To God be the glory
Mike Stetser has been a member of The Church of the Exceptional in Henrietta for 35 years. He has been attending since he was five-years-old.
"He's learned all kinds of things," Laura Gandy, Stester's mom, said. "He knows God is going to be coming back and Jesus loves him. He says his prayers and knows to pray before he eats."
Stetser is just one of the members who has been positively influenced by the church, which was established as a place of worship for mentally and physically handicapped individuals. This Sunday, Stetser and the other members will celebrate the church's 40th anniversary during a special service at 2 p.m.
"We're all excited, we can't hardly believe it's been 40 years," Mattie Lackey, director of the church, said.
Lackey came up with the idea for the church when a friend shared the trials her handicapped son was facing at school.
"I had a friend who had a little boy with physical defects. She told me that they made fun of him at school and then his mom got him in a special class and I was happy about that," Lackey said. "While I was working at a textile plant one day, the Lord spoke to me and said if they make fun of him at school, they'll make fun of him at church. We don't like to think that but we know it's true. So I thought they needed a church for exceptional people."
Lackey shared the idea for the church with her friend Jewel Crawford. Jewel's husband Tom Crawford took the idea to the Methodist Men group at Cliffside United Methodist Church and it bloomed from there. In 1974 the church began meeting in the fellowship building at Cliffside Methodist. They met there for eight years before moving into the current building in 1982, which was once Henrietta United Methodist Church, off US Highway 221 A.
"The bishop had closed this building and they let us have it for $3,000. We had a penny drive going on so we paid most of it with pennies," Lackey said. "We added Sunday School rooms on the back when we bought it."
A little later the church was able to purchase the rest of the property and another building for $2,000.
"We got almost five acres of land for $5,000 and two buildings," Lackey said. "We say it's a Godsend."
Lackey said the church now has 42 members and has service every Sunday from 10 a.m.-noon. The service is open to everyone and the church in non-denominational.
"If they (handicapped) go to a regular church, some can't sit still and are prone to talk out. The sermon is over their head and they have to sit still for at least 45 minutes," Lackey said. "Our service is one hour. We sing, we take prayer requests and one of them does a Bible verse from memory each time. We usually have special music because they relate to music."
The members are picked up on Sundays by one of the church's vans. Lackey said the church has three vans, one mini-bus, 11 staff members and 14 van drivers.
"Some of them (drivers) bring them (members) to church and then another one will be here to take them home. Some of them bring them and stay (for the service) and then take them back," Lackey said. "In the beginning one of the staff members at that time had a station wagon and he brought them in that."
Once the members arrive, they meet outside and decide who will take part in the worship service. Lackey said 12 members help in the service each Sunday. One of the members who often carries the Bible to the front of the church is Lillien Holt. Her sister Pauline Givens is a Sunday School teacher and a fill-in van driver.
"I came to check it out once and I haven't left," Givens said. "I love everything. The members are the best because they can make your heart swell up and burst wide open."
Givens said her sister has shown a lot of growth by interacting with the other members and she isn't the only one.
"We had a girl who started coming when she was young and did not talk. After a staff member worked with her for years she started singing Jesus Loves Me and she would sing Away in a Manger during the Christmas program," Lackey said. "We also had a man who had never spoken a word in his life. Three professional therapists told him he would never speak. The van driver talked to him and after a while he started speaking. Before his mother passed away she got to hear her son speak."
The church operates completely on donations. It is supported by many churches and individuals in the county. Lackey has different speakers from various churches throughout the county who take turns preaching on Sundays.
"People say when they walk in the door they can feel the spirit," Lackey said.
The church is celebrating its anniversary Sunday with a special service and performance by the 25-member Celestial Praise chorus. The event is open to everyone.
"We want to thank everybody that has helped us achieve these 40 years," Lackey said. "To God be the glory."
The Church of the Exceptional is located at US Highway 221A, Henrietta NC 28043. For more information call the church at 828-657-5077.