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Specialized Masks Will Help a Campus Ministry

August 26, 2020
Joyce Borger, director of CRC Worship Ministries, wearing a clear face mask. (Photo used by permission.)

Joyce Borger, director of CRC Worship Ministries, wearing a clear face mask. (Photo used by permission.)

Meeting with the leaders of Jabez Campus Ministry at Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College this summer, Resonate Global Mission regional leader Amy Schenkel got a sense of the challenges this unique ministry faces in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Led by Rev. Peter Gordon, a Christian Reformed Church campus chaplain, Jabez is a ministry for students facing intellectual, physical, and emotional challenges.

“These are incredible people with unique skills and gifts and a deep love and care for one another,” Schenkel said. “I long for their college community to embrace them and celebrate their gifts and participation in their community because they have a lot to offer.”

They are strong people, she added, “who have had to overcome a lot of barriers already as they continue their education.” And now, because of COVID-19 restrictions, when they are able to return to school in the fall semester will present a daunting task.

“Some of them will not be able to wear a regular mask” because of how it feels and restricts them, she said, “and some are afraid of the judgments they will receive. Some of them will not be able to understand their professors or their peers when they are wearing masks.”

This encouraged Schenkel to look into the possibility of helping students by providing them with special see-through masks. She took the request to the administrators of the CRC’s COVID-19 Church Engagement Fund, and they agreed to cover the cost of 250 masks.

“My hope is twofold,” said Schenkel. One hope is “that these masks will take away the technical barriers for their communication.” And, second, she hopes that when each student gives a mask to their professor or to the student sitting next to them in class, it opens a door for new relationships, new communication, and new participation in the campus community.

“I hope that the community at GRCC sees the students as valuable people who can contribute to the community. I hope it creates a more inclusive environment for them and for others like them. I hope it instills in them a sense of pride in who they are and how they are helping to create this community.”

Mark Stephenson, director of the CRC’s Office of Disabilities, said some worship leaders are using the see-through masks to help members who are hard of hearing better read their lips as well as help people with autism and other sensoring processing disorders. “The novel coronavirus has imposed many restrictions on church life and opened up new possibilities,” he said.

Right now, the masks for Jabez Ministry are on back order. When they arrive, Peter Gordon will be determining the best ways to distribute them.

Given that the college isn’t meeting on campus yet, Gordon is making plans for when he can return — and what to do with the masks.

“When we are able, we can hand the masks out to people,” he said. “I know the student life office wants some. I see this as a great ministry opportunity, an outreach for people who work with people who have disabilities.”

Such masks are a great help for hearing-impaired lip readers, persons with autism and/or ADD/ADHD and who depend on reading facial expressions, as well as students learning English as a second language, said Gordon, who himself has had deafness all of his life.

“We pray that God reveals how these masks can be distributed in an environment of limited contact. It is a fabulous gift. God’s grace is all over this.”

In describing some of the challenges people with disabilities face during the pandemic, Gordon said that some have trouble with being told to social distance.

“We have always felt like people on the outside. Now it is up front. It bears too many reminders of being marginalized,” he said.

This discomfort is not true for all persons, though; Gordon said some have told him they are comfortable with social distancing to an extent, but others aren’t very comfortable at all.

Some have added that they have a hard time being stuck in their apartments with very little to do. And others are having a hard time at work.

One leader with the Jabez ministry has ADHD and works at a store. Standing behind the plexiglass shield hanging over the counter, she finds it very hard to understand what someone is saying to her if they are wearing a mask. She normally understands people best by reading their facial expressions and body language.

“These are some of the things people are grappling with,” said Gordon. “People with disabilities are having real issues.”

For the eight years since he began the Jabez Ministry at the community college, Gordon said, he has seen the Spirit of God offering surprising things and opportunities to grow the ministry and especially reach college students with disabilities with the love of God — and now the availability of see-through masks is another inspiring example.

“When we started, it was really a leap of faith I was following,” he said. “The Spirit of God directed me to the community college, which actually has a huge population with disabilities for us to meet and reach.”

And lately in the pandemic, he said, he has had the challenge of trying mainly to manage the ministry online. Meanwhile, he is doing a lot of writing and communicating with members of the ministry. Receiving the masks comes at a time in which they are finding their way forward — and this is helping them focus on the future.

“I’ve believed all along that obstacles present an opportunity,” said Gordon; “God has used us on the campus.” And he is convinced, he said, that whatever the pandemic brings, that will continue to be the case.