Special Gatherings: Ministering to the Mentally Challenged in Central Florida
By: Shawna S. Kelsch

For many of us who were brought up in church-going families, Sunday school and service (or mass, in our case) was the weekly community spiritual and networking event – with neighbors and with God.

I remember being small, in a pinafore dress, fidgeting on the kneeler inside the family perimeter my mother established in the pew. Big brother #1 and #2 to the left, little brother to my right, and Jay Jay next to my mom, who sat on the end. I was probably five years old, and Jay Jay, about eight years my elder, sat quietly watching mom for his cues.

Jay Jay was born with Down syndrome. At full maturity (let’s call that 21 for the sake of this article), his mental capacity was never more advanced than a 5-year-old child. Physically, he grew into a man, with beard and all. But inside his mind was the machination and fascination of a child. (Luckily for us, a happy, loved, protected child).

At mass, Jay Jay had no idea what was happening. He knew to be quiet, following the lead of my mother and siblings, but he could not follow the sermon, readings or intentions, and he could not make confession or take communion because he could not faithfully acknowledge the demands of the sacraments that allowed those things to happen. Ironic, as we all considered him a true gift from God.

Jay Jay has since parted this world, but I have hope for mentally challenged adults seeking a stronger relationship with God thanks to a local ministry, “The Special Gathering,” that was established by the Rev. Richard Stimson some 40 years ago in the Cocoa/Titusville area.

Expanding Its Reach
From its seed idea to today, the ministries reach to Daytona, Jacksonville, Melbourne, and
Vero and provide interdenominational teaching — a “Jesus Loves Me” model that impacts as many as 400 people each month, said Linda Howard, the commissioned minister who tends to the Special Gathering congregations in south Brevard County and Vero.

“We are a cloistered subculture,” she said of the group, likening the role of the minister to the old-time version of the single pastor for a village or small town.

“We are very involved in the lives of our parishioners, visiting them at their places of employment, taking them to social events (like community dances), and assisting them with basic needs and family situations in time of crisis,” she said.

The program has the support of 30 churches in Brevard and Indian River counties, and also provides a small bit of respite each week for the family and/or parents of the mentally challenged adults (aged 21 and older) who attend services. Each Sunday, Howard and volunteers meet parishioners at the Bowe Gardens Baptist Church in Melbourne at 11 a.m. and at 3:30 p.m. at the First Church of God in Vero and provide 30-minute religious services, followed by a 30-minute bible study (coordinated to the message of the sermon). Then it is refreshments and socialization time. If needed, church vans and cars can pick up and drop off members.

So All Can Understand
The methodology for teaching is simple: “Complex messages are dissected and broken down to core tenets, reiterated in very simple language and then members are shown how the message might apply to their lives”, said Howard.

Leadership opportunities are introduced as parishioners are instructed about how to take part in services, assist with taking up offerings, sing in the choir and pray for each other. Families and parents are encouraged to visit at least once so they are assured the needs of their vulnerable charges are being addressed.

“Safety and inclusion are our main goals,” said Howard, who spends the rest of her week advocating for the needs of her members at different venues – other churches that might have members who would be interested in participating with The Special Gathering.

Howard also is devoting time each week to penning a new novel, this one a thriller/mystery where the main character is mentally challenged and has to navigate the uncertainty of the world around him.

Howard has written other books; Christian works infused with mommy humor such as “Mothers are People, Too” and “The Secret Life of a Housewife,” but believes her work ministering to people with special needs is what she’s happiest doing.

And perhaps her special way with words, with clearly defining ideas, and expressing and interpreting thoughts, is what makes Howard the likely choice for this ministry: a wise and kind woman relying on her faith and using her words to help others find the connection they are seeking in a meaningful faith.