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Circle of Friends Ministry builds a bridge to inclusion

By: Doreen Gosmire, director of communications, Dakotas UMC with contributions from Janelle Jones, Spearfish UMC

"The whole idea is to build a bridge of inclusion, for people to experience and build relationships that recognize the abilities of everyone and common interests," says Gene Mason, a member at Open Heart United Methodist Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, and a coordinator for Circle of Friends ministry. "We need to break down barriers, build relationships, and appreciate our common interests."

Circle of Friends is a group of people with intellectual disabilities who are growing in their faith and inviting others to spread the love of God. This ministry started with camp and has grown into opportunities for worship, serving, learning, and fellowship.

Cof Camp

Circle of Friends Camp in 2019, upper left and the first camp in the lower right. Photos courtesy of Spearfish UMC.

It all started with camp.

Circle of Friends Camp was started in 2003 through a conversation on Camp Sunday between Peggy Heckel, a member of the United Methodist Church in Spearfish, South Dakota, and Scott Jensen, then director of Storm Mountain Camp near Rapid City. Peggy asked what camp was available for persons with special needs, such as Melissa Heckel.

Scott replied, "Oh yes, there is a camp east river."

Peggy shared that she wished they could experience the beauty of the Black Hills, maybe just a weekend camp."  

Scott said, "OK, you can start it out here." Peggy replied, "Not me!"  

But God had a plan. In July 2003, there were six campers, most from Spearfish. Then, after a few years, Rapid City added to the numbers and staffing. Over the next 17 years, numbers ranged from three to 27 campers. 

The weekend experience became very special. One of the campers, Viola Sinner, would cry each year at the end of camp, "I don't want to go home."

Peggy wanted them to see God's glory and God's beauty. Dale was last to arrive at the first camp and very reluctant to step into that cabin. The group waited while he placed his belongings. Then, finally, he stepped out and looked around. "Oh, look at that rock. Isn't that beautiful? Oh, look at that tree. Isn't that beautiful," he said. 

Peggy always had the details worked out for each activity and project. After a few years, she planned to send prayers down the creek. Scott Jensen and the staff at Storm Mountain made boats with sails for each camper. Prayer requests and specific names were written on each boat, and sailed down the creek.

Rapid City United Methodists are now leading the Circle of Friends camp. In 2023, three different camping opportunities —a  couple of day camp experiences, each two days, and a camp with an overnight stay. Get the details for Circle of Friends and other camping opportunities

Ministry shifts and expands.

Circle of Friends shifted to Canyon Lake United Methodist Church and Open Heart United Methodist Church in Rapid City.

Carey McBride, a member at Canyon Lake UMC, leads the camp at Storm Mountain Center each summer. 

Gene Mason, Open Heart United Methodist Church member in Rapid City, South Dakota, coordinates the ministry at Open Heart UMC. Mason worked for Black Hills Works for several years and wanted to connect the people he served with a faith community.

Mason and volunteers transport Circle of Friends each Sunday from residential facilities to the church. A goal of the ministry is to get a 15-passenger van to help with transportation. In addition, Open Heart UMC has adapted its worship service to include a time called God's beloved.

"It is a chance for anyone to share their thoughts. This week Miss Colbey came forward and sang Happy Birthday to the church," said Mason. "We also have faith buddies to support individuals through the service. "

After worship, Mason leads a Sunday School class. The recent study is on the book of John and how God shows his love. 

Open Heart UMC is a logical home for the Circle of Friends Ministry. The Indiana Home, one of the residential facilities of Black Hills Works, is located right next door to the church. There are also six other residential homes within three miles of the church, home to 180 individuals.

Muffin Mondays

Photos from Open Heart UMC's Facebook page.

Then there are Muffin Mondays. Each Monday, Circle of Friends bakes and distributes more than 220 muffins. The muffins are prepared at Open Heart United Methodist Church. A sign announcing that muffins are for reacy is outside Open Hear UMC. The number of muffin consumers continues to grow. 

"The double chocolate chip has been a favorite," said Gene. "We have a sign out front of the church, and people stop by for their muffins. They love the muffins, and we love to make them."

While some people prepare muffins, others are helping make reflectors for solar ovens. Solar Oven Partners has a reflector workshop in the basement of Open Heart UMC. 

"Each Monday, we have at least five people making muffins and three helping make reflectors," shared Gene.

Gathering Tuesdays is a day to create something. Participants in Circle of Friends gather in a craft room at Canyon Lake UMC to create crafts. People make cards, t-shirts, or other items.

Muffin Mondays and Gathering Tuesdays stop in the summer. Efforts are underway to have a community garden. "We hope to grow some strawberries and raspberries to make jam that we can sell," said Gene.

UMC Disability Ministries needs advocates and volunteers.

Mason credits a team of volunteers from Open Heart United Methodist Church and Canyon Lake United Methodist Church for providing support and fuel for the Circle of Friends Ministry. He commends those who started the Circle of Friends Camp for the momentum. 

More volunteers and advocates for the ministry are needed in more places. "I am so thankful for people like Pastors Quaya Ackerman, Michele Slott, and Scott McKirdy. They are advocates and speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. They have a passion for the spiritual development of all people." 

A resolution will be considered at the 2023 Dakotas Annual Conference, happening June 8-10, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to form a non-permanent standing committee for Disabilities Concerns and Ministries in the Dakotas Conference. View the resolution and other legislation in the 2023 Conference Workbook


Dakotas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church 605.996.6552 1331 University Ave. Mitchell SD 57301-0460 US 43.69689310 -98.03291320 122 W. Franklin Avenue Ste 400 Minneapolis MN 55404 US 0.00000000 0.00000000 1331 W University Ave Mitchell SD 57301 US 0.00000000 0.00000000 1331 University Ave Mitchell SD 57301 US 0.00000000 0.00000000