An Overlooked Mission Field
Adults with special needs have found a church family within First UMC Canton’s Followers Class, reinforced by the financial support from the Canton community.
Member Lou Ellen Bliss has long had a heart for adults with special needs. In the late 1970s, L.F. and Vera Sanders formed a special needs class at FUMC Canton to provide a teaching environment for their grandson. Lou Ellen remembers that special needs adults were transitioning from institutions into society in those days, but she did not become personally involved with the class until she was asked to fill in for teacher Ed Cozart one summer in the early 1980s. Lou Ellen and husband Albert have been hooked on the blessings of volunteering ever since. “Since Canton had several residential homes for mentally and physically handicapped adults decades ago, our church began to recognize and respond to this mission field,” she shares. FUMC Canton invited others from nearby group homes to be a part of their special “Followers Class,” and those early days were quite challenging. Integrating these members into the church family has not always been easy, Rev. Jon Thornsbury agrees, “But with patience, understanding and the teachers’ continual advocacy, the church continued expanding this wonderful ministry.”
“Our special adults were disruptive at first because they did not know better,” Lou Ellen explains, “so, consequently, many in the church initially did not welcome them with open arms.” Adds Lou Ellen, “But over the years our Followers Class members have learned so much about the Bible, how to behave in church, and skills to boost independent living that they now want to come every Sunday. They love to play Bible trivia and know the answers to questions, and they have been very good for our church – both inside and out.” Today, the class has 30-40 active members. Lou Ellen is quick to thank others who have been instrumental in this longstanding ministry: Aaron Debose, Walker and Gertrude Cable, Van and Patience McGuffy, John Norman, Mike and Patsy Beaty and Wood Robison.
Recently, the Followers members expressed an interest in becoming more involved at FUMC Canton. Some have joined the choir, attended Men’s Bible Study and asked for opportunities to raise money to attend “Special People Camp” at Lakeview UMC Conference Center. “Our special adults save their money all year to go to camp, but the fees have become cost-prohibitive for them, so FUMC Canton hosted a fundraiser in August,” Lou Ellen explains, “and many from the community attended.”
Buddy and The Flashbacks donated the music, volunteers coordinated tickets and publicity and decorations and yet others brought food. Melissa Green and Suezette Branton went to businesses to ask for donations for everything from door prizes to camp tuition. “I prayed, before I asked for each donation, that God would give them soft hearts to help us reach our goal of $4200 in camp tuition,” Suezette shares. “My prayers were answered! Many of the local businesses donated a full tuition payment for camp.”
The August sock hop event was a rocking success. By the end of the evening, the funding provided covered sending 22 members of the Followers Class to Lakeview in October. “The event was so much fun, and we have new church members, campers and counselors because of it,” shares Lou Ellen, who has enjoyed being a camp counselor since 1993.
“These special adults are so full of God’s love it is amazing,” she adds. “It seems strange to me that more churches don’t start this type of ministry because I know that many mentally handicapped adults live with their families and in foster homes and are often forgotten, which just isn’t right. We have witnessed such transformation in these lives and experienced such joy in seeing them grow into their gifts, graces and personalities. Albert and I feel like we are right where God wants us to be and we are so proud of our church for offering spiritual training to this often overlooked mission field.”
Anyone interested in learning more about starting a ministry for special adults can contact her or others via FUMC Canton at 903-567-6528.