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Mary Kendall Akers – Live Deeply

I’m CSPC Director of Special Needs Ministry Mary Kendall Akers, and this is how I’ve been living deeply.

The day Andrew Keasling emailed me, I’d been feeling a tug for a couple months. I’d been a stay-at- home mom for four years. But the eight years before that (ever since I graduated from college), I’d served as director of Young Life Capernaum here in Knoxville. Capernaum is Young Life’s ministry directed specifically toward people with special needs. It was a great fit for me because I’ve been around people with special needs my whole life. My sister Molly, who has Down Syndrome, is 19 months younger than me- I don’t remember life without her. My family did a great job of getting her out in the world even back then, when there wasn’t a ton of inclusion happening in our culture. My own desire to serve probably started through watching my sister’s Young Life leader, Suzanne Williams. She really pursued her. It wasn’t like, ‘Come along with us, Molly.’ It was, “Come hang out with me. I want to spend time with YOU.’ I got to watch her teach Molly how to have a relationship with Jesus. I knew my sister, and I knew her capabilities, but I had never really thought about her having a personal relationship with God. It would look different than mine, but it would also not look that different. So I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘I have to do this. I have to be a part of this.’ I was just so attracted to what Suzanne had to offer, and not just to Molly. Our whole family was deeply impacted by our relationship with her. Being on Young Life Capernaum staff for eight years right out of college felt like what I was born to do. But then I left and was home for four years, where I felt very isolated. I’d always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom; thought it was my dream job. I now have a six-year-old and twin four-year-olds, and I love them all as much as any mother could. Yet as soon as my twins were born, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be- staying at home with three really little kids born within two years of each other.’ I started to sense the Lord moving in my spirit.

The fact that I was suddenly thinking about not being a stay-at-home mom was huge for me. I never thought I would desire anything else. But I feel like He had been moving and shaping me in the months leading up to the CSPC opportunity. One morning last September, I met with the woman who has my old job now. I joked with her, ‘Should you hire me back, part-time?’ We laughed, and she was like, ‘Don’t joke with me. I need help.’ Then I met with my counselor that same day and told her, ‘I don’t think I was joking. I think I was serious. I can’t go back- they don’t need to hire me. But I have this very specific experience in disability ministry, and I don’t know where I would use my area of expertise anywhere else.’ Two hours after that conversation, I get this email from Andrew Keasling: ‘We’ve been looking for someone for this new special needs ministry position (at CSPC) for a few months now, and your name got mentioned. You may not be interested, but if you are, shoot me an email back.’ I was sitting at my friend’s kitchen counter, and I’m not a crier, but I started weeping. I just felt this sense of, ‘Lord, you see me. You see me in my restlessness as a stay-at-home mom. You see me in my desire to be a part of something bigger.’ I’ve never so immediately felt such answer to prayer. I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t know if this is the job or if this is just part of the stirring toward something else, but I clearly need to pay attention to this.’ I emailed Andrew back and told him I was interested. We started the conversation, and at the same time my husband and I started talking: ‘This would be a big life shift; big change for our girls. What would this look like for our family?’ Every meeting or interview I had, I told the Lord, ‘I’m just going to go until you say stop, until you say no.’ But every door kept opening. He even answered questions about crucial components like childcare. Finally, in November, I accepted the position, and I started in January.

We were at a different church- we didn’t attend CSPC and were happy where we were. But one thing that drew us here (aside from my parents being part of the CSPC family!) was the fact that there’s not a huge number of people with special needs at the church yet. The leadership wanted to create the demand and be ahead of this, knowing that without people with special needs, CSPC is missing out. That was so appealing to me. We need to increase the amount of special needs families who feel welcomed, to make sure we remove the barriers for them to participate in church. I have a huge heartbeat for adults with special needs, and that’s where I’m directing my primary focus at CSPC. When we graduated typical Young Life kids, we’d often graduate them to college to become Young Life leaders, and then some would eventually go on Young Life staff. But with our Capernaum students, it felt like we were saying, ‘Okay, you’ve spent four to eight years with us, and we hope you find something great after us.’ But there was no one there to receive these people who had come to faith, come to love Jesus, and wanted to give their lives away. I was always praying that there would be some church that would kind of grab them by the hand and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to draw you in. We’re going to show you what it looks like to live in the body of Christ. We need you. We want you. Here’s how we’re going to allow you to use your gifts and your faith to grow the kingdom of God.’ I also think you see a lot of aging parents asking, ‘Who’s going to love my child when I’m gone?’ The Church should be who you look to for that. So that’s been my greatest prayer and pursuit:  loving the adults with special needs community. Part of that is a new fellowship group we’re calling The Lighthouse. It’s going to look very similar to a Young Life club- fun, games, and music, but with more of a discipleship focus. The hope is that we’ll gather in small groups to have discussions and then also eventually start serving together- finding ways our friends can share their faith, gifts, and experiences. We’re going to try to start meeting once a month in August.

Another important part of the CSPC Special Needs Ministry is our Siloam class. That’s our Sunday school class for adults with special needs and it meets on Sunday mornings at 9:30. Siloam comes from Mark 9 when Jesus healed the man who was born blind. His disciples came to Him and said, ‘Who sinned, his parents or him? Why is he blind?’ And Jesus says, ‘Neither, but for the glory of God.’ And He sends them to the pool of Siloam, which means ‘the sent one’ or ‘the one who is sent.’ That sums up this group’s identity: the ones who have been sent by God to display his glory. In a world that so often says, ‘You have nothing to offer us,’ we get to say, ‘You have so much to offer! And we’re missing it without you.’ It’s a small class right now- I’m praying for more people to come. There are definitely barriers to work through. Parents of adults with special needs often, understandably, think church is not fun to go to with their adult child. It’s more work, they think- not worth it. I’m hoping we can make it worth it. Not only for their children to plug in, but we can say, ‘Hey, while your adult child is with us, you go to a Sunday school class, you go plug in. Get to know other people here.’ Their lives continue to revolve around their children even into adulthood, so hopefully we can give them some autonomy on Sundays. That’s my heart. And this will affect more than just those with adult children. When younger families see, ‘Okay, you’re thinking about my special needs child in 20 years,’ I think that’ll be really appealing. They can see their child with autism or Down syndrome in that person greeting them when they get to church. It’ll hit them: ‘Oh, my child will have a place here in 20 years when they’re not this little child.’ (And yes, by the way- we will be focusing on helping families of younger children with special needs in the not too distant future!) Our spirit is, ‘You have purpose here. We need you here.’ I hope that’s communicated by our love of adults with disabilities.

In some ways, the last four years had felt like walking through dry desert land, a wilderness. To have three children in two years was just a shock to my system. Postpartum depression was a very real and serious struggle. The scripture I’ve clung to the last year or two has been Ezekiel 36:33-36, which says in part: ‘I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord, and I have spoken, and I will do it.’ I know that wasn’t the promise for me- it was for Israel. But I clung to it because contained in it is the truth of God being a restorer. In Young Life ministry, you can get a lot of glory and praise. I think I had become really accustomed to being told, ‘Wow, great job. Look what you’re doing,’ all the while knowing it was the Lord doing the work, but feeling that sense of affirmation. From there I went into this season of, ‘No one sees what I do all day long. No one’s saying great job. The sense of praise and well-done pat on the back, it’s gone.’ I didn’t realize how heavily I had relied on feeling praised, and it felt like the Lord needed to take me through this season of, ‘It will be Me and Me alone.’ It wasn’t a scolding- it was just was Him bringing this awareness of my mind set of, ‘Gosh, if I’m not getting the glory, it’s just kind of a waste of everybody’s time.’ He needed to change that in me. That wilderness season feels so far behind me already, but it’s also just right there. It’s been really sweet, over the last several months in this job, to see what God’s personally rebuilding in me: a sense of purpose and excitement to wake up and dream of how we can love people with disabilities. It’s been such a gift for our family, too. I’m sure I’m a better mom- I have more to draw from now because I get to interact with adults throughout the day. I feel Him awakening something in my soul that has been quiet for a long time. Just seeing His hand through it all – bringing me out of my wilderness, even the timing of Andrew’s email, it’s like, ‘This is you, God- this is you. If no one else is touched by my time at Cedar Springs, I have been changed.’

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