By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
LEBANON — David and Mary Demps fell in love with special needs folks about 34 years ago as young Christians.
Looking back, they see God’s direction to the ministry though they don’t have any family members who have developmental challenges.
The Dempses have recently retired from serving for 20 years as houseparents of the Stoneway Acres White House in Lebanon which is home to eight men with special needs. Stoneway Acres White House is a ministry of Tennessee Baptist Adult Homes.
Even that transition, though difficult, has been directed by God, the Dempses explained. They will return regularly to visit the male residents who they consider their sons. David Demps noted that now they are trying to transition from being parents to grandparents to their “sons.”
They also will return to visit family members. Their daughter, Katie, and her husband took their place as houseparents of the White House. (See story, “Reluctant Resident Named Houseparent.”)
The start of ministry
In the mid-80s while the Dempses attended Gates Baptist Church, Gates, the church added a special needs class to its annual Vacation Bible School and then a Sunday School class. Mary and eventually David agreed to help. Though Gates is a rural community, they knew several special needs adults who would benefit because the churches in the area had never provided for these folks, they reported. Amazingly over the years the Sunday School class grew to include about 20 participants though Gates Baptist drew less than 100 to Sunday morning activities.
Soon God directed David from the shallow end of the pool to a deeper end, some might say. David drove a bus so a group from Gates Baptist could attend Special Friends Camp at Linden Valley Baptist Conference Center, Linden. Mary couldn’t attend that year.
He will never forget two campers who came from Gates Baptist that year. One was a woman who had many issues keeping her from verbalizing and understanding many things. Another camper was a young man who was almost blind. At camp, the woman took the man by the hand and guided him around camp, described David. Nobody prompted her. “It blew me away,” said David.
That week he realized Special Friends Camp was a “sacred, holy” experience, he described. David has attended the camp every year since — 33 years — and Mary has only missed a few years because of job responsibilities.
Back home God metaphorically led them into the deeper water of a pool as Mary worked at a state-run day center for people with special needs and occasionally at a state-run group home for women. David, after talking with his pastor, Roy Stinson, went to Union University, Jackson, where administrators didn’t know where to place him after he described his calling to a ministry for people with developmental challenges. He earned a joint degree in social work and religion.
The Dempses also saw God work in the special ministries class at Gates Baptist as youth and adults with special needs were given opportunities that improved their lives dramatically. David and Mary noted that in the early years of their ministry many of their students had not been in school or church.
Then the couple studied “Experiencing God,” the popular discipleship study, though they were “warned” by several people that they should be prepared to change. A few months later they were asked to consider being houseparents of a new Tennessee Baptist Adult Homes group home.
David, enthused, called Mary. Mary had said she would never work in a group home for adults with special needs after working in the two state-run entities. Yet she said yes in just a day’s time. Her only concern was for Katie, their daughter, who was 15 years old. Though the transition “wasn’t pretty at all,” everything worked out soon, recalled Mary.
Forming a new family in the White House
The best way to explain the situation at the White House is that “eight families decided to trust us to continue what they started” in raising their sons, observed David.
The Dempses and the eight men who live in the White House really form a family, said the couple. Of course, over the 20 years, men have come and gone and several have died.
Seven of the eight current residents work outside the home but don’t drive so David provides a lot of transportation. The family also goes on outings such as to a restaurant and even go on vacation together.
“We’re just one happy family most of the time,” added Mary. “We treat the men here like we would everybody else … as normal as possible.” David added, “They’re real human beings, with real feelings, and a real relationship with God.” Of the eight living here now, four have lost their fathers, which is traumatic for them, said David.
No matter the diagnosed situation of a resident, which includes Down’s Syndrome and learning disabilities, David said they are strong Christians who believe in prayer.
“I think they’re more sensitive and in tune to the Holy Spirit than we are at times,” added David, noting they also have less inhibitions to express themselves.
Mary agreed, noting that she often wants them to pray for her more than others. She added that she wishes more people would get to know people with special needs. They would find the most accepting and loving people they could ever identify, she observed.
The White House family attends Immanuel Baptist Church, Lebanon, where for the past 18 years, the Dempses also directed its special needs class. They were recognized by the church recently on their retirement from that ministry. They will retire in Hendersonville.
As the years have gone by, the couple has realized that God made a demanding job easier through their calling to it, they explained.
They have been blessed to be a part of Tennessee Baptist Adult Homes, both agreed. If TBAH didn’t provide these homes, these men probably would live in government-run group homes, noted Mary.
Tennessee Baptists should be proud of the ministry of the TBAH and support it, they agreed.
Working for the TBAH has been “one of the greatest privileges and honors of our lives,” said David.