KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Sept. 11, 2019) -- One Sunday morning about 40 years ago, Ottalee Winegar was going to church at Central United Methodist Church. As she approached the church in the 4th and Gill neighborhood, she noticed a small group of adults seated on the front porch of an older home.
“They should be in church,” she thought, with all the assurance of a director of Christian education. So she stopped and invited them. They accepted.
And so, in 1983, the residents of Beta Home started coming to Sunday School at Central. Ottalee enlisted the help of Jean Gangaware and others in the congregation to start a class for people with intellectual disabilities, named appropriately the Beta Class.
Knoxville’s disAbility Resource Center recently recognized the pair with its Pioneer Spirit of the ADA award. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act was not passed until 1990, the recource center honored the women for their early work in creating religious opportunities for adults with intellectual disabilities.
Ottalee’s husband, the Rev. Grady Winegar, served as pastor at Central UMC at the time. When he was reappointed to another church, Gangaware, a fellow teacher, carried on with the Beta Class.
Those efforts were soon recognized. In January 1983, the president of the Beta Homes wrote in a letter, “During the past few weeks, I have observed numerous examples of the genuine acceptance that is evident in the interaction between your congregation and our clients. I feel that our folks are very fortunate to have such support and want you to know that your ministry in this area is certainly appreciated.”
Since then Beta Class has evolved into a spiritual home for dozens of people with intellectual disabilities. The Winegars returned to Central after retirement, and Ottalee rejoined Gangaware in leading the class. The group studies the Scriptures, engages in crafts and activities, and worships in the main service.
Winegar and Gangaware's pioneering actions were not spurred on by compassion alone, but by the conviction that offering religious opportunities to Beta Home would benefit everyone involved, from members of the class to people in the pews.
The Rev. Jimmy Sherrod, senior pastor, acknowledges the contributions Beta Class makes to the church. “Nearly 40 years later, I would say that we were and are the fortunate ones. We continue to be blessed by the ministry of our Beta Class members.”
In recent years the teachers have sought new ways to involve more Beta members in worship. They have performed in skits, sung special anthems, led prayers and Scripture readings, and administered communion.
“Beta gives me something I’ve always wanted -- an amen corner,” Sherrod said.
When the church’s 90th birthday came up in 2017, the class was the first group to make a pledge to the building fund drive. Their two fundraisers have been successful and a third is planned next year.
Winegar stepped out of her teaching responsibilities a couple of years ago, but Gangaware continues with the class. Most of the original members have died, but new members join regularly, and the group continues to have the best attendance of any group at Central.
“We thank God for the unwavering commitment of these women, who sought to shine God’s light on those who aren’t often seen,” Sherrod said. “They have given a voice to the voiceless, and we have all been changed for the better.”