‘A refuge for families’

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Pictured above: Dan Hall (front center), became quadriplegic after a pulmonary embolism caused him to fall into a wall, was the plenary speaker at Joni and Friends Conference on ministering to those with disabilities held at Woodlawn Baptist Church 

WEST FLORIDA–Many families throughout Florida feel “cast away and forgotten” because they have a family member with a disability. Today, several churches in Florida Baptists’ West region are choosing intentionally to become a “refuge” for these families.

In Florida, one of every three families is impacted by disability. Disabilities can include physical, psychological, developmental and intellectual conditions, both seen and unseen.

These families often feel misunderstood, lonely and uncomfortable asking for help.  A tremendous challenge for them is navigating regular church attendance.

One Florida Panhandle mother of a child with disabilities noted that her family has left various churches through the years due to the difficulty in finding a place where the family fits in without feeling like a burden to the church.

Recently, more than 150 attendees participated in a Joni and Friends conference at Woodlawn Baptist Church in Crestview to bring awareness to the need and provide resources for ministering to those touched by disability.

Joni and Friends is an organization committed to reaching these families with gospel-centered hope and connecting them to churches desiring to honor Christ with a disability-friendly place of belonging. The non-profit organization was founded by Joni Eareckson Tada, a Christian writer, artist and radio host who became a quadriplegic as a 17-year-old in 1967.

“The conference helped me see that I need to be proactive and reach out to these families and not assume they are fine because they have not asked for help,” said Mary Aninos, a member of Immanuel Baptist Church in Pace who also helped plan and spoke at the conference.

Several churches have already implemented a buddy system for children who are on the autism spectrum. “Our program is named STARS, seeking to always reflect the Savior,” said Aninos. “We provide accommodations during regular church times and are adding support for special events where children may need a sensory-free environment.” The goal of the buddy system is to have an adult available to walk the hallways with the child or take the child to a sensory-safe room for play in a calm environment.

Simple, yet profound, ideas were shared at the conference, such as treating people with dignity and respect, learning their names, and talking and interacting with them. These ideas made a big impact on Tim Brigham, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Chipley, who shared the message with his congregation the following Sunday.

“After the service, a church member was inspired to reach out to a family she saw in Walmart, and in turn, that family has faithfully attended our weekly services,” said Brigham.

Growing up with a father who was deaf, Brigham is aware of the struggles of the hearing impaired community, and the conference lit a spark in him to “see all others as God’s handiwork, created for good works” and to lead his congregation to partner with other like-minded ministries.

“We have to put aside our traditional views and push past the difficulty and the messiness and be a refuge for families that many times have been cast away and forgotten.”

Jared Owens Pastor, Replicate Church, Milton

“We have a disabilities ministry at Olive that reaches over 35 people; however, we are implementing a prayer team, inspired by Matthew 9:38, to pray daily for workers to minister to the harvest,” said Dennis Dean, minister of children at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola.

Pastor David Falldine, Sunrise City Church in Fort Walton Beach, believes that his church is not currently meeting the needs of those with disabilities, and he desires to lead his congregation to “put love into action” in this area of ministry.

“I served the special needs community prior to becoming a pastor, and we have seemingly overlooked this under-reached community in our church. We can and will do better,” said Falldine. Sunrise City Church is already praying about a location change that would enable the congregation to be more accessible to the disabled.

Pastor Greg Sellers of First Baptist Church of Bratt echoed the need for building accessibility and noted that his church is working on modifications to better meet needs.

Replicate Church in Milton is passionate about helping churches pursue disability ministry. Pastor Jared Owens and his wife helped develop a special needs ministry in their sending church, and now as church planters, they host free American Sign Language classes and are working to make their facilities more accommodating. Disability ministry, Owens acknowledged,  is “difficult. We have to put aside our traditional views and push past the difficulty and the messiness and be a refuge for families that many times have been cast away and forgotten.”

“All people are created in God’s image and need support, encouragement and grace in order to encounter Christ.”

Jason Allen Woodlawn Baptist Church, Crestview

During the conference, it was shared that when a church takes reaching the disabled community seriously, the church might lose members. Owens added, “The best thing churches can do is make sure they are equipped to share the gospel with and disciple anyone who walks through their doors regardless of their physical or mental abilities.”

Jason Allen, pastor of Woodlawn Baptist Church in Crestview, where the conference was held, shared that “all people are created in God’s image and need support, encouragement and grace in order to encounter Christ.” As the father of a child with autism and another with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, he said the conference was “an opportunity to bring awareness to the daily struggles families face and how much they need the love and grace of Christ.”


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