The group of leaders and delegates pose for a photo during the start of Inter-America’s first territory-wide Special Needs Ministries Congress, held in Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico, June 26-29, 2019. Dozens of church administrators, pastors and persons with special needs across Inter-America gathered to study and address the needs of persons with disabilities in churches and its surrounding communities. Photo by Libna Stevens/IAD

July 2, 2019 | Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico | Libna Stevens/IAD

Hanel Iván Rosales is 26 years old. He loves to study the Bible and share Jesus with everyone he meets. Rosales has been blind since he was born, but knows every title and hymn number by heart and has memorized most of the Bible. He is very active at the Emiliano Zapata Central Adventist Church in Tabasco, Mexico, where he’s a member. He was among dozens of special needs persons who were celebrated, during  the Inter-American Division’s (IAD) territory-wide Special Needs Ministries Congress held June 26-29, 2019, in Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico.

Rosales has felt the important need the church has to reach others like him, not only the blind, but the deaf, the mute, the physically impaired and others with special needs. He wants the church leadership to see those needs and address them.

Those attending the first-of-its-kind territory-wide congress included nearly 200 division, union and conference administrators and directors, as well as interpreters, caregivers, and special needs individuals from throughout the IAD. The gathering was challenged throughout the four-day congress event to step-up in ministering to those with special needs across churches.

Hanel Iván Rosales of Tabasco, challenges the congress delegation to seek out those with special needs and satisfy their needs first. Photo by Libna Stevens/IAD

It’s about “going to the other side, finding someone else, not waiting for that someone to come to you,” said Rosales, “learn about their needs. Talk to them, and satisfy those needs first.” Once those three steps are done, then, Rosales said: “tell them as Christ said: ‘Follow me’.”

Following Jesus’ evangelism practices

It’s as easy as following Jesus’ evangelism practices, said Rosales as he quoted the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. “The Savior tells us that we must reach those who do not know Jesus, especially those who are suffering and supply their needs as He has supplied us.”

That means, the world church must reach the 15 percent of the world’s population, or 1.1 billion people, who are considered disabled, explained Pastor Larry Evans, Assistant to the Adventist world church president for the Deaf and Special Needs Ministries.

“The world has changed our thinking that a person is valued by what they can do and devalued by what they cannot do,” said Evans, “and that thinking has limited even the kingdom of God.”

Dr. Larry Evans, Adventist Deaf and Special Needs Ministries director for the world church, points out that there needs to be a voice of hope speaking to all kinds of people.  Photo by Libna Stevens/IAD.

“Could the mission of the church be limited by the way we look at each other?” asked Evans.  “We must look at each other differently than the world has taught us.”

There needs to be a voice of hope speaking to all kinds of people, added Evans. “That voice is you and me.”

Becoming more compassionate

The goal is to move forward to becoming a more compassionate church and an all-inclusive church, challenged Evans. “God wants us to be people He can use, because we are all a possibility.

The congress event was intended to build a culture of awareness of inclusion to change attitudes towards persons with disabilities or special needs, give new skills to caregivers and special needs professionals to implement the ministry in every local church, said Pastor Samuel Telemaque, special needs ministries director for the church in Inter-America and main organizer of the event.

Pastor Samuel Telemaque, special needs ministries director, said the was intended to build a culture of awareness of inclusion to change attitudes towards persons with disabilities or special needs. Photo by Libna Stevens/IAD

The first step in moving forward is for “leaders, pastors, and presidents to confess to God that we have not been faithful in ministering to persons with disabilities,” said Telemaque. The event was also about sending a clear message to administrators and leaders to make sure church and school facilities are accessible for persons with physical disabilities throughout.

Seeking and identifying those with special needs must follow.

The congress included presentations and seminars on trends in special needs ministries, the autistic child, methods for teaching persons with disabilities, the deaf culture, what blind persons see, deafness and its causes, mental disabilities in the home, the psychology of persons with special needs, practical ways of assisting blind persons in the community, and more.

Guest speakers included: Dr. Larry Evans and Pastor Jeffrey Jordan of Adventist Deaf and Special Needs Ministries; Tadia Rivero of the Trans-European Division, Pastor Tomas Torres of the IAD, Faye Patterson of the IAD, Dr. Elvetha Telemaque of the IAD, Maria Cristina Rivera from the Puerto Rican Union, Marisol Cordón and Hilda Ortíz of Guatemala, Dr. Sergio Lepe of Mexico, among others.

Kathia Matamoros of Costa Rica prays in sign language to close the Sabbath worship service on June 29, 2019. She ministers to a group of hearing impaired in Costa and is working on translating the Bible for the deaf like herself with the Bible Society in her country. Photo by Libna Stevens/IAD

Some church regions have begun bringing more awareness and soliciting the active involvement of members across churches since the ministry was launched in Inter-America in 2014.

Total inclusion, acceptance, accessibility, and accommodation

Since then, the church in Jamaica has committed itself to ensuring that all people with special needs receive equal treatment and privilege as others, reported Pastor Everett Brown, president of the church in Jamaica.

“For too long we have been negligent, even uninterested with regards to the needs of the physical disabilities in our churches and out in the community,” said Brown. “Those of us who occupy leadership positions in the church have a responsibility to use our positions of influence to bring about those changes that will impact and improve the social, economic and spiritual well-being of persons with special needs.”

Brown explained that each local church was mandated to elect a special needs ministries coordinator to be part of the church board in order to ensure that every church observes the annual special needs awareness Sabbath in March. What’s more, Adventist local conference administrations across the island each signed a memorandum of understanding as a commitment to ensure persons with special needs are ministered to and churches are readily accessible to them, as well activities to provide goods, assisted devices, food, clothing, and more.

Pastor Coniel Morgan who ministers to a group of hearing impaired at the Portmore Adventist Church in Jamaica, enjoys the opening ceremony of the Special Needs Ministries Congress, on June 26, 2019. Photo by Libna Stevens/IAD

The church in Jamaica also established seven sign language clubs and a church for the deaf at the Portmore Seventh-day Adventist Church with a full-time pastor who shepherds 40 believers, 28 of them baptized members.

“Our focus is total inclusion, total acceptance, total accessibility, total accommodation,” said Brown.

“Special needs ministries is a leadership responsibility,” Brown said.

Assisting the hearing impaired

Assisting the deaf and hearing impaired in Mexico, where more than 700,000 persons are disabled, has been a motivating factor for the church in North Mexico.

Alvaro Perez of Sinaloa in North Mexico, reads the Bible during church service on June 29, 2019. Photo by Libna Stevens/IAD

Already, the church, in coordination with Montemorelos University, held a congress for the deaf in 2017, as well as gathered its church pastors, elders and laypersons and persons with disabilities for a summit in 2015 to cater to its members with special needs.

“I feel ashamed to acknowledge that as a church in North Mexico we have not done what we should be doing,” said Arturo King, president of the church in North Mexico. “The greatest need is to teach the church about those with special needs.” King said that he was able to learn so much from inviting interpreters and special needs individuals to be part of the union’s executive meetings held in May.

So far the church in North Mexico has organized a second sign language workshop later this month for more than 50 Adventist interpreters to be held in Villahermosa, Tabasco. In addition, the church in North Mexico has been supporting an annual Adventist national congress for the deaf held every year for the past three years. This year in October, more than 300 hearing impaired, interpreters and church leaders are expected to attend the fourth edition of the event in coordination with the Southeast and Inter-Oceanic Mexican Unions, reported David Maldonado, special needs ministries director for the church in North Mexico.

Rodrigo Martinez, who studies theology at Montemorelos University wants to become a pastor for the hearing impaired and dreams of becoming a missionary. He has been hearing impaired since birth. Photo by Libna Stevens/IAD

Maldonado said that several churches with deaf members in North Mexico have been visited by Rodrigo Martínez, a second year-theology student at Montemorelos University, who is hearing impaired. Martínez, 25, preaches in sign language and dreams of being able to see his country bursting with strong special needs ministries in every church.  “I want to become a missionary pastor in Mexico and then travel the world, minister in Spain, wherever God leads me,” said Rodrigo.

The church in North Mexico also operates the Soledad Acevedo de los Reyes Adventist School with a curriculum which includes sign language classes for students kindergarten through 12th grade taught by teacher and interpreter Monica Vera.

Seeking out in the community

In West Venezuela, the local church membership was instructed on what special needs ministries means and worked on identifying health professionals within each congregation.  The plan followed to seek out those with special needs in the community starting with the community around the church just to 200 meters east, west, north and south,” said Fernando Toala, special needs ministries director for the church in West Venezuela.

As a result, the church started to identify the needs of those persons with disabilities: the blind, the deaf and the physically impaired and their families.

Pastor Fernando Toala (third from left), special needs ministries director for West Venezuela, prays with his delegation during a special session, Jun. 29, 2019.

“We found 1,700 persons with special needs living near Adventist churches and began assisting 476 persons out of that large group now,” said Toala. “The church continues to work hard to assist persons with special needs and share the hope of salvation even in the midst of the economic crisis that has affected our country.”

In addition, training in sign language began to be taught through the Master and Pathfinder Clubs. In addition, the church has completed the Faith of Jesus bible study lessons in sign language.

“Each person with special needs has special abilities and we wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to participate throughout the program,” said Telemaque. “We need to ensure that everyone is included in the life of the church…so as they get back home in their respective regions, similar special needs ministries congresses will take place at different unions and conferences across the territory.”

Telemaque encouraged each union and conference group to design a plan for the church to identify problems, create a mission statement with goals and objectives, establish a plan of action, manage a budget and evaluate the plan.

Part of the delegation from the South Caribbean Conference in Trinidad & Tobago, discuss action plans to cater to persons with special needs in their churches and communities during a group session on June 27, 2019. Photo by Libna Stevens/IAD

“There is a major shift going on in the church,” said Telemaque. “As a church, we must continuing building a culture of awareness and inclusion to change attitudes towards persons with special needs.”

To view a photo gallery of Inter-America’s Special Needs Ministries, Click HERE

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