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Representing an often-neglected mission field, people with disabilities fill a vital place in the Church today. Nearly one in five people in the U.S. has a disability, reports the U.S. Census Bureau. About 56.7 million people live with a disability, according to a comprehensive Census report.
Assemblies of God U.S. Missionaries Larry J. and Carolyn Campbell devote themselves to people with intellectual and physical disabilities, pastoring Friend 2 Friend (F2F) Chapel at Summit Church, an AG congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota.
"There are no disabled souls," Larry Campbell says. "We need to see people with disabilities of value with gifts, and as fellow members of one body where every part has its own place."
The Campbells were appointed AG U.S. missionaries to people with disabilities in 2006 and planted F2F Chapel at Summit AG two years ago, targeting the 90,000 people with disabilities living in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area.
Malcolm Burleigh, senior director of AG U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries, affirms the passion the Campbells have for people with disabilities.
"Larry and Carolyn are teaching the disabled community that they are a vital resource to the church that can make a real difference," Burleigh says.
Understanding the needs of people with disabilities hit home when Larry Campbell's sister Lila was stricken with a aggressive form of multiple sclerosis at age 19.
"This brought a whole new revelation to us about how the Church struggles with people with disabilities," Carolyn Campbell says. "When Lila lost her ability to speak and mumbled incoherent praise and worship sounds, Larry's parents were asked not to bring her to church again." The pain of rejection still lingers, sustaining the compassion of the Campbells.
Besides conducting outreaches in group homes and disability ministry training seminars, the Campbells focus on the Thursday evening F2F Chapel service. About 40 congregants with disabilities arrive from group homes with their caregivers. Most have intellectual disabilities with the understanding of children ages eight to 12. Other congregants have physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and paraplegia.
Sermons are simple Bible stories illustrated by short drama scenes stressing one main point and a takeaway truth. For example, in explaining Communion, everyone receives a stick-on note with "all my sins" printed on it. A man portrays Jesus in a white robe with a blood-red lining. Chapel members stick their printed notes on the robe. The man then removes his robe, drops it on the floor with the red lining facing out, and covers the labels. The meaning conveyed is: "the blood of Jesus covers our sins."
Music plays an important role in every service. Participants reflect a rare freedom in joyous worship and prayer. Their faces shine with a pure surrender of love and adoration for God. David, an adult with autism sings in perfect pitch and plays different instruments. Joe, a 75 year-old man with intellectual and physical disabilities, is known as a prayer warrior and freely moves in the gifts of the Holy Spirit in public worship.
"God has bestowed his choice of abilities, talents, and ministry gifts on every person, including people with all kinds of disabilities," Larry Campbell says. "But because they are not accepted and included in many typical churches, we have never even imagined that God gave them gifts to teach the Church lessons it may never learn from any other people source."
As their next step, the Campbells are praying for interns to train in ministry to people with disabilities so that other chapels can be planted. They also want to help those in AG congregations learn more about ministering to people with disabilities. They suggest churches allow for training volunteers to sit with them during worship services so they never feel alone or isolated.