Are you looking for a church that is actively supportive of those with disabilities and their families? If so, look no further! We are starting a new blog series that features special needs ministries and disability advocates at churches all over the United States. Our goal with this series is to inform the public about faith-based supports that may be available in their local area. We also desire to highlight these churches and advocates as an example for others that are considering a special needs ministry, but aren’t sure about how to get started. Those featured will represent diversity in race and denomination, just like you, our beloved supporters! I’m excited to share that our first ministry highlight will be on First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, MD.
About First Baptist Church of Glenarden
Pastor John and First Lady Trina Jenkins have faithfully served at First Baptist Church of Glenarden for more than 30 years. The church has over 11,000 members and is one of the largest churches in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. There are two locations, with the main campus in Upper Marlboro, MD and another campus in Landover, MD. Having a local and global impact is a very important part of this church’s mission, with over 100 ministries, outreach and educational programs. Rev. Sylvia Taylor serves as Director of the Special Needs Ministry. It was my pleasure to interview her and learn more about the services provided for those with disabilities and their families.
About the Special Needs Ministry
The special needs ministry at First Baptist Church of Glenarden officially began in 2008. At the time, Rev. Taylor was a teacher for the two and three-year-old Sunday school class. A teacher from the five-year-old class met with her after church and told her about a child that had ran out of class. The teacher realized that this child needed more assistance during Sunday school. Rev. Taylor and the teacher met with the child’s mother and learned that the child was on the autism spectrum. Rev. Taylor has decades of experience as an Occupational Therapist, so she included the child in her two and three-year-old Sunday school class. She worked with the child on sitting, focusing and following instructions. After a year, she began to work with him individually during Sunday school. Over time, five other children with disabilities started attending. “That began the ministry,” she says.
Rev. Taylor saw that there was a need to start a ministry that would specifically address the needs of persons with disabilities and their families. She and her husband developed a proposal for the church that included a population projection of disabled persons within a 10 mile radius of their two church locations. Rev. Taylor felt that this was important so that she could “do some forward thinking about what ministry could potentially look like.” She also included a financial statement in the proposal. Church leadership approved the proposal and Rev. Taylor began setting a firm foundation for the ministry.
Over the years, parents have expressed their appreciation to Rev. Taylor for starting this ministry. “Families finally have a place that they can come together. They can worship, knowing that their child also can worship in a safe place,” explains Rev. Taylor. “Some of the parents have told me that… it was the first time they have been able to come to church together as a family. One family member would have to stay home with the child and they would rotate. Now, everybody can come to church and worship together.”
At First Baptist Church of Glenarden, you can find several wide-reaching programs for those with disabilities and their families.
- Developmentally appropriate classes are offered for children, youth and adults.
- Sunday school is provided during the 10am and 12pm Sunday morning services.
- Social skills groups for young adults is held once a month during the 12:00pm service.
- Buddy Break Respite Care takes place on the 4th Saturday of each month. The ministry partners with Nathaniel’s Hope.
- Journey with Jewels is a support group for parents of children that are newly diagnosed with a disability. It is offered once a month.
- Community Support Group is offered once a month for anyone to attend.
- Transportation Assistance is provided for disabled persons using Metro access to attend church. A designated team helps persons make sure that they don’t miss their ride.
- Ministry Support is given to those in the special needs ministry when they participate in other ministries at the church, such as the choir, dance, banner and usher teams.
- “A Night to Shine” is held every year in February in partnership with the Tim Tebow Foundation. A month before the gala, church members set up a boutique for participants to pick out their formal wear.
- Youth Sunday occurs once a month. At least once a year, those in the special needs ministry get to lead this service. Their duties include prayer, reading scriptures, and presiding over the main service. Participants receive a certificate of recognition and accomplishment.
Adjustments for COVID-19
COVID-19 has kept the special needs ministry from gathering in person, but it has not stopped Rev. Taylor and her team of volunteers from serving those in need!
The ministry has held virtual Sunday school classes. They also send emails and letters to maintain open communication. As for Buddy Break Respite Care, the ministry has held virtual zoom lessons in conjunction with Nathaniel’s Hope.
In May, each child (VIP) that participated in Buddy Break Respite Care received a special message! “We have pictures of each of our VIPs and their siblings that would come to Buddy Break. We took the pictures and I made little paper dolls out of them,” explains Rev. Taylor. Each buddy recorded a video with their VIP’s paper doll, telling them how much they were missed and loved. Every family received a link to their video.
In June, Rev. Taylor and her team went the extra mile by doing social distancing house calls to distribute Summer Play Packs to children in the ministry. The play packs included coloring books, sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, bubbles, balls, crayons and more! “It was so exciting to see the pictures that the buddies had taken! The smiles on the kids faces…it was nice,” said Rev. Taylor.
Advocacy in the Community
It’s not just in church that Rev. Taylor advocates for the disabled. She’s out in the community as well! She is a part of the Adult Developmental Disability Citizens Advisory Committee (ADDCAC), which meets monthly. This group consists of persons with developmental disabilities, parents and members of the community that provide support services. Collectively, they advocate for programs that serve persons with developmental disabilities. “We talk about things that the community should be doing for this population,” says Rev. Taylor. The group also teaches self-advocacy skills, encouraging those with disabilities to speak up for what they would like to see in their community.
Wisdom for Parents
Rev. Taylor spoke at length about ways to help parents that are struggling with their child’s disability. She explained that she works with parents on “embracing the idea of difference.” Rev. Taylor emphasized that it is important “to embrace them, to love on them, to let them know that we are not looking at the disability, but the ability.” She works on “making sure that everybody else around them accepts the fact that the differences are not what we need to focus on, but how can we embrace the abilities that they do have.”
One question that Rev. Taylor gets asked often is, “How do you know that this child knows Christ?” She shared with me that there was a nonverbal child that was in her Sunday school class. He liked to draw. One day, he drew a picture of the Sunday Morning Service! Rev. Taylor said that the picture was so explicit that “you couldn’t possibly miss his understanding of what church was about. He had all the seats arranged in the sanctuary. He had the stage where the pastor was preaching and the choir behind him. Everybody was in their place doing what they were supposed to do! It was real exciting to see, even in his nonverbal way, expressing what church looked like to him.”
Wisdom for Churches
Rev. Taylor said that she would love to attend a special needs ministry conference that is led and promoted by persons with disabilities. “We tend to teach to them, as opposed to them teaching us,” she says. “I would like to see someone with a disability saying, this is what I like, this is what I love, this is what I’ve learned.”
When asked what advice she would give for churches thinking about starting a special needs ministry, Rev. Taylor says, “It’s not about how big you are. If you have people who have a heart for God, go for it! That’s what it takes!”
Thank you, First Baptist Church of Glenarden, for all that you do for our special needs community!
*Send us a message here if you would like to have your church’s special needs or disability ministry featured!