By Christine Guth with Tamara Gill
See more photos of Tamara Gill
As a summer worker at Spruce Lake Retreat,Tamara Gill one day found herself in charge of moving a tall ladder to enable campers to reach a high rope swing, then quickly moving the ladder out of the way. Campers that week were people with disabilities and their families who had come for a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. A young adult camper we’ll call Rose cautiously stepped forward for her turn. With each step up the ladder, Tamara could see Rose’s legs wobbling more. Suddenly, Rose stopped and would not move. Despite much gentle encouragement by staff to try the swing, Rose eventually retreated to solid ground.After everybody else had taken a turn, Tamara noticed Rose again at her side, timidly requesting a second chance. Halfway up the ladder, again she froze. “Do you remember me?” Tamara asked. “I brought your family extra towels the other day.”
Rose nodded solemnly. Tamara replied, “Do you trust that I will bring this ladder back to you when you are done?” Rose thought for a moment and nodded again. Tamara helped her off the ladder and on to the swing. She swooped back and forth, back and forth. When she was finished, Tamara rushed the ladder back to her. Once on solid ground, Rose threw both arms high in the air. The gym echoed with onlookers chanting her name. Several people ran up to give her hugs and high-fives. Her smile stretched from ear to ear. A moment of victory for Rose marked the joyful beginning of a calling for Tamara.
The following year, Tamara volunteered as a Short-Term Missionary for Joni and Friends. Tamara’s enthusiasm about her new friends with disabilities spread to her congregation, Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville, OH). A Saturday seminar to train members about ministering with families affected by disability ignited congregational enthusiasm for disability ministry. The education commission began interviewing parents of children with disabilities in order to understand how to better serve their families. A special service for Disability Awareness Sunday is currently in the works.
“My life has been forever changed,” Tamara declares. “I pray that followers of Jesus will recognize our calling to become the healing hands and feet of Jesus by reaching out to people who often feel like they have no place to belong. I can no longer imagine my life without my friends who have disabilities.”
Tamara offers the following suggestions to congregations:
Tamara assures congregations that welcome people with disabilities that they will gain a new and awe-inspiring perspective of God, others, themselves and the world. “The exact gains are as diverse as the people who bring these gifts into the church, but I can guarantee that people who open themselves up to loving, accepting and celebrating every person will find that the Creator has a lot of fun miracles to reveal in the journey.”
Tamara Gill attends Oak Grove Mennonite Church, Smithville, Ohio. See more photos, hear the stories behind them, and read ADNet’s interview with Tamara below.
ADNet staff made Tamara's acquaintance about a year ago when she wrote to us inquiring about ADNet's resources related to people with disabilities. As we have gotten acquainted, we learned of her exceptional efforts in seeking out opportunities for ministry with people with disabilities, in her home congregation of Oak Grove Mennonite (Smithville, Ohio) and beyond. We share with you our recent email interview with Tamara, inviting her enthusiastic passion to inspire your own ministry of inclusion and hospitality.
ADNet: What experiences led to your strong interest in ministry with people with disabilities?
Tamara Gill: My life has been filled with experiences of reaching out those who are affected by disability. All of them are important. My stories below do not even come close to describing all of my life-shaping experiences for this type of ministry.
My mother taught preschool and several children in her preschool classroom had disabilities. One of the boys had Down syndrome. Although many people placed little value on his life, we saw the light that God had given to him. Every time he saw my mother around the town, he would loudly call out her name and run to her for a big hug. As a young child, I saw this boy's acceptance of others, even those who rejected him. Watching him made me realize that every person has gifts to share.
My grandma and grandpa had a clown ministry in their church. They worked with many adults who had significant disabilities. These adults had so many gifts in bringing laughter into others' lives. My grandparents gave them the opportunity to minister through clowning to people in their church and community. Since the participants with disabilities shared these gifts with me, I was significantly impacted at a young age with the truth that even severely disabled individuals still had gifts to offer to others.
My cousin Morgan was born with Down syndrome and a hole in her heart. She had an operation as a young baby to repair her heart. Although she almost died, she miraculously clung to life. God healed her heart in amazing ways. She always was and still is a happy and compassionate girl who loves life. She can make every person whom she meets feel like they have a special gift to offer. Since I was a teenager when she was born, I developed a special bond with her. Morgan shows me Christ's love in profound ways.
In high school, I volunteered with our city's Special Olympics team. Cheering the athletes on as they bowled or ran with all their hearts was a tremendous joy. I will never forget when the track team requested that I accompany them around the track with our team's banner for the opening ceremonies. Out of all of my high school memories, walking the track with those devoted and determined athletes was one of my favorites.
During college, I served for six weeks at an orphanage in Costa Rica. During this time, I worked with two children who had disabilities. One teenage boy was completely deaf. He taught me a lot of sign language and gave me my name in sign. We developed a very close friendship because he loved spending time with me and helping me learn more about his world.
Another teenage girl lived with multiple disabilities. When I arrived at the children's home, she would usually sit in a corner of the house all day, repeating the same tapping motion over and over again. She did not seemingly communicate in any way. I asked God to help me get inside of her world. One day, I found her on the porch, tapping on a plastic toy. I sat down beside her. Every time that she tapped the toy, I would clap my hands. We tapped and clapped for over an hour. The next day, when she heard my voice in the cottage, she ran to me with a ball. We threw the ball for over an hour. Each day, she had a new activity that she wanted me to enjoy. She would run to me, take my hand and lead me to her play area. I learned to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, such as splashing cool water all over on a hot day, enjoying a cool breeze while playing ball or simply resting in the presence of a friend for hours at a time.
While I served as a counselor at Camp Luz, one of my favorite weeks was Mini Camp (a three-day camp for younger, first-time campers). A young girl in our cabin with disabilities communicated very little verbally, but we learned the activities that brought her great joy: swimming, swinging, receiving piggy back rides and praising God with music. On the last night, we invited all of the girls to pray. When we became silent, this young girl suddenly prayed aloud, "God, thank you for the pool, chocolate and my friends. Amen." We could hardly believe our ears! Then again, this little girl had taught all of us profound lessons about God's goodness and faithfulness throughout the week.
I understand that an experience at a Joni and Friends retreat was very important to you. Why did you decide to go to that event in the first place? How did it affect you?
I agreed to work on the program team for the retreat center side at Spruce Lake Retreat in the summer of 2008. I had met the current program director for the retreat center when he served as a pastor at Camp Luz. I was excited to extend my camp ministry experience to planning, organizing and implementing activities for family retreats. When I arrived at Spruce Lake, all the staff members told me, "Just wait until Joni and Friends comes. Those weeks are the best!" Honestly, people spoke so highly of Joni and Friends Family Retreats that I was somewhat skeptical that any ministry could live up to those expectations. Then, the Retreat arrived. Joni and Friends Family Retreats stress the importance of accepting, loving and celebrating every person. And I fell in love with the ministry.
During my second summer on Spruce Lake staff, I was called to help with the power swing when a staff member forgot to show up for his shift. My job was taking the ladder to and from the starting place. One of the single adults stepped forward to climb the ladder. As she climbed, her legs became more and more wobbly. Suddenly, she stopped and would not move. We gently talked with her and encouraged her to try the swing, but she refused, and eventually climbed back down the ladder.
After everybody else had finished the power swing, this same camper came back out to the ladder. She timidly requested another chance. We helped her up the ladder and again she froze. I asked her, "Do you remember me? I brought your family extra towels the other day." She nodded her head.
"Do you trust that I will bring this ladder back to you when you are done?" I asked. She thought for a moment and then nodded. I took her hand and helped her off the ladder and on to the swing. She swung back and forth. When she was finished, I rushed the ladder back to her. After she climbed off the last step, she threw both arms into the air. Every person in the entire program center was chanting her name. Several people ran into the center circle to give her hugs and high-fives. Her smile stretched from ear to ear. To this day, this young woman still talks about her victory on the power swing. At that moment, I realized that I wanted to be a part of this ministry for as long as I could serve.
In the summers of 2010 and 2011, I served as a Short Term Missionary for three weeks of Joni and Friends Family Retreats at Spruce Lake. My camper Sarah, who almost died when she was only four days old, taught me how to dance for the Lord. She praises God from her head to her toes. She also has an adventurous spirit that leads her to climb up the mountain to the waterfalls and search in the creek for frogs. Sarah loves every person and will give hugs or high fives to anyone who is close enough for her to reach. Her smile brightens my day and her laughter fills me with joy. Most of all, I love listening to Sarah sing. She proclaims her love for God to everyone and enjoys it most when she can do it from the stage.
My other camper Kim is only a year and a half younger than me. She must leave her beloved dogs behind while she ventures to camp. While at camp, she teaches several of her closest friends how to sing praises to God in sign language for the talent show and karaoke parties. She enjoys riding in the paddle boats and reading in the pavilion. Kim has taught me valuable lessons about showing grace to myself and others. This past summer, her gift to me was reading aloud the story of Joseph from her Bible. I have never been more touched upon the hearing of the Word of God. Most of all, Kim has deepened my faith in prayer. When she prays, she listens for God to speak to her. When God speaks to her, she testifies about the calming and peaceful presence of God to every person who has the patience to listen to her speak through her communication device. Both of my campers have more fully revealed the Lord's gifts to each of us! I now understand much more about accepting, loving and celebrating every person!
How does your faith journey intersect with your sense of call to ministry with people with disabilities? What have you learned about God, and about God's relationship with people, from your friends who have disabilities?
Approximately seven years ago, I faced one of the most difficult and painful traumas of my life. During that time, I read the New Testament completely, looking for every definition of love. As I explored God's definition of love, I recognized the vast scope of Christ-like love. The more I read, the more I also realized the Lord's calling for me to "love more, love deeper." Once I had accepted this calling to "love all of God's people," God opened the doors for me to serve various kinds of people in my community. Following Christ's example, I have chosen to love people who are very different from me. I have learned valuable and life-changing lessons from every one of them. Having an open mind and open heart has led me on an incredible adventure of seeing others as God created them to be.
Sarah has taught me to live every day as if it may be my last. Living life to the fullest means laughing often, hugging much, and dancing whenever the music plays. She loves Jesus so much that she wants everyone to know Him. She is not afraid to speak about her faith. At a Wednesday evening talent show, Sarah had figured out a way to sneak back up on to the stage—her favorite place to be. The comedian on stage had just delivered an important line of his joke, "Are you going to heaven?" Sarah was unaware of the connection of this line to the joke, but she definitely understood the question. Without missing a beat, she shouted, "Yes!" The comedian was speechless. The crowd erupted into cheers and laughter.
Kim has taught me to pray in all circumstances. During our first week together, she injured her arm and had to go to the hospital. She was very scared at the emergency room. With one hand, she typed many words of prayer into her communication device. After we were done and back in the car, I asked her what happened when she prayed. She said, "God told me, 'Do not be scared. I am with you.'" When we arrived back at the camp, she testified to anyone who asked about her arm about the ways that God had comforted her. Obviously, she has a close relationship with God. She prays continually and reads her Bible or other devotional books as often as she can, at least every day. Her dedication to knowing more about the Lord inspires me.
What have you done in your home congregation to encourage participation by people with disabilities, or to encourage your congregation to be more hospitable to people with disabilities?
When I returned to Oak Grove Mennonite after my first summer of serving as a Short Term Missionary at Joni and Friends Family Retreats, I wanted to share these faith-shaping stories. I had two opportunities to preach, so I incorporated stories about my friends with disabilities into my sermons. Also, I taught Wednesday evening sessions to our youngest children's class (ages two to seven). We used the Joni and Friends VBS curriculum in order to raise their awareness of how to build friendships with people who are different from them.
In the spring, I invited the education commission members to go with me to a Joni and Friends Through the Roof seminar. Then, we decided to host a seminar at our church in the fall. Several people from our congregation dedicated their Saturday morning to learning more about ministering with families who are affected by disability. This meeting sparked the interest of many people, which has ignited enthusiasm for this type of ministry. Our education commission is currently interviewing parents of children with disabilities in order to understand how we can better serve their families. They are also planning a special service for Disability Awareness Sunday. I am thrilled to see all of the changes that have happened in only a year and can't wait to see what another year of work may bring.
What have you done in other congregations?
During the past year, I also offered to preach at other area congregations about my experiences with Joni and Friends Family Retreats. I spoke at five different congregations and three Christian schools. These opportunities led to intriguing conversations in which I could clearly see God's hand at work. After each speaking engagement, people approached me with their own stories of working with or loving people who are affected by disability. Many times, these people would share stories with tears streaming down their faces. I was amazed at how God was providing ways for others to reveal some of the most touching parts of their lives. I also learned that every congregation has at least one person who is directly connected with someone who has a disability. The fact that approximately 90% of people affected by a disability do not go to church has motivated these congregations to reevaluate the ways that they can reach out to these families in their communities.
What hopes and dreams do you have for your future involvement with disabilities ministry?
I am not entirely sure how God will lead me in future ministry opportunities, but I am confident that my life has been forever changed because of the ways that I have served in ministering to people affected by disabilities. For this reason, I am dedicated to reaching out to everyone in any ministry to which I am called. In some ways, I have learned that disabilities are a unique form of gifts. The people with disabilities who have impacted my life have shared precious gifts with me that seem to come from their special perspectives about God, people and the world. I hope that the Church can realize that many of these individuals and families are not currently included in our congregational life, but our lives could be valuably transformed if we would make it a priority to include them. I pray that followers of Jesus will recognize our calling to become the healing hands and feet of Jesus by reaching out to people in our communities who often feel like they have no place to belong. I can no longer imagine my life without my friends who have disabilities. One of the most important gifts that they need is friendship. The Church can be a place where people experience the love and acceptance of friends.
What affirmation have you received for your ministry?
My biggest affirmation probably has come from my Joni and Friends families who have graciously accepted me as a part of their families. When I walk into a room and get the biggest bear hug ever from a little girl named Sarah, I know that I am loved. When I sit down at a table and receive the sign for excitement from Kim, I know that I am accepted. When I sing on stage with either of them, I know that I am celebrated. Seeing the smiles on their faces and listening to their powerful testimonies reminds me that this ministry is making a difference in people's lives.
Have you seen any changes in the churches you have interacted with that show increasing openness to people with disabilities? What are some of the hopeful signs you have seen?
I believe that many of the churches have realized the need for reaching out to people who are affected by disability. Change takes time and change happens differently in each congregation. Recently, my home congregation that has supported me most during this journey took several huge leaps in expanding our disability ministry. Oak Grove Mennonite (Smithville, Ohio) has really caught the vision for ministering with individuals and families who are affected by disability. Following a half-day seminar about disabilities, numerous people suddenly expressed an increased desire to follow through on several ideas shared at this training event. The education commission is planning a disability awareness Sunday so that our entire congregation can learn more about this valuable ministry. After this service, we hope to incorporate numerous changes in our church facilities and programs. I believe that our primary motivational factors are the children and youth already attending our church who have various disabilities. We love them and their families, so we want to dedicate ourselves to understanding their gifts and needs more thoroughly.
What steps do you suggest a congregation or person could take when they have a heart for including people with disabilities?
Be a friend. Many people with disabilities do not feel loved and accepted. One of the most important things that people can do is simply reach out to those who are affected by disability. Share with them. Listen to them. Have fun. Play together. Enjoy one another's company. Help each other. Learn from one another. Simply be a friend.
Think creatively. Churches can organize one-time events that invite individuals, teenagers, single adults or families to enjoy relationship-building, quality time together. Some of the possibilities: a quiet Santa, quiet nativity, Easter egg hunt, coffee house, dance, or game night.
Give a break. Many couples who have children with a disability have trouble caring for a healthy marriage. When all of their focus must be on their children, then they lose time for themselves. At Joni and Friends Family Retreats, we have one banquet meal every week just for the parents. Several of these couples share a meal for two at only this one dinner each year because their children need so much constant care and attention that they do not have adequate care for a date night. A congregation or several partnering congregations can establish a respite care program. Volunteers can hang out with and care for children with disabilities and their siblings so that fathers and mothers can enjoy a few hours on a Saturday together without the kids.
Make a safe space. Every congregation that desires to reach out to people affected by disability should evaluate whether their church buildings are accessible to people with disabilities. Accessibility extends beyond meeting the physical needs to also being ready to meet the emotional, mental and spiritual needs of every person who comes through the door. Educating church members about various types of disabilities and ways to interact with people who have a disability can ignite energy and a vision of ministering with people affected by disability. Buddy programs work well in congregations who are ready to engage in a full-fledged disability ministry. Volunteers work with the same individual every week or on a regular schedule in order to provide genuine one-on-one care. Trusting the child, youth or single adult with a buddy allows the parents to fully engage in Sunday school and worship experiences.
Keep an open mind. When individuals or congregations welcome people who have a disability into their lives, they must be ready to give and receive. These people have unique gifts to offer to the church family. Designing ways that these new members can also share in the life, worship, study, fellowship and service of the congregation is important. Although many challenges exist within every disability ministry, a promise that will not be broken is that the gifts far outweigh the challenges. So, be ready to receive.
What do congregations gain as they become more welcoming to people with disabilities?
Congregations will receive a new and awe-inspiring perspective of God, others, themselves and the world from individuals affected by a disability. The exact gains are as diverse as the people who bring these gifts into the church, but I can guarantee that people who open themselves up to loving, accepting and celebrating every person will find that the Creator has a lot of fun miracles to reveal in the journey.
A young boy who has attended Oak Grove Mennonite for most of his life was diagnosed with autism when he was a toddler. Children with autism definitely face many challenges in any social setting, which is true as we try to find ways to engage this child in Sunday school classes, children's programs and worship services. Nonetheless, we have also learned valuable lessons about worshiping God with abandon. Many people put up walls even in a worship service. We do not want anyone to think that we are not following the status quo, after all. Well, this young boy does not understand these walls and he does not even realize that they exist.
So, while everyone sits in their pews quietly listening to the reading of scripture or the singing of the choir, this boy may run down the center aisle of the sanctuary. Stopping at the front, he sits down right in front of the pulpit and intently looks up at the worship leader or musicians. He watches every movement and listens to every word, clearly in awe of what is happening before his eyes. When they are finished proclaiming God's Word, he jumps up and breaks out in enthusiastic applause. With a huge smile on his face, he loudly praises God without being worried about the thoughts of others. He is not afraid to dance, not afraid to ring his bell on every note, not afraid to sing with all his might, not afraid to ask questions, not afraid to sit in the back pew or on the front step, not afraid to wave his arms with the music director, not afraid to clap, not afraid to worship in whatever way he senses the Spirit within him telling him to move. As I mature in my faith walk, I must admit that I hope I can become more like this little child because his faith is so real.
Are there any aspects that ADNet has contributed - resources, encouragement, etc. - that have supported, encouraged, or challenged you in your ministry?
Our congregation receives all of ADNet resources. The newsletters and website articles allow us to explore a wide variety of topics. Many of these suggestions spark new ideas as we venture forward in our journey of creating an active disability ministry. The book reviews have been most helpful and we have added numerous resources to our library in order to continue educating congregation members. The ADNet team is always ready to answer our questions and provide the encouragement we need to keep pressing onward in the direction of creating a more welcoming congregation.