Pastor Israel Leito (right), president of the church in Inter-America, speaks during the opening day of Inter-America’s first Special Needs Ministries Summit, held in Miami, Florida, January 14, 2014. Pastor Leito encouraged church leaders and members to be mindful of persons with special needs and seek them out within the church. Image by Libna Stevens/IAD

January 22, 2014 – Miami, Florida, United States…Libna Stevens/IAD

Seventh-day Adventist leaders from throughout the church in Inter-America committed to ministering to the needs of persons with disabilities during a special summit held at the Inter-American Division (IAD), Jan. 14-16, 2014.

The Special Needs Ministry Summit sought to bring about awareness of disabled people and to teach ways of ministering the impaired, a historically neglected group of people in the territory. The summit, gathered a core group of 35 church leaders and laypersons. It was the first such event in the IAD territory.

Senator Floyd Morris, a Seventh-day Adventist and president of the Jamaican senate, challenged church leaders to seek out, minister, and integrate people living with disabilities in the IAD territory. Image by Libna Stevens/IAD

Senator Floyd Morris, a Seventh-day Adventist and president of the Jamaican senate, challenged church leaders to seek out, minister, and integrate people living with disabilities in the IAD territory. There are about 80 million people living with disabilities in the territory today.

“God is saying to all of us in modern day society to open doors and breakdown barriers, empower and include those with disabilities [within our church] in all affairs of the church,” said Senator Morris, who lost his sight in his 20s.

While the mission of the church is to win souls for the kingdom,” said Senator Morris, “we have a tremendous task to ensure that we cater to the needs of the most vulnerable of our society, including persons with disabilities, just like Jesus did during his ministry on earth.”

That message echoed during the three-day summit. Top IAD administrators highlighted the need for inclusiveness and integration of persons with disabilities within the church.

Pastor Israel Leito, president of the church in Inter-America, encouraged church leaders to not ignore those with disabilities.

“As Christians leaders and organization workers, we must recognize persons with disabilities, even though people are not how we are, we must open the church for them,” said Pastor Leito.

It is this initial awareness – ensuring persons with disabilities and their families are welcomed and cared for in local congregations – that is an important step and one reason to hold the special needs ministry summit, said Pastor Samuel Telemaque, associate director of personal ministries and Sabbath school for the church in Inter-America and organizer of the event.

Pastor Samuel Telemaque, associate director of personal ministries and Sabbath school for Inter-America, said that preliminary reports from part of the IAD church territory shows that there are more than 50,000 persons with disabilities in local congregations. Image by Gustavo Menendez/IAD.

“The division recognizes the need to be more inclusive, to identify the various needs in the church, to treat each person as God’s property,” said Pastor Telemaque. “It was important to hold this summit to reach a level of awareness of the special needs within the church and its community,” said Pastor Telemaque.

The summit highlighted the seven major special needs groups, including those with cognitive, hearing, hidden, mobility, psychiatric, speech, and visual impairments.

Bringing about awareness is going to take a fundamental change of mind, affirmed Senator Morris during his seminar. “The focus is for us to place emphasis on the rights of the person with a disability and the capacity of that individual to develop himself or herself,” he explained.

Senator Morris emphasized the need for appropriate education awareness in churches, schools and institutions as key for reaching and integrating persons with disabilities for meaningful contribution. Providing accessible ramps and restrooms is needed to accommodate those with mobility challenges, he emphasized.

Senator Morris also called on church administrators and summit leaders to reach out to persons with disabilities through the work of Adventist Development and Relief Agency and the various ministries of the church to ensure special needs people can be involved with ministries in the community.

“Don’t just carry them and place then in the pews, let us get them involved in the decision making process of the church,” Senator Morris said.

Pastor Larry Evans, liaison for International Deaf Ministries for the Adventist world church outlined the need for church leaders and members to think of persons with disability as a culture in order to be more effective when work with and catering to their needs in churches and communities. Image by Libna Stevens/IAD

Making opportunities to engage with persons with disabilities can begin in our Sabbath School classes, said Gary Swanson, associate director of personal ministries and Sabbath school for the Adventist world church.

“Sometimes we minister to people based on what we think their needs are,” said Pastor Swanson. “We would do better in learning what their needs are.” It is more about what persons with disabilities can do, not what they cannot do, he added.

The challenge is clear, according to Pastor Telemaque. Providing resources and empowering the 50,000 plus Sabbath school teachers across the Division territory can begin as soon as leaders and members unite in engaging in the special needs ministries.

“This summit gives shape to the birth of this much needed ministry in our church territory today,” affirmed Pastor Telemaque.

Pastor Larry Evans, liaison for International Deaf Ministries for the Adventist world church, said that the special needs ministry is a concept that the church organization must recognize and “if we don’t recognize this ministry, we are mission out.”

“Think of persons with disability as a culture,” said Pastor Evans. “How do persons with disability view life? Think culture rather than disability.”

Pastor Evans challenged leaders to allow the deaf to be part of the leadership circle of the church and to help implement strategies while seeking to minister with their needs in mind.

Reaching more than 50,000 persons with disabilities within our churches is doable, according to Pastor Telemaque. Leaders estimate there may be double that number since only half of the union territories of the church in Inter-America were able to report.

Dr. Hugh Crarey, 92, a former educator and minister in Jamaica and New York, was a guest singer during the three-day summit. Dr. Crarey, a member of the Kendall Seventh-day Adventist Church in Miami, Florida, is legally blind. Image by Libna Stevens/IAD

“We will concentrate on assessing the needs within our churches and our communities in terms of classification, and teach our membership to be more inclusive and proceed to strengthen the ministries that integrate persons with disabilities,” said Pastor Telemaque.

The summit was a step toward organizing the Special Needs Ministries in May, when Inter-America’s Executive Committee will meet to make the ministries official across the territory, said Pastor Telemaque.

Roslyn Bullen of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for the Hearing Impaired in Barbados was thrilled to attend the summit. For 20 years she has worked as a layperson to reach and minister to the hearing impaired in her community in Barbados.

“We are working now to have our church be totally a silent church,” said Bullen, who learned sign language when she felt the call to be part of deaf ministries. In the course of the years, she has organized sign language concerts, camps, and does visitations in surrounding communities. Bullen was encouraged to see that leaders are talking seriously about being more inclusive towards persons with disabilities.

“We cannot be on the outside, we have to mingle and asks ourselves how do I formulate this program or that program to help their needs,” said Bullen. “God wants to save everyone not just the ‘normal’ people.”

Image by Libna Stevens/IAD

Bullen was inspired by the passion and dedication of Dr. Charlotte Thoms, disabilities coordinator for the North American Division, on ways to develop and strengthen special needs ministries.

“Raise your level of awareness using information you already have so you can interest others to embrace a ministry that soon will be one of the most necessary in the church,” stated Dr. Thoms, who has worked with deaf ministries for several years in her home church.

“We must transform our churches into places where people flock for the healing message of a compassionate Savior and where they, despite their condition, are accommodated, the facility and the gospel are accessible and all find joy,” Dr. Thoms challenged.

“Our church and schools are accessible for those with physical disabilities, but we are looking forward to really letting this special needs ministry take off in our island,” said Janet Torres, women’s ministries and children’s ministries director for the church in Puerto Rico. Torres was recently appointed to lead a blind ministry on the island called “Helping a blind person see Jesus.”

Janet Torres of the church in Puerto Rico speaks on the plans to reach the vision impaired through a recently organized initiative called “Leading a blind to see Jesus” in Adventist churches across the island. Image by Libna Stevens/IAD

More than 100 church member volunteers have been trained to cater to the needs of the blind in several congregations with training seminars as well as using radio spots, according to Camille Anaya, personal ministries director for the church in Puerto Rico.

“Unfortunately there are no statistics on the number of persons with disabilities on the island so are beginning to assess all the special needs within our churches and branch out from there,” said Anaya, who hopes to see a ministry for the hearing impaired go strong on the island.

With the birth of special needs ministries, Anaya said it will allow a partnership and strengthen activities and initiatives began by laypersons spread out in different local congregations who for years have benefitted those with disabilities in our congregations and communities which have been running on their own.

Unifying independent ministries under special needs ministries is precisely how church leaders foresee success for the church in Inter-America, said Pastor Telemaque.

“We will work on assessing the needs on the ground, survey the range and the scope of the special needs in the territory and support and empower local ministries to work with persons with disabilities for the kingdom,” Pastor Telemaque said.

The summit included seminars, information and resources by Barbara Newman, from the CLC Network, and Jose A. Martinez of the Christian Record Services for the Blind.

To view a photo gallery of Inter-America’s Special Needs Summit, Click HERE

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