BOWIE, Md. (BP) -- The Nicaraguan woman was surprised to see the visitors -- Americans, who were kind, bringing soft words, praying for her and her family. They also gave her a Bible, and visited her bedridden son. She watched with a smile as the boy looked up at the visitors, and they gave him a blow-up soccer ball.
It was a transforming moment.
The Americans included a mission team from Cresthill Baptist Church in Bowie, Md. Team member Gene Meacham recalled, "His smile was so big, and he started playing with the ball. His mom, she turned to us and said, 'I need Jesus in my heart.' She committed her life to Jesus right there. A lot of people turned to Jesus that week."
Meacham was part of the five-person church team to Nicaragua in March. The trip specifically focused on ministry to those with special needs and their families. Other team members were Greg Turner, Brenda Marston, Baron Nagel and Tommy Rowe.
Marston shares, "There was a boy named Gerson. I don't know what his specific ailment was, but the lower half of his body didn't develop properly. He is in a wheelchair. Gerson and his mother were so thankful and open about meeting us and getting their needs met. I don't speak a lot of Spanish, and she didn't speak English, but we communicated through love for each another."
Rowe, church planting pastor of Cresthill Church, is starting a special needs church, The Gathering Place, in the fall. He joined the mission team last year.
Three years ago, a Cresthill team and others began ministering at a school with a special needs area. Responding to needs, they began an "adoption"–type program with donors giving a one-time $35 that covered food, medical care, and special needs evaluations. The school specifically requested training for parents. During a 2017 trip to Nicaragua, Rowe and Chris Smith, director of missions for the Florence Baptist Association in South Carolina, began leading training for the parents, as well as teaching pastors how to begin a special needs ministry.
Rowe shares, "A local news station got word about a team from the states doing special needs ministry at the school and did a video story about what was happening. That got the attention of government officials and within a year of that, when we came back, that school had gotten a makeover, money, and they gave the school a big bus, all because a small group of Baptists went in and did a little bit of teaching and offered a little help. It was a catalytic movement."
During the March trip, Rowe and his team, joined with Smith, and a West Virginia church team of more than a dozen people for a special needs mission trip. Rowe and Smith helped families who met at the churches to receive training. Other team members went to the homes, praying, sharing Christ, bringing food and toys.
One of the results of the trips, with special needs emphasis, was that the stigma was beginning to lessen. Rowe noted that in Nicaragua, like in many other countries, people with special needs were shunned, believed to be cursed, and families were secluding them.
"Some children had never seen the light of day," says Jimmy Painter, senior pastor of Cresthill Church, who has been involved in the ministry since it first began.
Rowe said that due to the teams' teaching, and sharing Jesus, God is bringing change. Churches now want to engage the families, and the families appear to be responding.
While many might say God has worked miracles there, ministry appears to be getting more difficult due to recent changes in the country's political climate. Presently, mission trips have been on hold due to civil unrest.
Painter asks that churches pray for Nicaragua, for healing in the land, and for the door for missions to once again be opened.
Meanwhile, Rowe has been steadily planting seeds throughout Bowie, in anticipation of The Gathering Place launch this fall at Cresthill Baptist Church. Focused on reaching families with special needs, interest has been building.
In preparation for the launch, The Gathering Place hosted an inclusive worship arts camp for teens and young adults with the theme, "Wonderful Maker," based on Psalm 139 in June. More than 30 people participated.
Bethel Baptist Church, Yorktown, Va., and Gunpowder Baptist Church, Freeland, sent teams to help. Each evening they had a time of worship, a drum circle, Bible lessons and an arts rotation. The evening ended with testimonies.
Parents were encouraged to attend parent support classes.
"That was a highlight of the week," Rowe said. "It was meant to be for 45 minutes for a few nights, and they met the whole time, and they want to keep meeting."
There were many siblings who attended, so another class was formed for the brothers and sisters.
Rowe said some of the volunteers were parents of children with special needs, and they were able to lead classes to help others because they were "living it."