There is an idyllic place located on the gentle waters of Lake Wylie and nestled in the South Carolina country. The location itself is rather unassuming considering its purpose. A winding road resolves itself at an impressive house surrounded by rolling grassy hills and backing up to the calm, beautiful waters of the lake. A particularly steep hill leads down to a sandy cul-de-sac that gives way to the shoreline of the lake. It appears to be an amphitheater of sorts, though it has no seating on any given day. A white piano with handprints from a multitude of painted hands stands proudly between two large trees, and a small platform awaits the day when it will once again be visited by extraordinary people with extraordinary stories. It is welcoming and yet quiet most days of the year, but on the days it sees use, there are no words to quite accurately describe what happens there. I will do my best to describe it for you, but I feel my rhetoric is limited when trying to describe what the soul feels on such a day.
Once a month from April through July, the quiet South Carolina countryside receives a visit from some very special people. Vans roll up with their handicap accessible tags, cars with their support of autism bumper stickers, and small buses with their group home name emblazoned on the side all begin to pull up to the end of the country road and unload their occupants. From those young in age strapped to gurneys to those of more mature age seated in their wheelchairs to parents pulling their already stimming children from the car, a variety of children and adults emerge from the ever-incoming parade of vehicles. They have all come to this place for two reasons: to have fun and be accepted. Perhaps for many the spiritual aspect of this place is secondary to having fun in a safe environment. Perhaps it is an oversight to the many fun activities that await the special needs community. For my family, stepping from our vehicle and breathing the air of Eden is the reason we attended in the first place. And Sparrow Ranch on the Island is an Eden. It is a place for those with special needs to not feel abnormal. It is a place where unusual nonverbal grunts still warrant conversation and where physical disabilities do not hinder anyone’s enjoyment of the environment as a whole. It is a place where man still walks with God in the cool of the day, where Savior and creation meet to enjoy each other’s company, and where abnormalities by the world’s standard are embraced as part of the beauty and versatility of humanity. Everywhere I looked, I saw Jesus walking with His most vulnerable and precious from His creation. I saw Him exercising His rightful dominion over the animals at the petting zoo so that they could be safely touched as part of a unique sensory experience. (The fluffy chicken caught my particular attention. All those soft, fluffy feathers were just begging to be touched.) I saw Jesus driving boats specially equipped to board all types of equipment so everyone present could feel what it is like to ride across the water of the lake, regardless of what their disabilities force them to bring with them. I saw Him driving a small train, serving lunch plates and then cleaning them back up, carrying more chairs down to the amphitheater, handing out toys and new shoes to children, and speaking into the microphone to those sitting still enough to listen. I saw Him as both men and women wearing bluish Sparrow Ranch on the Island shirts as they bustled about serving with no ulterior motives besides the joy of serving. I have to marvel at the difference between what I saw at the Ranch versus what I see in the world. Most people will naturally feel pity when they see someone with special needs. They will stare for a moment, duck their heads with a frown, and uncomfortably walk in the other direction. For those with turrets, autism, or any of the other special needs that cause them to make unusual sounds, people will often stare with annoyance and not even bother to demonstrate pity, much less compassion. But here, HERE the volunteers not only felt compassion, they acted on it. They chose to take their entire Saturday to serve this overlooked and underappreciated community. They chose to offer up their smiles, hugs, and time to a community that Jesus Himself valued and touched. No illness or oddity deterred Jesus from simply reaching out and touching the untouchable. He set the example of how anyone who follows Him is supposed to respond to those with special needs. After all, if we call ourselves Christians, are we not required to do as Jesus did by virtue of the title ‘Christian’? Yet, the church has been the largest culprit of excluding those who don’t reflect what someone somewhere deemed as the ideal person for church attendance. *Side note- who exactly decided this anyway? Why are church members so apt to stare and glare at people who walk in that are different? Who set the precedent for that?! Whoever it is or was, don’t follow their bad example. Jesus. Follow His example. It’s better. End side note*
It’s not just the church, either. People in general have very little tolerance for those with special needs. Just look at the event. Some guy in his speed boat kept purposefully looping around and revving his boat so that those speaking or singing in the amphitheater couldn’t be heard. Anytime there is something amazing happening, someone will try to ruin it simply for the sake of being ornery. Ugh.
Back to the positivity behind the event because it was an extremely positive experience. If you haven’t caught on to what it is exactly yet, let me fully enlighten you: It is a worship service for the special needs community. It is fun, certainly. There are clowns making balloon animals, crowns, swords, whatever the kids want. There is face painting. There is a petting zoo. There are train and boat rides. There are games. There is free food, complete with literally hundreds of cupcakes made by volunteers (and they were mmmmm mmmmm good). Ultimately, though, everyone gathers for the worship service. Those with special needs lead in both preaching and singing. They are free to give testimonies, and all of them are ‘best friends’ with the man who created the ministry, which is so sweet that they all feel this way. After all, the man in charge has one of those spirits that draws everyone in and rejects no one. He is the Billy Graham of the special needs world: humbly taking no credit for the massive ministry he created, and yet using the opportunity to share the Word of God with all of those who are present to listen. He has a passion for the ministry that gives parents hope for their children and reduces them to tears of joy while also giving acceptance to a group of people who have been conditioned to believe that they will never find a place to fit in and will be discarded upon reaching adulthood. More ministries need to happen like this one. More churches- and I don’t mean physical church locations. I mean bodies of believers, regardless of location- need to take note of this overwhelming and ever-growing need and give the proper response.
I can’t think of a better way to end these reflections on the ministry than to reference my own children’s experience: Jonathan learned the joy of sitting in the grass and picking it and throwing it. Neither my husband nor myself know anything about landscaping. Our yard is nothing but rocks and weeds. Grass was a very exciting and organic experience for our son. He laughed and squealed and screamed in delight during the worship time, and those around us just laughed with him. Whew! The pastor’s wife can finally let her hair down somewhere. What a relief! Ellie Grace summed it all up the next day. We went to our normal services the next day, and I asked her about her time at church. Her response, “We went to church yesterday, Mommy!”
Link to the event: www.sparrowranch.org
Location: Lake Wylie, South Carolina a suburb of Charlotte, NC
Events occur once a month from April to August, with August taking place at a host church. Refer to the website or Facebook page for information about upcoming events.