PENNSVILLE, N.J. (BP) – Benjamin Hankin, church planter and lead pastor of LifeHouse Salem County Church in Pennsville, New Jersey, never dreamed his congregation would have a budding disability ministry. It just happened. Rather, God ordained it. They even baptized a young woman affected by disability last month.
What began as helping with a sports league for kids with disabilities developed into wonderful relationships with families and transitioned to a successful vacation Bible school this summer.
It started with baseball. Hankin’s wife, Wendy, who works as a guidance secretary at a high school, heard about a local Little League Challenger Division from a colleague. The league is designed to give children and young adults the opportunity to participate in sports regardless of ability or limitations.
Wendy was intrigued and encouraged Ben and a few others from the church to volunteer.
“At the first game, four of us (from the church) went. It was the most amazing fun,” Wendy said. They were buddies, which meant mostly assisting on the field. Ben said that sometimes being a buddy would entail running alongside a child in an electric wheelchair or holding another player’s hand as he runs. “Some will outrun you!” he said.
The church’s sponsorship of a team helped to pay for registration fees, uniforms, gloves and any other equipment they might need.
At the end of the spring 2023 season, the church also hosted the first annual awards event for the league. Ben said it was amazing to see the players’ faces light up when they got awards and thought of themselves as champions. The families grew to trust the Hankins and LifeHouse members.
Ben said, “We began to ask, ‘What are you doing next, Lord?’”
God’s answer? Vacation Bible school (VBS). That may have seemed strange since the church had no young children, but Wendy said she sensed God saying. “I have given you kids – the Challenger kids.”
“I thought, OK – we can do that,” she said.
From the inception of the idea to the first night was about six weeks. The VBS was designed for children and young adults with disabilities and their siblings — so it was a good mix of neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals.
The North American Mission Board and the Baptist Convention of Maryland-Delaware provided funds to help support the outreach. Another church allowed LifeHouse to use its building. The Banquet Network, an organization that helps churches include people with disabilities, sponsored graphic Bibles for all the attendees.
The LifeHouse team designed their own curriculum – complete with music, activities and decorating ideas – under the theme “Created by God,” based on Ephesians 2:10.
“We wanted to make sure they knew without a shadow of a doubt that God loves them, that He created them,” Wendy said. “You are created for a purpose.”
They staggered the five-day VBS August 14-19 with elementary-aged kids on Monday and Wednesday and youth through young adults on Tuesday and Thursday. On Friday, everyone joined together. Parents and grandparents stayed and watched as the students had their opening celebration, arts, activities and Bible study. Artwork from the week was displayed on the walls. They ended the evening snacks and fellowship.
During the lesson that night, Wendy shared the Gospel using colors — black for sin, red for blood, and white for purity.
“We were created for a place called heaven – yellow. That means we were made to have joy – but what is the problem? Sin, which (the group chanted in unison) is ‘anything we think, say or do that goes against God and His commands.’” She shared the Good News of salvation with them.
Holding up a crumbled leaf, Wendy shared how we must stay close to Jesus, attached to Him, or we, like the leaf, will wither and die. Most were attentive and very responsive.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” worker Kandiss Torres said at the end of the night. “It was amazing to see them all not fear judgment or stares. And I loved hearing them say over and over again, ‘This is the best week ever!’”
The following Sunday, Ben baptized a young woman who had attended the week, and several other VBS attendees were there.
The church is already making tentative plans for a New Year’s event.