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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...




Reaching the Underserved

Churchgoers have a mission field in their own backyard.

By Robert Mims
Aug. 15, 2010

Assemblies of God missionaries Joe and Jennifer Butler believe they have been called to one of the least understood, most underserved and ripest-for-harvest mission fields on earth.

The Butlers do not feed the bruised and hungry in a Third World country, preach in a metro barrio or trek jungle trails to share the gospel in a remote tribal village. Their mission is to a largely forgotten segment of the American church: the developmentally, intellectually and physically disabled and their families.

“It’s not that people don’t care,” Joe Butler says. “We find the pastors, the leadership and the people are open. The questions are ‘How do we do it? Where do we go from here?’ There’s a real lack of understanding what is needed.”

That’s where the Butlers, and a growing number of other specialized ministries, are helping out. The couple stepped down from their New Jersey pastoral position in 2008 to become the first district AG missionaries to “families impacted by disabilities.”

The Butlers minister from experience. Their son, Micah, 9, has cerebral palsy and autism.

“We want to reach out to other families like ours, to help connect them with the Good News in their area churches, as well as hope and respite care, education, support and training,” Butler says.

Along with coordinating an annual summer camp in New Jersey (in association with Special Touch Ministry) for people with physical and intellectual disabilities, the Butlers recently formed Ability Tree (abilitytree.org). The program is dedicated to launching community-based training, counseling, recreation and education, as well as offering seminars to local churches wanting to improve ministries to the disabled.

“We want to minister to those families in all aspects — mind, body and spirit,” Butler says.

Advocates say the large mission field has been overlooked. Most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that 41 million Americans — roughly 15 percent of the population — have one or more disabilities (a category that includes the hearing- and visually-impaired and physically challenged as well as those intellectually, cognitively and emotionally handicapped).

Bob and Claudia Goldstein and their Blacksburg, Va.-based New Hope Residential Services (NHRSI) are dedicated to the developmentally disabled. NHRSI (nhrsi.org) seeks to offer the same range of services as specialized mainstream agencies, care centers and in-home programs — with an additional strong spiritual component.

“A prime focus for us is to help as many as we can, as the opportunities arise, to choose Christ,” Bob Goldstein says. “At least 2 percent of the U.S. population has a developmental disability, or roughly 6 million people. Each of those people has one soul and deserves access to the gospel in an understandable way.”

For Goldstein, too, the needs of the disabled are close to home. His son Abe, now 34, suffered permanent brain damage and partial paralysis in a rare allergic reaction to a childhood vaccination that caused a stroke.

But he traces his specialized ministry, and NHRSI, to a woman in a wheelchair who attended one of his evangelistic meetings in West Virginia more than a decade ago.

“Her caregiver brought her to church. At the end of the service, when we were opening up the altar, I thought she seemed interested — but since her ‘allotted time’ at church was up, her caregiver put two hands on the wheelchair and was out the door,” Goldstein recalls. “It made me think that there really should be more of a chance, disabled or not, to choose Christ in a timely manner.”

The same woman was Goldstein’s first resident when NHRSI started soon after that incident. Today, the organization cares for eight individuals at its Summersville, W.Va., facility. With 42 full- and part-time employees, NHRSI offers a full range of clinical-level care and services, in addition to the Christian environment of the residential program.

NHRSI offers its clients a sheltered work environment through its copying and printing businesses, Copies & More. And, although the non-profit organization clearly identifies itself as Christ-centered, it has earned a state license.

Goldstein’s vision is to see NHRSI-type services expand.

“Our goal is for [the disabled] to be involved with a local church while providing an environment where they are nurtured with Christian values,” he says.

Paul and Caryl Weingartner hope to see a dramatic increase in the number of Christian books being made available in digital and Braille format to the 1,100 people currently served by the Assemblies of God’s Center for the Blind (blind.ag.org).

Under recent revisions on federal copyright law, books can be acquired in digital format for the visually impaired for free. Those books then can be pulled up in a computer’s word processor and the type enlarged, or called up in text-to-speech programs or loaded into assistive devices that translate the text into Braille-style bumps the blind can read through touch.

“I recently attended a convention where these guys had all their notes on these devices and read them with their fingers as they spoke to the audience,” says Paul Weingartner, who is himself legally blind.

The AG Center for the Blind is in its second year of acquiring new books.

“It used to be pretty hard to get any cooperation from publishers and authors, but that is changing,” he says. “It’s getting easier to get the electronic format directly from them, and that can really speed up the process.”

With just two paid staffers, the center depends heavily on volunteers to help turn books into audiotapes or computer-ready sound files and Braille. In the past, that process could take months per book — but technological advances have cut the time dramatically to, in some cases, a few weeks. The center has about 50 books available.


ROBERT MIMS is a journalist based in Salt Lake City.

Email your comments to pe@ag.org.