For almost a year, I thought Peter was non-verbal. Unaccustomed to his speech patterns, I didn’t understand that his low-bass mumbles were words. I had started our DeLand Special Gathering program, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community, with two members, Peter and Dale. Our purpose is evangelism and discipleship of this wonderful population.
Dale was less than four feet tall, vibrant, truly nonverbal and thin. His black hair was straight and kept trimmed. Dale’s dark eyes sang with joy. The smile pasted on his face was a sincere expression of a grateful, cheerful man.
Peter was overly thin and stood at least six feet, two inches tall. Solemn, serious, observant and quiet, Peter makes a variety of noises that mimic perfectly the sounds of various vehicles and pieces of equipment. He loves to eat; but he doesn’t like ice cream.
That first year, we met in the YMCA. I carefully and meticulously set up the room each week for 12. Soon Greg joined our trio.
It was after his friend Greg began to attend regularly that Peter joined our Bible study discussion. Each Sunday, during our refreshment times that bled into our final session which was a Bible study, I would engage the three in conversation. Dale had many signs that he used to communicate; but they were his own made-up language. His mother sat discretely at another table and interpreted for me.
One afternoon, I asked the men to share about the Lord with me. “Why are your coming to Special Gathering?” “Is Jesus your best friend?” “Do you love Jesus.”
After the others had responded Peter began to speak loudly and clearly. “When I lived in Georgia, I went to church every Sunday. I loved going to church. Then we moved to Florida; and I couldn’t go to church any more. I prayed and prayed. For nine years I prayed. Every day I prayed that I could go to church again.”
He paused as though the burst of words had taken his breathe away. Then with an intense seriousness that I’d seldom seen from anyone, Peter said, ”Now I have my own church.” His eyes welled up with tears as he took a large gulp of his juice.
I fought the tears as I absorbed Peter’s words. During that first year, I prayed almost every Sunday after the program, asking God, ”Why am I in DeLand?”
This city wasn’t even in our Master Plan for Expansion. The next place we planned to grow was Vero, not DeLand. But a delegation of parents and professionals had met with our executive director and asked that we start a program in DeLand, which is 100 miles from my home and 20 miles from Daytona where we had another program. We had started with two people and after one full year of faithfully teaching and visiting and struggle, our numbers had grown to three. I could not understand why I was making this long trip each Sunday afternoon for three people.
I packed up my equipment, jumped into my vehicle and headed for Daytona. There 40 people would gather for a Sunday evening Special Gathering worship service and Bible study. Feeling more humbled than anytime I could remember, I could not hold back the tears. The familiar highway blurred as I cried. Out loud, I repeated again and again, “Thank you, Lord. Thank you for allowing me to come to DeLand. Thank you for allowing me have a part in your answering Peter’s prayers.”
God does not always show his hand to us. Often, he desires simple obedience in the middle of questions and puzzlement. After more than 15 years, Peter still attends every time we have Special Gathering. And I’m still awed by the fact that God allowed me to participate in the answer to Peter’s nine-year prayer journey.