Originally created 09/21/96

Gathering in God's house



The procession of smiling faces slowly moves toward the white building on a sunny Sunday morning. Dressed in their Sunday best, they come from several different directions.

A group of five walks in a staggered line on the sidewalk to the sanctuary. Several more stroll on the grass beside the chapel. Out in front, a blue van delivers more worshipers.

One by one they enter and take their seats.

The congregants are clients at Gracewood State School and Hospital, which serve the developmentally disabled. They are ready for a morning of singing and praising at the Chapel of All Faiths.

Rocking back and forth and waving their hands, many clients anticipate the lighting of the candles and the choir's singing. Others sit patiently, looking straight ahead.

The candles are lighted, and the choir of nearly 20 clients and staff members rise from their seats wearing blue and yellow robes.

The hymn starting off today's service is We Have Come Into His House, and among the choir members, singing with a gorgeous tenor voice, is Sammy Davis.

Mr.. Davis, 34, has lived 18 years at Gracewood and has sung in the choir for four. He said he worships God by singing in the choir every Sunday.

"I work with the Lord and give him praise every day. I live by his word, and it gives me strength and helps me," he said. "Singing with the clients means a lot to me because I love to sing for them and with them. It makes me really happy."

Mr. Davis is just one of about 200 clients who attend Sunday services.

"They have an amazing understanding about God's love for them, and they're very knowledgeable about denominations and the Lord's love," said Dr. Joanne P. Miklas, Gracewood's superintendent. "Some even carry Bibles around and make prayer requests.

"This is the best time of the week for them because it's when they are the best dressed and on their best behavior. They know God's house and behave differently here."k

The obstacles to ministering to the mentally disabled are evident, however, said John Rigdon, a lay minister who has volunteered his services at Gracewood for six years.

"I try to keep the point of my sermons to one point. I try to keep them simple and keep them short. But I have also been challenged with the question and have asked myself, `Do they really understand what I'm preaching?'°" Mr. Rigdon said.

"And I have found that even people with their own problems still have faith in God, and they have their own way of believing."

-Gary Myers, director of supervised ministries and assistant professor of pastoral care at Candler Theological Seminary in Atlanta, said that in ministering to a mentally retarded person the object of concern is not only the individual, but also the family, congregation and community.

"The care a minister gives is care at different levels, which starts with the family way before the child," Dr. Myers said.

"Generally, when the family first hears something is wrong with their child, they deal with a great sense of loss, and they go through a grieving process."

Dr. Myers said parents of mentally retarded children need reassurance, support, acceptance and love. A minister can come to these families and hear their grief and encourage them to talk.

Ministers can also prepare the congregation because it's important for the family to feel needed, wanted and welcome, he said.

"In general, people in a congregation are going to be better prepared for this if a minister has practiced a ministry of inclusion," Dr. Myers said.

Dr. Myers noted that a minister can also have an effect on the care of the mentally retarded by what he says to the community.

When caring for the mentally retarded, ministers must also be aware of the level of retardation, Dr. Myers said. For people with more profound retardation, minimal care is usually given in terms of verbal communication, but at this point, gestures, symbols and rituals can be used.

"For many services, so much focus is put on the sermon as logical communication, but for many people music and song are a more effective way of communicating the gospel," he said.

Some parents believe if they have a mentally retarded child, they are being punished for some sin they have committed.

"But, a minister has to be very sensitive to people's beliefs because they just didn't come up with them yesterday," Dr. Myers said. "In general, ministers should listen to people where they are and appreciate where they make sense of things and be supportive of them."

"But, we also must remember that God has not abandoned them in the midst of disappointment, but likely they're going to find God in the midst of helping and ministering to these retarded children."

That's the goal of a combination of ministers, lay and ordained, from the Gideons, First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church and Living Word Church in Augusta, who volunteer their services on Sundays at Gracewood.

Services begin at 10 a.m. so ministers from other churches can come and read scriptures, preach and make it back to their own churches by 11 a.m., Dr. Miklas said.

The Chapel of All Faiths, which was built in 1974 under then superintendent Dr. Norman B. Pursley, is also used for funerals, holiday shows, baptisms and even weddings.

The Chapel of All Faiths and all the volunteers involved have one principal function, Dr. Miklas said.

"Our main goal is to mitigate the effects of retardation," she said. "And I think our approach here is a holistic view of the clients - mind, body, soul and spirit. So we provide a place where they can come and be themselves and be nurtured, and that is what is critical to their development."