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, judgement 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 Pastor Sean Yost, the two 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.