When Gene Mason was young, he remembers a cousin by the name of Bobby. Bobby had intellectual disabilities. He recalls a group picking people for a football game, and Bobby did not get picked. Someone said, "I am not choosing the stupid retard."
"That is when I realized that Bobby was different. He ended up in a facility where I saw him strapped to his bed," Gene Mason is a leader for Circle of Friends Ministry and a member of Open Heart United Methodist Church in Rapid City, South Dakota. "Bobby motivated me then, and I am still passionate about it today. The big thing is to get people to interact, build relationships and make people feel included."
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. Gene Mason, a member of Open Heart United Methodist Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, coordinates the ministry. Mason worked for Black Hills Works for 15 years and said he wanted to connect the people he was serving with a faith community.
Greg Salono, a resident that Gene Mason worked with at Black Hills Works, would get up every Sunday morning and turn on different church programs and worship services on TV.
"That was a sign that maybe he wanted to go to church," says Gene. "After I observed Greg's desire, I was driving down Highway 79, and I read a billboard that said, 'Are you running on empty?' The billboard was an invitation to join the Spring Creek United Methodist Church. I took Greg to Spring Creek UMC. Greg is a person that collects autographs. The Sunday at Spring Creek, Pastor Joel Higgins had everybody sign t-shirts to get to know one another. So that was a true sign that this was the church for Greg."
Circle of Friends ministry started that day. Other people at Black Hills Works joined Greg at worship. Mason began activities like attending Sunday morning worship, a praise band, promoting Circle of Friends camp.
The ministry got its name from a camp called Circle of Friends. A camp that happens at Storm Mountain Center, led by Carey McBride. Greg and many of his friends attend the camp each summer.
Circle of Friends shifted to Canyon Lake United Methodist Church and Open Heart United Methodist Church.
When COVID-19 hit, everyone at residential facilities for people with disabilities became isolated. Attending worship services or a ministry event at a church was not possible. So Mason, with the help of Circle of Friends, started Muffin Mondays.
Each Monday, Circle of Friends bakes and delivers more than 400 muffins to Rapid City's residential homes. The muffins are prepared at Open Heart United Methodist Church. Volunteers at Open Heart drive persons from Circle of Friends around to deliver the muffins.
As more people are vaccinated, Mason hopes to invite people to come to Open Heart for Muffin Mondays.
"As things open up and people feel comfortable, we want to invite people to Open Heart for Muffin Mondays," says Mason. "We want to reach and connect people with disabilities with the church. We are just beginning Fabricated Friday."
Fabricated Friday is a day to create something. Participants in Circle of Friends gather in a craft room at Open Heart UMC to create cards. There is a Circuit machine, so people can use that to make cards, t-shirts, or other items.
Circle of Friends received a Breakthrough Ministry Grant to purchase baking supplies and a mixer for Muffin Mondays. Funds from the grant support the development of a multi-media room so groups can view baseball games, movies, and other activities together.
Volunteers currently handle transporting Circle of Friends from residential facilities to the church. A goal of the ministry is to get a 15-passenger van to help with transportation.
Open Heart UMC is a logical home for 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. One of the residents at the Indiana home is Al Weber.
"Mr. Al found that Open Heart met his needs," Mason says. "Al felt welcomed, and the door was open to him and his fellow residents at Indiana."
Al likes to sing. So Open Heart created Mr. Al's Rattle Band. Weber strums the guitar and sings his favorite songs, "You Are My Sunshine" and "Jesus Loves Me."
Open Heart invited Al and members of his band to sing in front of the congregation, "You Are My Sunshine," says Gene. "Music is a way for individuals who are not verbal to express themselves. Open Heart is open."
Mason credits a team of volunteers from Open Heart United Methodist Church and Canyon Lake United Methodist Church for providing support and fuel for Circle of Friends Ministry, including Becky Bender, Carey McBride, and Scott Sherman. These essential volunteers all have a passion for supporting individuals with a disability.
Circle of Friends hopes to continue to connect people with God, build inclusion and relationships. Plans are in place to create a new website, make a multi-media room, and dreaming about "adopt a home." Adopt a home would ask groups of churches and individuals to connect and build relationships with a particular residential home.
"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 Mason. "We need to break down barriers, build relationships, and appreciate our common interests."
Apply for a Breakthrough Ministry Grant to fuel your ministry idea. Applications for 2021 second quarter grants are due April 30, 2021. If you have questions contact Diane Weller by e-mail. Access application.
Disability Ministries of The United Methodist Church: This is a committee of dedicated volunteers working to connect you with others in your general location. In addition, they provide resources to help with worship, accessible buildings, and to build inclusive awareness (see this website). They also help with specific ministries. These ministries include camping, deaf and hard of hearing, mental health, children and adults with autism, intellectual and related disabilities, and more.