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A safe place | Chapels provide ministry to people with disabilities

A simple phone call can change the direction of a life and ministry. That’s what happened to the Rev. Larry and Carolyn Campbell in the early 1970s.

As child evangelists, the couple traveled the Midwest and held kids’ crusades, introducing children to Christ. One day, the couple received a phone call informing them that Larry’s sister had multiple sclerosis (MS). Despite aggressive treatment with medical technology available at the time, the disease quickly progressed and within a year left her nearly paralyzed.

Carolyn became her first caregiver.

A decade later, in 1982, a camp was started in Wisconsin for people with disabilities, and the Campbells were invited to visit the camp and conduct ministry.

Organizers told the couple, “You’re used to ministering to children; you’ll fit right in.”

Larry said the organizers “didn’t know any different, and neither did we.” Ministry to people with disabilities was still in its infancy, and resources were scarce.

“We went that first year and spoke for that week and realized we went right over their heads,” Larry said. “We were talking fast … singing kid’s songs.”

Yet they were committed to learning more and finding the best ways to minister to them.

“For the next year then until we got ready for camp the next summer, we prayed, ‘Lord, we don’t know what to do. How do we minister?’” Larry said.

The couple prayed the same thing year after year, asking God to give them some insight or direction in order to make their ministry more effective.

Finally, God answered their prayer.

“When you talk to a person with intellectual disabilities and you ask them a question, how long does it take for them to process the information, and then when they speak what kind [of words] do they use?” Larry believed God asked him. “Do they use two- or three-word sentences? Listen to the structure of their sentence and what speed they talk at. If you prepare your ministry at that level, you’ll be able to reach them.”
New direction
With new insight and passion for ministry to those with disabilities, the Campbells moved to the Twin Cities specifically to meet the needs. They became full-time missionaries to people with disabilities in 2005.

Of the nearly 60 million people in the U.S. with disabilities, the Campbells believe 45 million of them never get to go to church.

Using their contacts from their camp ministry days, the Campbells began to reach out to families in the Twin Cities who had a family member with disabilities. At one home, the mother was making tea while Larry and Carolyn talked with her adult daughter with disabilities.

The mother was so astounded the Campbells were holding a conversation with her daughter that she told them: “I want you to come back again. I’ve got some more parents with adult children at home, and I want you to meet [them].”

As they met more families with a member who had disabilities, they kept hearing similar stories.

“We were finding that these families had been asked to leave their church because of the person with the disability,” Larry said. “Because they express themselves with grunts or groans or screams that are inappropriate. Or they didn’t look or smell right.”

Carolyn said if they didn’t specifically hear requests for them to leave the church, they were made to feel unwelcome.

“They heard comments like, ‘Why do they let those kinds of people attend church?’” Carolyn said. “They hear that, and it’s a dagger in their heart and their soul.”

Since many of them were wounded by their church experiences and had no desire to attend again, Larry and Carolyn came up with an alternative.
They began the Friend 2 Friend Chapel at the New Brighton Community Center in New Brighton. The site is neutral for those who don’t want to step inside a church again. Services are held the third Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m., and there are opportunities for people of all ages with disabilities and also their families.

“Our goal … is that people with disabilities will be every part of the service from beginning to end,” Larry said.

That includes preaching, singing and reading Scripture.

“As you watch them sing, you are either singing to them or with them,” Carolyn said. “Our goal is not to entertain; it is to include. When people feel they are singing with you, they come out of this shell and they want to stand up front and sing with you. We have people who want to read Scripture, but they can’t read. We don’t have the microphone on us; we have the microphone on them, and we assist them in reading one word at a time to read the Word and that is so empowering for them. It is for anyone.”

Larry and Carolyn see their role as facilitating, stepping in where needed.

The chapel is an important way for people with disabilities to discover their gifts and use them in a ministry setting.

“They gain confidence, respect, you get to know who they are, what they are like,” Carolyn said. “It breaks down barriers. I think that’s the blessing of God on it.”

In January, the Campbells began a Friend 2 Friend Chapel at Summit Church in St. Paul, a church that has had a ministry to those with disabilities for decades. The services are held every Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m.

The chapel also provides opportunities for parents.

“It is a place for parents to find a body of believers that when they can go to church, there is a place for them,” Carolyn said. “That’s essential for us and our ministry, to minister to the parents as well.”

Larry believes people with disabilities have many untapped gifts and that society has yet to fully understand them.

“We really believe from the bottom of our hearts that they are not mistakes; that God made them on purpose,” Larry said. “And that society has never taken time to understand God’s purposes, God’s reasons for how God could possibly use [them] to minister to us.”

In the end, the Campbells say the chapels are about Jesus.

“In our chapels, we present Jesus and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, because they can have that,” Carolyn said. “The Bible makes that very clear that that’s what God wants for all of us.”

ACTIONPOINT: For more information about the Friend 2 Friend Chapels, visit www.larryandcarolyn.com.

— by Scott Noble