ANOKA, Minn.-Don Anderson was a freshman at Golden Valley Lutheran College when he offered God a challenge.
For weeks, he'd noticed a sign inviting college students to help with a ministry to the disabled. It took him back to the age of 13, when he was so keen on escaping the house that he volunteered at a home for the disabled, only to find himself uncomfortably paired with a boy who suffered from seizures and could only say a couple of words. Half the time the boy was sick, and the rest of the time communication felt impossible. Anderson was ready to quit until his Bible flopped open to James 1:27: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this-to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction." Taking it as a sign, he persevered (with little joy) through the rest of the year.
Five years later, at college, he felt a tug toward the work that made him so uncomfortable before: "I thought 'OK, fine. They're not going to take the poster down. I might as well check it out.'" He leveled with God once more: "I'm going to go, I'm going to sit in the back row and I'm not going to make any commitments to this thing." He was one of two attendees. Blending in and ducking out was impossible: "My plan, it was foiled again." Not just his college plan, it turned out, but his whole life plan.
He threw his talents playing and singing the guitar into volunteering at Hammer Residence, a home for the developmentally disabled, defined as persons with life-long disabilities that become apparent before adulthood is reached. (Among the disabilities are mental retardation, autism, and Down syndrome.) Soon Anderson was stuffing a dozen fellow volunteers into his 1965 Oldsmobile. Hammer Residence volunteered its van as the group grew, so every week Anderson drove 40 minutes to the residence to pick up the van, drove to the college to pick up the students and take them back to the residence, drove the students back to school, then drove back to the residence to drop off the van.
When he dropped out of college due to financial difficulties, his dedication paid off. Hammer Residence offered him a job and he spent the next years of his life working with the disabled as an event coordinator, foster parent, special education teacher, and finally the founder of Christ for People with Developmental Disabilities-a ministry that meets the spiritual needs of the developmentally disabled.
He found that while the county gave the disabled food and shelter, no one cared for their souls. The members of one church group made the residents a cake every month to celebrate their birthdays, but when he invited them to meet the residents they bolted. Even if churches were willing to welcome the disabled with all their distractions and needs, there were only so many the churches could take in, and only so much the disabled could do to participate.
So instead of trying to integrate the disabled into the church of the able, Anderson, now 52, integrates the able into the church of the disabled. Now an ordained pastor, he holds a church service twice a week where the developmentally disabled sing in the choir and lead the music, take the offering, read Scripture when they can, offer prayer requests, and make as much joyful noise as they want to. Every year, Anderson organizes his congregation into a Christmas pageant with dozens of angels (some with the wings attached to their wheelchairs), wise men, and shepherds. Sometimes they drop Baby Jesus and everyone sings in a different key, but some of Anderson's 20 volunteers say the Christmas pageant first moved them to help. Solveig Misner, a volunteer since her daughter started coming 15 years ago, said the first time she saw Joseph kneel by the cradle, her eyes filled with tears: "I realized this is a holy time for them."
Christ for People rests on the idea that hearing the gospel is the way to salvation and it has power, no matter the cognitive ability of the person listening. "Sometimes people think there's a different way to heaven if you're disabled," said Anderson, mentioning the girl who asked him if her disabled brother went to heaven. He asked her, "Well, did you tell him about Jesus?"
Standing before the crowd at their end-of-year picnic, Anderson talks about the different ways we show love to each other-through touch or by word or kindness-then explains how Jesus showed love by dying for our sins and forgiving us. He doesn't shy away from theological terms: "Remission. Can you say that-remission?" he asks. They chorus it back and he says it means God says of their sin, "Forget it!" He gives a concrete application: "Every day, wake up and say, 'Lord, thank you for loving me.'" His words are simple without being patronizing, profound but still accessible.
Anderson visits about 50 group homes on varying schedules. One day, late in June, Anderson sat in a sunny living room with big bay windows showing grass and trees outside. Four frail older women rested in big armchairs with their feet propped up, next to little tables with birdhouse knickknacks scattered about. The mood was subdued due to a recent death and their caretaker kept brimming over with tears.
He played his guitar and sang old hymns-"How Great Thou Art," "I've Got a Home in Glory Land," "There's Power in the Blood"-in a smooth voice that people have compared to James Taylor's. The music unlocked wistful memories. Ellen, who used to be a Sunday School superintendent, said, "I can see myself standing in front of the church, in front of the kids singing that song." He told her, "You sang that song like Doris Day!" Ava remembered her grandfather singing "The Old Rugged Cross" for a church solo. Suddenly a woman who spent the afternoon in an empty doze woke up and quoted a line to an old Kenny Rogers song.
The next group home took Anderson back to Mt. Olivet Rolling Acres, where he first started out at the age of 13. He pointed out a black-and-white photo of children he knew then and has since seen grow old. Matthew, a new resident who hadn't said a word last time, asked for prayer for his mom and said when he prayed to become a Christian, "I got a good feeling in my heart." Anderson told him, "It means you're forgiven," and counseled him to do God's work. At the third home, Mike belted every line of every song a moment after Anderson sang it. Anderson high-fived him and drew out a quiet resident: "You're being too serious, Stephen! Gotta lighten up!"
Anderson always closes his church services with the same song: "Bind Us Together." At the end of the picnic, everyone-from parents to children to the woman who has spent her life caring for disabled foster siblings-joined hands and swayed unsteadily. Someone blew tunelessly into a harmonica. Everyone was off key, not everyone knew the words or could even say them, but they all knew the ritual.
People always mention this as a moment that moves them. One dad said he whispers this song to his autistic son to calm him. Volunteer Jim Miller said, with some wonder, "It doesn't matter who they're standing next to. They'll hold their hand. They'll put their arm around them. I see a gentle acceptance in that community that we don't always see in the 'regular culture.'"
He laughed: "Then we go wolf down cookies. They like that, too."
For more information on this year's Hope Award for Effective Compassion and to read profiles of other nominated organizations from this year and previous years, click here.
• 500 disabled people served
• 20 volunteers
• Serves in seven counties
• Enlists support of 10 churches
• Helped build a church and orphanage in Haiti, sponsors Haitian children, and donates Haitian Bibles to pastors and prisoners.
• 2008 expenses: $98,691.15
• 2008 income: $104,856.19