By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
MORRISTOWN — “The smiles on those faces. That’s why we do it,” said Darlene LaPlue of the Luke 14 Party which drew 1,300 to Manley Baptist Church here.
Many of the event’s guests rode in wheelchairs as they passed by a crowd of greeters cheering them along as they approached the church’s Fellowship Hall. Others walked with assistance from family members and caregivers.
The guests were children and adults with special needs and their families and caregivers.
Twelve years ago about 250 people attended the first annual event.
Soon after LaPlue started the ministry, she realized, “Wow, God, you are doing something really, really amazing here. … The need is so great here in this area.”
Many of the children and adults who come are unchurched, and some have become regular members of Manley Baptist and other churches since attending, LaPlue noted. Manley, of which LaPlue is a member, started Sunday School classes for these special people and a week-long summer camp as a result of meeting them at the Luke 14 Party.
The April 8-9 event — “Welcome to Holland” — included a petting zoo, games and crafts, meal, face painting, and live entertainment. This year participants also got to know the football players of Carson-Newman University, Jefferson City, and be a part of an activity directed by a high school soccer team. One day of the party is for children and the next day is for adults.
LaPlue’s interest in people with special needs developed when as a teenager she spent time with her uncle, a Marine who was paralyzed during the Korean War. He was a quadraplegic for 37 years.
“He couldn’t comb his hair or get a drink of water, but he had more peace about him than anybody that I knew. … He impacted my life so strongly.”
Then she learned about Joni Eareckson Tada, who at 17 years old was paralyzed after diving into shallow water in 1967. In 2002 LaPlue started serving as a volunteer at Joni and Friends camps in several states. “It became the highlight of my year,” she said.
“I learned about disability ministry and fell in love with it and it changed my life.
“The gospel became so much more clear and real to me than ever before. I could see God in new ways.”
LaPlue learned about a Luke 14 banquet for folks with special needs in Charlotte, N.C. In Luke 14:15-24 Jesus told the parable of the man who planned a banquet. But everyone he invited declined to attend. So the man told his slaves to invite “the poor, maimed, blind, and lame.”
LaPlue attended and soon began the ministry based at Manley. She organized a banquet the first few years but it outgrew the fellowship hall and as friendships were formed people wanted to spend more time with their guests. So a carnival was planned and it has continued ever since.
“It’s just grown and grown and grown,” she said. One key to the Luke 14 Party was the initial leadership of the women’s ministry of Manley.
In 2013 she developed a camp for people with special needs which is held at Carson Springs Baptist Conference Center, Newport. Also, this year she and a missions team will deliver wheelchairs refurbished in a prison in Kansas and provided by Joni and Friends to people in Kenya, Africa.
A special needs ministry is an effective outreach tool, noted LaPlue.
Over the years about 20 families with members who have special needs have become a part of Manley. The Sunday School classes, one for children and one for adults, draw a total of about 10 people currently though that varies due to health problems and circumstances. Some participants such as children with autism and with cerebral palsy have been integrated into the regular activities of the church.
“It thrills me to see wheelchairs scattered across the auditorium,” said LaPlue.
Life for the disabled and their caregivers is very difficult, she noted. Some have been asked to leave churches. Many have medical issues. People with special needs require a lot of helpers.
“There are people suffering out there and they’ve got to know we care about them …,” she explained. “We want this to catch fire in our churches.”
What she and many other volunteers have found through this ministry is described in II Timothy 6:18-19, said LaPlue, “a life that is truly life.”