JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. -- Natalie Justice, age 31, is a high-energy kind of pastor. Just a few days -- hours, actually -- before her surgery to treat breast cancer, Justice was campaigning nearly round-the-clock to raise money and awareness for a new ministry.
Justice and her fellow pastor, 34-year-old Christi Taylor, are navigating their personal challenges while calling on churches to reach out to people with special needs. In the week since it was launched, the “Wonderfully Made Grant Fund” has raised $475 and engaged 30 people in the “pie-in-the-face challenge.”
“There are families with special needs who do not get support and who feel alone,” the Rev. Justice said. “We are using this pie-in-the-face challenge to raise money and awareness for our churches that need to start thinking about how we can reach this unreached group of people.”
“Wonderfully Made” is a new ministry for the 65 churches of Holston Conference’s Johnson City District in east Tennessee. Justice is pastor of the Greene County Parish, including Greenwood, Afton, and Stone Dam United Methodist Churches. Taylor is pastor at Fairview United Methodist Church in Jonesborough, Tenn.
The campaign calls on a church member or pastor to donate at least $10 to the fund, then take a pie in the face while the videotape is rolling. The spectacle is then posted on Facebook and others are challenged to join in the fun. “We are modeling it similar to the ALS ice-bucket challenge,” Justice said.
The two pastors said they become friends after meeting through Justice’s dissertation, involving a study on special-needs families.
“I am the proud mother of a six-year-old special-needs child, so there is a personal component to this campaign for me,” the Rev. Taylor said. “Once we met, we became a think tank for advocating for special-needs awareness and acceptance.”
Both pastors said they noticed that congregations often overlook community members with conditions such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, or visual impairment.
“I will admit as a clergy I have preached often on the ‘least of these’ as the poor, the hospitalized, the elderly, and those in jail without including ‘special needs,’” Taylor said. “My dream for this grant is it would encourage churches to look at how they can minister to special-needs families and how they can be a welcoming environment where these families feel acceptance.”
The Johnson City District hopes to raise enough money to begin awarding grants to churches in spring to churches that wish to offer, for example, a special Vacation Bible School, worship service, support group, or parents’ night out, Taylor said.
The one-time grants will be designated for ministries only and not building development, Justice said. The grant’s name is taken from Psalm 139:14: “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Pastors who have already experienced a whipped-cream facial include Jake Herron, Steven Spell, District Superintendent Walter Weikel, and of course, Taylor and Justice. (See Facebook page.)
Justice, who undergoes a mastectomy for stage-one breast cancer on Oct. 2, said she was anxious to share the new ministry with her Johnson City-area colleagues but also hopes to see a special-needs grant made available to all of Holston’s 887 churches.
Taylor's daughter, Emily, is participating in a study through Duke Medical Center and the Rare Genomics Institute.
Special-needs service at Central UMC, Lenoir City (UMTV, 11/30/12)
"Knoxville churches work to include people with developmental disabilities" (Knox News Sentinel, 9/2/11)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.