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Photos by Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Friendship Class participants, from left, Matt Colley, Brooke Rodgers, Audra Richart and helper Jeanette Carey dance to Christian music before the start of class on Sunday.

Friendship, patience in Bible class

Blackhawk Ministries’ program helps those with special needs

Friendship Class student Tammy Richey hugs volunteer Doak McBride during Sunday school class.
Brooke Rodgers holds hands with Audra Richart as Jan Cox talks about a Bible story to the group.
Friendship Class helper Ron Rang, left, and student Scott Pommer dance to music before class.
Photos by Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Jan Cox, Sunday school teacher for the Friendship Class at Blackhawk Ministries, walks around the room while Tammy Richey enjoys the music.

Tammy Richie wanted to be baptized, but there was a problem: She didn’t understand its meaning – that being baptized meant trusting Christ for salvation.

It took about six weeks of explanation and repetition before “a light bulb went on,” says Jan Cox. Richie, of Fort Wayne, was finally baptized.

More than a decade ago, Cox helped start Blackhawk Ministries’ special needs ministry, which serves people with a variety of disabilities including blindness, deafness, Down syndrome and schizophrenia.

The Friendship Class is part of the ministry that serves as the group’s Sunday school class. Students range in age from their 20s to their 70s. About 15 show up each Sunday.

It can be challenging at times to teach the Bible and religion – including concepts that can confound Biblical scholars and philosophers – to people with special needs.

The solution: Repetition, as with Richie when she wanted to be baptized.

“It’s a good thing for people who aren’t going to retain (the information) as quickly or as easily,” Cox says. “Some basic truths are just basic truths. Some can sense love.”

Cox is an occupational therapist, so she is accustomed to dealing with people who have physical disabilities. That background helped spawn the ministry, along with a radio station wheelchair collection drive, sponsored by Joni and Friends International Disability Center.

Shortly after that, Cox went on a mission trip to Chile. When she returned, she thought, “You don’t have to go so far to be helpful,” she recalls.

The class started with three girls, all of whom still attend, including Brooke Rodgers. Rodgers is one of the highest-functioning in the class, says her mother, Sarah Rodgers, of New Haven.

Brooke will often help Cox and the other helpers with students, comforting one student when she gets anxious, putting her arms around her. She also helps some of the students read, Sarah says.

Brooke has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and microcephaly, caused from damage during pregnancy and resulting in a small, narrow head because the brain stops growing.

Brooke benefits from Cox’s teaching method, and each class follows a similar format. It starts with puppets, a song and a prayer: “Thank you, Father, for making me, me.”

“It’s something a lot of, quote, normal people can’t say,” Cox says.

The lessons are heavily repeated, Cox says, and are often accompanied with a short video clip. She likes to have the students act lessons out – such as dressing up as Mary, Joseph and the angels for the Christmas lesson – and they often color.

Any topic that’s not concrete can be difficult, Cox says. Consider Psalm 23, which starts, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” The process of figuring out how to make things visual can be interesting.

Cox quotes, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” and she supposes that maybe this is conveyed by a bear coming out of the shadows.

Because of some students’ needs, the class works on its own schedule. Its official time is 9 to 10:30 a.m., but Cox drives a number of students in the mornings. One is blind; one is deaf; another uses a wheelchair.

“So we don’t move anywhere really fast,” Cox says, grinning.

Blackhawk is a non-denominational church that follows a Baptist theology. Baptism requires a basic understanding of the process; the church won’t baptize a person until she understands the meaning behind the baptism, Cox says.

To attend the special needs ministry, one doesn’t have to be baptized; to be a member of the church, however, one does. Like Richie.

Since her baptism, Cox says, Richie’s attitude has changed. She gets along better with her roommates and controls her temper better. Now when things bother her, she’s more likely to retreat to her room and listen to Christian music.

The ministry also does its share of charity work. Students will rake leaves for people who are unable to do it themselves and make Veterans Day cards for vets at Blackhawk.

In addition to Sunday school classes, ministry participants take field trips, including to an Expo for Special Persons in Rensselaer.

The ministry doesn’t help just the special needs students; Cox says she has noticed that church members are becoming more comfortable around the students.

“They (students) like to help the people that can’t do as much,” she says. “It makes them feel like they have something to contribute. The first time one of them came over and comforted me, it was precious.”

Cox tears up at the memory, and pauses. She remembers a student hugging her and offering a shoulder when one of Cox’s parents died.

“It’s humbling,” she says, “and sometimes, that’s a good thing.”