patience,” she says. “It also ministered to me as a caregiver, no worries about are we going to offend somebody and do we have to watch out for other people, or get in (their) way or are we being too loud."
Along with providing an environment for mother and son to enjoy nature, the Special Touch program reinforced and strengthened the spiritual lessons taught at the Lighthouse Assemblies of God in Tomah.
"James knows to pray anywhere, and feels the Savior’s touch on his life," Becky says. James now ushers at the church. For Becky, the Special Touch program has been a miracle.
"I know the Lord places people in our lives when we think we’re not going to be able to handle something,” she says. “He brings people that are instrumental to help us.”
Collins also has been moved.
"Special needs individuals challenge some of the 'conventional wisdom' that we have about how things should work," Collins says. "It humbles us. Getting close to those who are hurting is important for anyone who wants to get close to the Lord."