Special needs individuals experience prom at ‘Night to Shine’ at Union Avenue Baptist
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
MEMPHIS — Arriving in horse-drawn carriages, limousines and antique cars, more than 100 individuals with special needs gathered at Union Avenue Baptist Church to participate in “Night to Shine” last month.
Dressed in flowing gowns and striking tuxedos, attendees were given the full “Senior Prom” experience on the grandest scale. Each guest was greeted by applause, adoring eyes and even some “paparazzi” snapping pictures as they strolled onto the red carpet.
Balloons and strobe lights awaited them inside. Some of the guests were in wheelchairs that were decorated for the occasion.
The looks on their faces said it all. This was, indeed, their night to shine.
“To them, it was like walking into the castle at Disneyland,” said Jeff Williamson, senior pastor at Union Avenue Baptist. “And you can’t help but get choked up when you see them.”
The Tim Tebow Foundation designed and developed “Night to Shine” — a worldwide event that started in 2015. Tebow is a former NFL quarterback who was a star at the University of Florida and now plays minor league baseball in the New York Mets organization.
Tebow made a surprise appearance at Union Avenue Baptist for last month’s event. He arrived, unannounced, earlier in the day at a luncheon that was provided for some of the attendees and then mingled with the guests during the evening.
“It was great,” said Williamson. “I think he attends about seven or eight (Night to Shine events) each year, and this year, we were one of the places he visited.”
The Night to Shine events were held at more than 700 churches around the world this year, with approximately 115,000 honored guests. The Tim Tebow Foundation’s website describes Night to Shine as a “prom night experience, centered on God’s love, for people with special needs ages 14 and older.”
Union Avenue Baptist welcomed 114 attendees with special needs, along with 169 parents/caregivers and 287 volunteers at this year’s Night to Shine. It was the third time that Union Avenue has hosted the event.
Union Avenue was one of three Tennessee Baptist churches — along with Stuart Heights Baptist and Black Oak Heights Baptist — to hold Night to Shine on its campus this year.
Williamson noted that many, perhaps even most, of the attendees are well beyond their teens.
“This gives the guests a chance to live out the prom days that they probably missed out on during their high school years,” said Williamson.
At the end of the evening, all of the attendees, along with their parents and/or caregivers, gathered in the church’s sanctuary, where Williamson gave a gospel presentation prior to the crowning of the king and queen.
Union Avenue partnered with Highland Church of Christ to host the event, and also works hand in hand with the city of Memphis. Local police help direct traffic near the church, even shutting down one side of the road for the carriages and other vehicles to make their entrance.
“It is a true community event,” Williamson said.
In the process of hosting Night to Shine, something special has happened at Union Avenue, Williamson said.
“It has breathed new life into our church,” he said. “It has reminded us, as a church body, that we — even as an 118-year-old church — can still make an impact, and that we still have ministry to do.”
The church is now putting a major emphasis on reaching special needs individuals, not just for Night to Shine, but as a whole.
“I went back and looked at old church documents, and to my knowledge, we’ve never had a special needs ministry,” Williamson said. “So, I took this (idea) to the church, and said that we needed to go after it with complete vigor and excitement. And the church has caught the vision. It has truly been amazing to see what God is doing at our church.”
The church is in the finishing stages of building a playground that went well beyond the standard ADA compliancy. The playground, which is scheduled to open on Easter, includes ramps and other amenities that are geared toward those with special needs, Williamson said. The playground will be open to the community.
“In order to be the church that God has called us to be, we realized that we had to find some connection points,” said Williamson. “We needed to look outward.”
Williamson said his church plans to continue to host Night to Shine “for the foreseeable future.” He also noted that Union Avenue is now helping another church in Memphis lay the groundwork for hosting the event next year, too.
Williamson said he has seen that many of the Night to Shine volunteers can hardly wait to be involved again the following year.
“Once you’ve been here — and seen what it does for the guests — you can’t wait to replicate that,” he said. “It’s an amazing night.”