by Mark Stephenson
Director of Disability Concerns of the Christian Reformed Church in North America
When our oldest child, Nicole, was born extremely prematurely, my wife and I didn’t know whether she would live or die. Praise God, she will celebrate her 31st birthday this year, as a woman who lives joyfully with severe multiple disabilities. God used Nicole in my life to lead me into the calling I have today, advocating with people who have disabilities to help churches become more inclusive and welcoming communities. God used Nicole in my wife’s life to lead her into becoming a special education teacher. Although the world may see Nicole’s life as having no value, God sees her as an active participant in his kingdom work. In fact, God sees all of his children that way, whatever our ethnicity, gender, age, or ability. I have been thankful that Nicole has found a community of nurturing, faith, and belonging in her Friendship group in Jenison, Michigan.
From 1997 until 2013, I served on the board of Special Education Ministry of Holland (SEM). SEM began in 1968 when parents of a young man with intellectual disability approached Western Theological Seminary to request that they develop a discipling ministry for their son. A seminary student took up this challenge and joined with several others to begin weekly instruction in the Bible and the Christian faith with several young men and women with intellectual disability. They worked to find enough volunteers so that the ratio of teachers to students would be one to one. After the seminary student graduated, other people took his place, and SEM continues to thrive 50 years later.
SEM’s emphasis on relational ministry caught the attention of members of the Christian Reformed Church Publications Committee around 1980 when they began to look for Bible curriculum for discipling people with intellectual disability. Friendship Ministries was born in 1983 when its first curriculum was published, written by the two leaders of SEM. Friendship Ministries and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) have maintained a very close relationship since that time. Although they are separate ministries, a staff person from the Christian Reformed denominational ministries has served on Friendship’s board of directors from the beginning. In 2014, it was my honor and privilege to be appointed to the Friendship Ministries board, and I have served in this capacity since.
I am currently leading a study on spiritual gifts produced by Friendship from their new TOGETHER series with a group of men with and without intellectual disability. I’ve enjoyed—and God must be delighted by—the light in their eyes as they delve into Scripture and apply it to their lives. One week we encouraged each participant not only to identify one or two of their own gifts, but also to identify others’ gifts. Ed, who can only say a few words, beamed as he pointed to himself and to the picture and words about the gift of helping, and he took equal delight in identifying the gift of teaching in Tito, our pastor. Friendship helped Ed understand that his helpfulness not only is a good thing, but a blessing bestowed on him by God for the blessing of others.
Friendship has been a blessing in my life by providing me and people like my daughter and my friend Ed with good resources to help us grow together in faith. I look forward to continuing this journey for many years to come!