“Gifted, Needed and Treasured,” a Joint Special Needs Awareness Symposium held December 14-16, 2018 at Newbold College of Higher Education, raised a number of questions for attendees, including, What is the difference between praying for healing and praying for acceptance? How does one see through a disability to the real person behind it? And why do special needs groups sometimes need special worship together within their special cultural identity?
Newbold College of Higher Education, the Trans-European Division (TED), and the South England Conference (SEC) worked together to bring about the disability awareness event. Throughout the weekend, more than ninety delegates were educated, encouraged, and empowered to lead in special needs ministry, organizers said.
Opening the event, host and Newbold principal John Baildam welcomed delegates, introducing them to the inspiration behind the weekend symposium. He explained that on meeting with Larry Evans, assistant to the Adventist Church president with responsibility for special needs ministry, a UK-based group developed a plan to bring “Possibility Ministries” to the United Kingdom. Symposium organizers Patrick Johnson (TED Ministerial Association director), Sophia Nicholls (SEC Disability and Diversity director), Baildam and Evans developed the training and awareness event with the purpose of creating opportunities for delegates to become educated and more aware of the possibilities and opportunities available in making the gospel accessible for all.
One delegate expressed how happy she was to be at the conference and how much she gained from being there. “It was excellent,” she said. “I learned a lot about reaching people with disabilities and about the deaf culture.” Another delegate said, “It was very enlightening and a blessing to experience.”
A Deaf Pastor Speaks Up
According to comments from several attendees, the Friday seminar presented by Jeff Jordan was inspirational. Jordan, who is deaf, related his journey from being a child who felt isolated and excluded because of his deafness to becoming an inspirational teacher and preacher. Speaking through his wife, Melissa (Missie), he encouraged delegates, “Use whatever the Lord has blessed you with for His glory.” As a result, many were heard to say that they wanted to become a conduit for the message of God to those who are deaf and use British Sign Language (BSL) as a means of communication.
The Saturday (Sabbath) morning sessions featured presentations and workshops. Pete and Christine Winmill from “Count Everyone In,” a Christian organization working to bring the gospel message to people with learning disabilities, encouraged the delegates to develop a ministry that presents the good news of God in a simple and interactive way, enabling people with learning disabilities to better understand the message.
Johnson shared a workshop on “The Image of God” from Genesis 1:27, developing the theme of God's love for humanity, summarizing the image of God as being a gift of God’s relationship with man.
Chair of the Adventist Special Needs Association Nigel Nicholls ended the morning with a seminar titled “John 9: Who Sinned?” Nicholls summarized his seminar by concluding that the historical and cultural milieu at the time of John 9 influenced the interpretation of disability and its relationship to personal sin. He concluded that sin has played a significant part in distorting God's intention, yet our Savior is in total control and is sovereign.
In the Image of God
Evans followed the theme of “The Image of God” during his sermon. He admonished participants to see all people as made in God's image and to see all “mountains” as possibilities and “valleys” as opportunities. Seminars in the afternoon included a presentation by the Samaritans; Jordan on Deaf Ministries; and Evans on a General Conference perspective of special needs ministry in other parts of the world. Evans also expressed his hope for rebranding the special needs ministry as “Possibility Ministries,” to reflect the core focus of the work.
Sabbath evening focused on the life journeys of people who have risen to the challenge of disability in their own lives or have focused on the lives of others through their ministry. The evening, hosted by Sophia Nicholls, took the form of informal interviews.
Amy and John Ainsworth shared their journey through the experience of living with epilepsy. Her story included a positive account of the support she experienced in her home church, but also some of the challenges reflecting where the church could do better.
Tigger, an autism consultant, explained the importance of seeing everyone as people first before seeing their disability. Pete and Christine Winmill summarised their experience in ministry for people with learning disabilities.
Espen Johnson concluded the evening with a showing of his award-winning video, Fighting My Illness, produced under his label, Waist High View. Many attendees commented afterwards how much they enjoyed the evening and felt connected and encouraged by the life stories.
Baildam closed the proceedings, thanking all those who had worked tirelessly toward the success of the weekend. “We look forward to future joint opportunities such as this one to bring about awareness and lasting change in the life of people living with disabilities,” he said.