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3-18-15 Greater New York Conference Holds First Conference-wide Disabilities Ministries Symposium
by Cheryl C. Silvera
Disabilities Awareness Ministries

“Where can I find programs in the church that will serve my child with Down's syndrome?” “How can I learn more about autism as I serve my congregation?” These and similar queries were voiced by the expectant participants at the first Greater New York Conference-wide Disabilities Ministries Symposium on February 7, 2015. The unprecedented awareness and informational gathering attracted an impressive cross section of the diverse New York population. It was a reverent and inspiring Sabbath Service with worshippers ranging from toddlers to seniors who epitomized the amalgam of cultures, races, and people with disabilities of New York. The greater question was “How do we serve persons with disabilities?”

Hosted by Dr. Manuel Rosario, Personal Ministries Director of the Greater New York Conference at the Community Health Services and Media Center in Woodside Queens, New York, the event proved to be an historic occasion. The event was a part of 2015 – 2020 evangelistic thrust of the GNYC Personal Ministries department to “Light NY with the Loud Cry.” The roar heard all that day was that for too long the disabled have been an ignored and underserved population in our churches and within our evangelistic efforts.

Dr. Charlotte L.V. Thoms, Director of the Atlantic Union Conference Disabilities Ministries Department and Coordinator for the North American Division Disabilities Ministries introduced the subject with practical ways to implement the ministry within our local congregations. Dr. Thoms conducted sessions that raised awareness, motivated and equipped the attendees with global standards of best practices in our religious community.

The event kicked-off with a powerful message from Pastor Rosario on the importance of genuine love, a call for ‘Amor,’ with Spanish translation provided by Erica Sánchez for the entire proceedings. This was followed by a mission emphasis by Cheryl C. Silvera, the event organizer, entitled “The Marginalized, the Missing, and our Message.” The mission story outlined a rural to urban, country-to-country, journey from sexual abuse and mental illness to a ministry to persons living with disabilities. The event, conceptualized by Ms. Silvera, is the result of ten years of active ministry in the urban mission field that gave birth to the Disabilities Awareness Ministries, a ministry that launched in three sister churches before approaching the Greater New York Conference to expand its outreach. The rest, as the saying goes, is history—the history of this pioneering day orchestrated by the Lord.

The demographics of the attendees echoed a typical church service of Adventists, non-Adventists, and guests from the Northeastern Conference. What was atypical was that all had an interest in serving this population better. The seven major categories of disabilities were explained by Dr. Thoms, engaging the audience with a pop quiz on ‘Celebrities with Disabilities’ that challenged the participants to recognize the categories of disabilities and understand that people with disabilities are 20 percent of every population. As explained by Dr. Thoms, the church cannot cover every disability but has made strives in learning about people with cognitive, hearing, hidden, mobility, psychiatric, speech and visual disabilities. She gave details of each disability group by emphasizing how members can in an individualized approach to ministering meet the needs of the worshipper with a disability. She further explained the Jesus method of seeing all worshippers as potential disciples and soul-winners within their capabilities and not their disabilities.

With the theme song, Let the Lower Lights be Burning, the participants were intermittently asked to pray as they sought God’s guidance. The song reverberated four times over the six-hour period and none were tired of repeating the words as it served as the rallying cry of the day — to seek some poor sailor tempest tossed, trying now to make the harbor—that strummed at the heart strings and elicited a round of testimonies. The long awaited day was now upon the expectant congregation, finally, a ministry whose time had come…to Greater New York.

The lively upbeat presentation of Dr. Thoms kept a light tone to a presentation, that otherwise, by the solemnity and intensity of the eager crowd, could have been overwhelming. The clear, articulate, and cheerful style covered deeply instructional materials with passion and inspiration. It was a day of sharing personal stories and Dr. Thoms did not disappoint. She, too, shared her story recounting how she came to ministry and her journey from the Deaf Ministry to Disabilities Ministries. One young lady prompted by the Holy Spirit shared her testimony, and the entire group of worshipers stood in unison as Pastor Rosario asked the Lord to intervene on her behalf.

The afternoon ended with presentations from the Disabilities Awareness Ministries team focusing on four projects that would further equip interested churches, along with the Disabilities Ministries Quick Start Guide from AdventSource, to immediate action. There were four projects discussed to encourage:
  1. The Quilt project finds its inspiration from the AIDS memorial quilt. It is a collaborative project that is immediately impactful and is intended for display alongside others of participating churches to reflect the passion of the Seventh-day Adventist church to the cause of people with disabilities.
  2. Project Two focused on the best use of the Sabbath School resources for persons with disabilities emphasizing Christian Record Services, the Sabbath School app that uses technology in ministry by way of mobile devices such as iPhones, iPads, and Androids.
  3. Project Three introduced the ministry with people with disabilities who are homeless. With over 22-25 percent of the homeless population living with a mental illness, the focus is to assist in alleviating the anxiety of re-assimilation by making friends. This ministry makes visitations to residences with care packages, shares information on depression, and provides spiritual resources such as printed literature from the ABC and Bible verses on depression. 
  4. Project Four targeted a telephone support group. The launch of an innovative community-based telephone support group for persons with disabilities, their families, and friends was emphasized for its effectiveness in reaching individuals ‘hidden’ within their homes and who might have otherwise been deemed inaccessible. This is a 45-minute session of advocacy, awareness, and prayer hosted by local congregations that make friends of their neighbors by meeting them in a non-threaten manner – through mail or hand-delivered invitations to share via telephone. Persons who initially choose to be anonymous would be welcomed and succored until they feel safe to worship in a physical structure with their new friends.
The group would teach the specifics of a selected disability and provide suggested resources for immediate help.  The ministry outfitted each participant with an annual awareness ministry calendar complete with the information necessary to conduct a Suicide Awareness and Prevention presentation the following month. Testimonies of current implementation underscored the practicality of these programs. As an assurance of the commitment to continue training and to widen the awareness platform, a Disabilities Expo for June 7, 2015 was announced. The day left the participants with information, resources, and a charge from Dr. Rosario to Let the Lower Lights be Burning! And To Send a Gleam across the Wave!

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