ON A TUESDAY NIGHT IN JUNE a big storm blew up in Knoxville, causing three trees to fall on a house known as “Beta 3.”
It wasn’t the only house to experience catastrophe, but the situation was even more challenging because the people who lived there were intellectually disabled or mentally ill.
“We had no idea what to do. We had never been through anything like this,” says Judy Wohlwend, executive director for Knox County Arc, the agency that manages the care of the house and its special-needs residents.
The Beta 3 residents who woke up to find tree branches in their bedrooms finished out the stormy night at the home of a neighbor. But the next day, Wohlwend and staff were in a quandary. It wasn’t practical to put the group in a hotel with the care and assistance they needed. Where would they find long-term housing for 10 people until the house could be repaired?
The Rev. Bruce Galyon was visiting the hospital when he heard about what happened to Beta 3 the night before. To him, the solution was obvious. He called Wolhwend and invited the Beta residents to stay at Central United Methodist Church.
The pastor’s act of hospitality was a “lifesaver,” says Wohlwend. “Honestly, it seemed like Bruce and the church were sent by God. It kind of renews your faith.”
The people whose home was crushed by trees weren’t just random strangers in distress. Beta folks and Central folks have been friends for more than 30 years.
“This is where many of them attend church each Sunday,” said Galyon. “They love this church, and we love them.”
The long-term relationship started about 1980 when the first “Beta house” was just a stroll across Central’s parking lot. The congregation began hosting an annual Christmas party for their next-door neighbors, with gifts and food.
In 1982, the Rev. Grady Winegar was appointed to Central and his wife, Ottalee Winegar, became director of Christian education. The diaconal minister was soon informed that she was responsible for organizing the annual Beta Christmas party.
It didn’t take long for Winegar to fall in love with the church neighbors, who used Central's church parking lot for walking because they didn't have a lawn.
“When I met them and realized they lived just a few feet from the church, I thought there was no way we should have them over just once a year,” she said. “They needed a church home.”
Winegar started a Sunday school class known simply as “Beta Class.” She and a co-teacher, Jean Gangaware, used children’s curriculum adapted for special-needs adults. They taught the members how to act appropriately in worship, which they always attended after Sunday school.
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“We didn’t have training in special education at all – just a real desire to give them a place to worship,” Winegar says.
The Beta Class still meets every Sunday morning at the downtown church, although the members are no longer next-door neighbors. They live within four miles in two newer houses known as “Beta 2” and “Beta 3.”
When the pastor asked the Beta 3 residents to stay at the church until their storm damage could be repaired, Nina Edmonds knew it would be a good fit.
“The surroundings are familiar to them because most of them are here every Sunday,” said Edmonds, human resources director for Knox County Arc, the agency that manages Beta homes and other programs for people with developmental disabilities.
“Any time their normal routines are changed, it can be even more trying for them than for other people,” she said. “It was so comforting to know that everything they needed was right here in the church."
Rolling with the punches
Central was so named because it was located at the center of Knoxville’s residential population when the church held its first worship service in 1927, Galyon says.
Hosting the Beta friends seemed like a natural thing to do, he said, since the church building has showers and ample room. For 21 years, Central has hosted Emmaus groups for six weekends each year. The church also accommodates 12 to 15 traveling youth groups and mission teams annually.
"Having the Beta house here didn’t upset the apple cart one iota,” Gaylon said.
The state’s department of intellectual and developmental disabilities inspected the church and found it suitable and safe for the seven special-needs residents who needed a place to go. (Three residents temporarily moved in with family members). Cots were set up in Sunday school rooms, and six men and one woman settled into church life on June 22.
Besides destroying part of Beta 3, the storm also knocked out electricity and water at the Beta 2 house. So for the first week and a half, the 10 inhabitants of Beta 2 also came to the church for meals and showers, returning to their house in the evening.
During the day, the able residents all went to their jobs at Sunshine Industries, another Knox Co Arc program. Sunshine employees earn wages for contracted projects such as sorting and stacking coat hangers, shrink-wrapping medical equipment, or assembling cups into retail packaging.
In addition to accommodations, the Central congregation donated food and clothing for the Beta residents in the first two weeks after the storm. They gave $1,500 to replace furnishings for two of the destroyed bedrooms in the house. Galyon also convinced Providence Church in West Knoxville -- the home congregation for one of the Beta residents -- to “adopt” and furnish a third bedroom.
On Sept. 20, construction work at Beta 2 was finally complete and the residents returned to their home after three months of sleeping in a Sunday school room.
“It went extremely smoothly,” said Wohlwend of the summer at Central. “The church was a very comforting place, and our clients really rolled with the punches. I heard zero complaints.”
“The church has certainly helped us in ways we can’t pay back,” said Candi Abbey, who helps care for the Beta residents.
On a recent Sunday morning, most of the Beta Class arrives by van with an aide from Arc. It’s a lively Sunday school class with lots of conversation. They sing and eat cake to celebrate Chip’s birthday. Eric is excited about an upcoming visit to the circus. Becky repeatedly mentions a woman that she heard about, killed on Clinton Highway. Ronnie, who is proud of his bolo tie, asks for prayers for a friend who lost his mother.
Their teacher of 30 years, Jean Gangaware, patiently serves birthday cake and tells the story of Esau and Jacob. The other teacher is Sherry Dunham, who joined Central UMC in 1992. Dunham is not only a special-needs teacher at a middle school in Jefferson City, she also brings her special-needs brother, Leonard, to the class. Dunham’s father was the late Rev. Sherman Starling, a Holston Conference pastor.
Ottalee Winegar still helps with the class, too. She left in 1993 when her husband was appointed to another church, then returned in 2004 when Grady Winegar served on the conference staff and later retired.
“I was afraid that when I left, the Beta Class wouldn’t last,” she says. "I was glad to see the class was not only functioning but had become an important part of the church ... Central is just a really caring church that has always been tied to that community."
The charter members of the Beta Class are aging. At 74, Roy is the oldest and came closest to danger when a tree slammed into his bedroom in June. He got away with a scratch on his arm. Some have passed away, including 61-year-old John who had a heart attack in January. His only family was a distant sister, but his funeral at Central UMC was well attended by his congregation, housemates, and the Arc staff.
Central’s congregation still hosts a big Beta Christmas party, with food and gifts such as clothing or bed linen for each. “It can run into a lot of money, but they respond beautifully every year,” Winegar says.
Besides operating a food pantry and extending community hospitality (i.e., treating the University of Tennessee marching band to a barbecue dinner), Central is welcoming new families and beginning a renovation project with their overnight guests in mind.
“We feel God is calling our church to serve as a spiritual wellness retreat,” said Galyon. The congregation has already raised $200,000 for a renovation estimated at $2 to $3 million.
With about 150 in average worship attendance, Central is celebrating the addition of 25 new members this year, the pastor says. Four are Beta Class members, who asked to join the church after witnessing the spring confirmation of six teenagers.
“They just blend in,” Winegar says proudly, referring to the regular class of 10 to 15 members. When Sunday school is over, the Beta members head to the sanctuary for worship. One or two might serve as greeters or carry in the crucifer, but the rest disperse quietly into the pews.
Winegar chuckles when she says they’re just like a lot of church people: They tend to sit in the same pew every Sunday, and they don’t like it when somebody else sits in their place.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.