During the usual midweek worship service, a gentleman named Dave stood up in front of a group of committed parents, faithful buddies, and precious individuals who have special needs, collectively called Special Nation, to encourage them all with a prophetic message that the Lord had impressed upon his heart.
“I know the challenges, obstacles, and frustrations you face. You have shown great patience and endurance. You will receive your just rewards. David, a warrior, defeated Goliath. Israelite soldiers—they charged into battle. Warriors made the breakthroughs; soldiers—they followed. You are warriors in the natural and the spiritual in the battle against autism. You are making and will continue to make breakthroughs. You are accumulating soldiers who will help you in this fight. You will be blessed and be a blessing to those who join you in the battle. You will inspire many inside and outside of the autism spectrum. You are a shining light. Keep pressing forward my faithful and loving servants.”
As I drove down Roscoe Road on Wednesday afternoon last week, the beauty of the area struck me. Surprising, not because the area doesn’t warrant it, but rather because I drive down Roscoe Road pretty often and it never loses a bit of its allure. The graceful Intracoastal waterway on the west side of the road, glistened on top by the faithful sun, the natural beauty of the majestic oak trees, accentuated with the interspersion of delicate pines and palms, osprey nests, breezes…it’s not a bad place to have church.
Redeemer Church sits on the east side of the road, opposite the water. It’s a large building, with a sprawling parking lot and a few portable buildings out front. Inside the church are the usual findings (with the exception of a cafe, which is still somewhat novelty)—a tastefully lit sanctuary, gathering areas, and lots of side rooms. Each month, one such room, used primarily for youth activities, becomes the site of Second Sunday Special Praise—a no-hush, judgment free worship experience for Special Nation, where families and friends can let go of the guard rails that sometimes accompany a trip into a mainstream service.
Special Nation originated around 3 years ago, when one of the Redeemer congregants, Ellen Gardner, noticed that something at church was missing—a real sense of belonging for special needs individuals—and decided to become part of the solution. She has a son with autism, and like many parents of special needs kids, she fully understands that public gatherings can be challenging. “Is my child going to do something socially unacceptable? Is he going to make noise…Cause a scene?” These are questions that parents like Ellen face on a daily basis.
“God, give us the special nation.”
Working in collaboration with another parent whose child has special needs, Amy Groshell, as well as Pastor Sean Yost, the three of them hit upon the solution—a group that they would call Special Nation. The Bible says, “Ask of me and I will give you the nations as your inheritance (Psalm 2:8).” The word translated as “nations” speaks of unique people groups, and not so much to geographical borders, which we usually think of. They wanted this group—those who have autism, this unique nation right here in our midst—to have a place they could call home.
It wasn’t going to be a place where families with special needs, those with children who have autism or cerebral palsy, could simply come and feel accommodated. No, it was going to be a place they belonged, where they were needed…where, as Pastor Sean says—they own the place. The prayer at Redeemer became, “God, give us the special nation.” It was here, fueled by the Christ-centered fires of radical inclusiveness, that Special Nation was forged and fashioned.
Sitting opposite the church from the youth space, closer to the sanctuary, you’ll find another room of interest. This is the site of the Wednesday evening gathering for the Special Nation Friend’s Group. Each week friends, families, and buddies of Special Nation meet here to enjoy a real sense of camaraderie and community, and on my Wednesday afternoon visit there was no mistaking of this.
The people there were full of thankfulness for the ministry, including one mother, Lena Winslow, who said, “This has been awesome for us. It’s been a launching pad. I feel like a lot of these kids can and will be integrated and included. And that’s what we need to head towards, the idea of having more of this acceptance—not because you are forced to accept them but because you recognize a difference. It’s a different trait, it’s not less, it’s different.”
The comfort and joy, bound together by the unmistakable presence of God here is truly powerful. The events of the night include praise reports, a Bible lesson, parent talk and a time for those with special needs to communicate.
Along the autism spectrum, there are individuals who communicate verbally and those who do so non-verbally. For those who typically don’t use words, there exists an opaqueness between them and the casual observer as to the depth, brilliance, and sensitivity of their being. A parent knows his or her child is intellectual, and clever and funny, but without words it’s harder for the rest of us to get an idea of what the person might be thinking.
“What they teach us is to love, to accept…and eternally that carries so much more than anything that we could possibly give them.”
With this challenge though came a major breakthrough when some of the kids in Special Nation began using iPads to type on. This strategy, widely used to help those who function more on the non-verbal side, opened the door for communication to flow more freely. They were now able to express their innermost thoughts, once confined solely to the four walls of their heads. It gave them the capacity to show the outside world that they were intelligent and capable. It unlocked their hidden voices, which has proven to be life-changing for the kids.
In all my observations and conversations one thing became very clear—we have much to learn from our friends who have special needs. Lena later commented, “They have more to teach us in being human than we have to teach them. I feel like all we’re teaching them is how to blend in and how not to look odd, which is a skill but it’s not that valuable when it comes to the grand scheme of things. What they teach us is to love, to accept…and eternally that carries so much more than anything that we could possibly give them.”
They teach us that the inner beauty of the spirit far outweighs our outward presentation. They remind us that each one of us displays a facade, and some just spend more time perfecting it than others. They show us that a warrior doesn’t always look like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. And a warrior who disguises himself, who knows humility—as a great King in a manger once did, can be more valiant than 50 macho guys who know they look tough.
Matthew Layton, 18-years old, was listening to Dave as he announced his prophetic message to the group. Half an hour later, when it came time for the communication portion of the night, Matthew began to type.
“Mom—I am a warrior for heaven, answering to King Jesus, that inside my mind I am having battles. I am thinking that I am really with Lord Jesus and He tells things that are inside the heart of the Father because I am His warrior.”
The work of Special Nation is momentous. There is a kingdom coming in the Earth, a kingdom coming in North Florida, and the work that happens down on Roscoe Road, surrounded by the majestic oaks, assuredly plays a major role in the fulfillment of this. Families members are encouraged, communication is begotten, Jesus is exalted, and warriors…the mighty warriors, they make the breakthroughs.
Redeemer Church is located at 190 South Roscoe Blvd. For more information on Special Nation, you can contact Don or Robyn Rhoads at (904) 226-0853. The Wednesday evening Friend’s Group lasts from 7:00 to 8:30. There is also a Sunday morning gathering for Special Nation in the buildings out front, where members hear Pastor Sean’s weekly sermon and are able to worship along with songs of praise.