Nearly 50 years ago, Darlene LaPlue’s mother took her to see a movie about Joni Eareckson Tada. When Eareckson Tada was a teen she broke her neck in a diving accident, leaving her a quadriplegic. Over the course of her life, Eareckson Tada found numerous ways to help others who were disabled, both in the U.S. and in countries where resources were lacking. She even started Joni & Friends, a nonprofit that offers weeklong retreats for individuals with disabilities and their families.
LaPlue was so impacted by Eareckson Tada’s story that helping people with special needs always held a special place in her heart. So years later when an opportunity arose to serve at one of Joni & Friends’ camps, LaPlue jumped at it.
“I saw more suffering, pain, brokenness, dysfunction and disability in one place than I’d ever seen in my life,” she says. “At the same time, I saw the face of God more clearly than I ever had.”
The camp director told LaPlue about a formal, sit-down meal his church hosted yearly. It was a special dinner at which anyone with a disability was the honored guest, and typically 1,000 people attended. Inspired, LaPlue returned home and asked her pastor at Manley Baptist Church in Morristown, Tennessee, if they could put on a similar meal, even though at the time there was not a single person in the congregation with a disability. But the pastor green-lit the idea, and the women’s ministry offered to organize it.
LaPlue was in charge of inviting people in the area with special needs to attend. She first approached Miss Elsie, who ran a local group home for individuals with disabilities. When she asked if Miss Elsie and her residents would come to the dinner, Miss Elsie tearfully explained that 28 years earlier, a man with mental disabilities living in her home attended a service at Manley Baptist and was told that he did not fit in and wasn’t welcome back. It was such a gut punch that Miss Elsie never took any of her residents with special needs to church again.
“I cried and apologized and asked if she would consider coming to the dinner,” says LaPlue.
At that first year’s special dinner, 250 attended, including Miss Elsie, along with several people with disabilities from her home. The pastor got on his knees and said, “Miss Elsie, I understand our church hurt you really badly a long time ago. I want to tell you how sorry I am. Would you forgive us?”
She said yes, and the two embraced.
That was in 2003. Now so many people with disabilities have expressed interest in the special dinners that the church hosts two events a year—the first geared toward children with disabilities and their families, and the second for adults with disabilities and their caregivers. Each dinner averages 500 attendees.
Today the congregation at Manley Baptist Church is full of people with special needs or intellectual challenges, leaving many longtime church members wondering where all these people with disabilities came from.
“They are right here under our noses,” says LaPlue. “They’re just not in the fast lane with us.”
One such person is a little girl named Megan.
“She’s changed the heart and the DNA of our church,” says LaPlue. “People might be out of sorts from hurrying to get to church or aggravated about something, but when they see Megan in her wheelchair, their perspective shifts and they stop grumbling.”
Manley Baptist Church now has a robust special needs ministry called Special Friends, and offers three Sunday school classes for those people with special needs—one for children, one for adults and a third for parents of children with special needs. LaPlue teaches the adult class, which she calls “Joy Unspeakable” because she witnesses so much joy in that room.
“People from the outside looking in might wonder what [attendees] have to be joyful about since they can’t do this or that,” says LaPlue, “but they have learned to trust God more than we do.”