When Shaila Davis, 33, rides her wheelchair into her class at Prairie Flower Baptist Church in rural Washington, Iowa, she rolls into a place of safety and engulfing love. She listens as mentors and friends sing, “Friends all gather here in a circle. It has no beginning and it has no end. Face-to-face, we all have a place in God’s own circle of friends.” The others ask a mentor, “Hey there, Jean! How do you do? Who’s that friend sitting close to you?” Jean sings Shaila’s name: “Thank the Lord, for Shaila has a place in the circle too!” Others join in, singing, “Take a look around, find someone near. Take him by the hand, say, ‘Glad you’re here!’ We’re together and when we’ve gone, God’s love like a circle rolls on and on and on.” All accompanied by hugs and handshakes.
“So goes the opening of each Friendship Bible Study meeting,” says Mike York, photographer and member of Prairie Flower Baptist. The church recently completed its 10th year of ministering to adults with special needs through Friendship Bible Study, which offers learners from surrounding communities an opportunity to experience the joy of knowing they are loved by God and God’s people. Each week students enjoy group singing, with “Friendship Circle of Friends” (above) and “This Is the Day” being their current favorites. The meeting continues with Bible lessons, a mentor-fellowship time, and, of course, refreshments.
The mentors share in the teaching responsibilities, and have found that the students delight in puppetry and playacting. “What a joy to see their faces light up as they learn of and understand God’s love for them!” says Mike.
Shaila Davis—who has severe cerebral palsy, is nonverbal, nonambulatory, and depends on a wheelchair for mobility—attended a Joni and Friends Family Retreat in Indiana with her parents, Duane and Susan. There they learned of Friendship Ministries. Over the next few months, they gathered information, including trips by Susan and her friend Julie Tinnes to visit two Friendship Bible Studies. The enthusiastic singing at one study, and the eager participation in the worksheet/handwork time at the other study, stood out to Susan.
The next year, Prairie Flower hosted its first Friendship Bible Study, with seven friends and nine mentors in attendance. Susan says, “I was at the first meeting on Sept. 7, 2003, which was also my 54th birthday. A great gift it was, because I had desired for years a continuation of our daughter’s Christian education. I found that first simple meeting exciting. It was evidence of God’s blessing, which has continued.”
Today, Friendship Bible Study at Prairie Flower has 15–20 friends who regularly attend, along with family members and caregivers. Eleven mentors currently assist, as well as a pianist and a refreshment server. Other members of Prairie Flower Baptist participate by providing the refreshments, which are a favorite with the students.
Over the years, adjustments have been made to the meeting schedule in consideration of extreme Iowa weather. The group meets the first three Sunday evenings of each fall month (September, October, November) and each spring (March, April, May).
Special activities such as picnics, hayrides, and winter parties are held during the “off” months. Duane Davis has been the driver the past eight years. Susan says, “The church replaced the old van about a year ago. Usually Duane has 6–10 individuals on board. These friends live independently or come from group homes. Others are transported by group home staff, because they need more supervision/assistance. Shaila lives in a group home. I always pick up Shaila and one of her roommates in our personal wheelchair van.”
“Our friends particularly enjoy the song time at each meeting, led by Rita Luers,” says Susan. The students look forward to occasionally providing special music for the church congregation. Mike says, “What a blessing to hear them sing praises to the Lord!”
He says, “Friendship Bible Study is a ministry that reaches far beyond our friends with special needs. The teaching and love of God are extended to family, friends, and caregivers as they accompany friends to meetings. What a wonderful opportunity we have to share the gospel! And what a blessing to be part of such pure, heartfelt worship!”
Michael York, Susan Davis, and Julie Tinnes contributed to this report.