HAGERSTOWN, Md.–I want you to meet Sonny.
Sonny is quite a gentleman. Like his name, when he enters a room light emanates from within him. Even on this soggy Sunday in May, his smile tugged to the right in a crooked smile, as did his gait. His limp was caused by recent hip replacement; yet his shuffle conveyed a rhythmic joy into the tiny Sunday school room of Virginia Avenue Baptist Church.
Sonny began attending church at Virginia Avenue Baptist Church many years ago, serving in multiple roles, but most recently as an usher during Sunday morning services. During the week he lives in a nearby special needs group home and works days at Goodwill.
On Sundays, Sonny is treated as an equal–having served as a faithful and needed member of the church for over thirty years. In addition, he devotedly attends the church’s “Special Education Sunday School Class,” led by Lorena Sterns and Barbara Cooper.
Described on the church’s website as a class for those with mental or physical handicaps, this Sunday school class revealed a piece of heavenly revelation. Originally assembled by the previous pastor’s wife and Lorena’s late husband, Orville, the ragtag group of saints has thrived for over two decades for two reasons: strong and consistent leadership and enthusiastic membership.
After her husband passed away, Lorena stepped in to continue his legacy with this amazing group of individuals. When Barbara and her husband transitioned into the pastoral role at the church, Lorena served as a mentor and co-conspirator with Barbara. Today, they lead this vibrant group of people in worship and Bible study each week.
“Not everybody can work in this area of ministry,” Lorena stated. “You must have a love in your heart for these people.” When it came time for Lorena to retire, she knew that Barbara was the perfect person to continue the legacy to which she and her husband, Orville, had dedicated their lives.
Complete with sugar-free cookies and steaming hot coffee, as the clock struck 10:00 a.m., these two ladies were ready to “do church.’’ As the attendees scuffled into the room, often with their counselors by their sides, the ladies would greet each one, inquiring about specific prayer requests and beloved family members. They were a rowdy and fun bunch, each shouting greetings to Sonny, who was now seated and devouring his cookies. They asked him about his hip replacement and slapped each other on the back in friendly welcomes. Terry and Lee arrived first, followed by Randy, April, Abby, Lorena, and Sunday, each person bringing with them a beautiful smile and often a warm hug. Despite the gloomy weather outside, the Son was shining brightly in this tiny room.
Barbara launched the service by offering a platform for each attendee to share their lives with the group. Entering into an almost divine intimacy, willing people shared the concerns of their hearts, their pressing worries, and their sometimes debilitating physical pain. It was a holy time of communion of souls. Then the fun began, for the “Special Education Sunday School” class loves to sing! Sonny began the round of worship by requesting, “This is the Day,” a Christian hymn derived from Psalm 118:24.
This is the day the LORD has made.
We will rejoice and be glad in it.
Boisterous and brimming with joy, each person in the room worshiped through the strains of this familiar childhood hymn. Next, April selected, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” a traditional American Spiritual from the 1920’s. She knew the words to every verse by heart. Together–leader, counselor, special need attendee, and journalist–we gathered at the feet of the cross in humble worship. Not worrying about how voices sounded or how much racket we made, as a body of believers we entered the presence of God as little children.
“We have a rare opportunity to reach both the special needs attendees and their counselors during these classes,” Lorena asserted. Directly following our moving worship time, Lorena began a time of quiet prayer and supplication, including both attendees and their counselors. Each person had the chance to bring their burdens to the table of faith. The group carried the afflictions together, offering empathy when needed and joy when appropriate.
“Thank you, God, that you created each one of us for your purpose,” Barbara asserted as together we thanked God for our homes, our health, family and friends, and jobs. Afterward, she brought out the paper figurines of the characters in the current Bible story: Jacob and his family. She shared that after Jacob was tricked into giving Esau his birthright, his twin brother Esau was violently angry.
“Do you ever get angry?” she inquired. Many heads around the table nodded in agreement. Yes, it was easy to understand how Esau felt. Barbara expounded that Esau was so angry, in fact, that it was necessary for Jacob to leave town for a while until his brother cooled off a little. As such, Jacob went on a journey. During this journey, many things occurred; he fell in love, got married, and received a new name and a new purpose. He was invited to be a part of God’s big plan for his people.
One night, Jacob had a dream that he met God and wrestled with him. God won the match, much to the delight of the listeners in the group, but God blessed Jacob despite his loss. He gave Jacob a brand-new name, “Israel.” From that day forward, he and all his descendants had a very special relationship with God. Barbara explained that like Jacob, each of us was invited to live out a special purpose in God’s plan, just as we are. As the story came to a close, each attendee hung on Barbara’s every word. Lorena shared that we would “be amazed at how many details and biblical-learning they retain and understand each Sunday.”
After the Bible story was completed, it was once again time to sing. The room swelled with hymn stanzas from “Jesus Loves Me,” and “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus!”
It was exactly how I picture heaven. Slowly each person in the room said their goodbyes, piled back into their group-home vehicles, having experienced “church” in so many ways. As he was the first member to arrive, Sonny was also the last to leave, taking it upon himself to clean up the coffee and cookies before he resumed his usher duties.
Nonetheless, he couldn’t sneak out the door without a loving goodbye and a “See you next week” from his leaders, Lorena and Barbara.
When Jesus taught us to pray, He communicated that He longed for God’s will to be done on earth as it was in heaven (Matthew 6:10 NIV). May God’s Kingdom come on earth as it was reflected in this group of authentic and childlike believers.
In Lorena’s own words, “You get more out of this kind of ministry than what you put in. The reward is phenomenal.”