Each Sunday as I looked out from the pulpit, theirs were the first faces to greet me—the FISH Class, a weekly gathering of intellectually challenged adults at Ridglea Presbyterian Church, Fort Worth, Texas. Following their Sunday school support group, they attended worship and always sat in the front pews.
2018 marks the 40th anniversary of this compassionate ministry. It was founded by a trio of women: Catherine Beard, Hazel Reed, and Helen Luckett. Hazel had a special needs daughter; Catherine, a grandson. Together, they asked Helen to play piano for the class’s weekly singing time. The name FISH was a simple reminder that Jesus calls us to be “fishers of people.”
Eventually, Helen took the helm, and now, at 94 years old, she is still there alongside four original members. The class calls Helen “Sunshine” because of her bright smile, but also as a tribute to the illuminating counsel and support she gives them through all the seasons of their lives.
Ridglea recently went through the painful sale of their historic building, which was just demolished. They are now leasing space as they proceed with plans for new construction. In the interim, all ministries—including the FISH Class—remain on track, and Helen looks back over four decades of service.
“When the class first started,” she says, “most of the members of our church did not know a mentally challenged person unless they had one in their family. It was an era when there was almost a sense of embarrassment or shame. People kept their special loved ones out of sight, out of mind. At first, our members were uncomfortable and would even avoid contact by walking on the other side of the room or sanctuary. But today, they are as much a part of our church family as anyone else.”
As a former Senior Pastor at Ridglea, I testify to its warm inclusion. My special needs son, Kristoffer, now 21, was instantly embraced by these gracious folks.
I have other fond memories. I loved those Sundays following a Special Olympics event, as we had a chance to celebrate the victories of FISH Class members. When you see special needs adults standing before you, proudly wearing their medals on their chests, you understand the motto of the Special Olympics: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
The FISH Class influenced me another way; they helped mold my approach to preaching. I began to ask myself a critical question. Would I be able, at least in part, to share a message that touched hearts and minds across a wide range of intellectual abilities? It gave new meaning to Jesus’s admonition, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Helen is currently training a protégé to succeed her. I asked her to name the greatest lessons she has learned while serving these 40 years.
“Patience, patience, patience,” she says with a chuckle. “But also a joy for living! They have given me a wonderful sense of purpose all these years.”
The FISH Class has received accolades from numerous organizations in their community, including The Arc (formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens), and the Presbyterian Night Shelter. A few times a year, the class makes sandwiches for the shelter’s homeless residents.
“Until you have made sandwiches with the FISH class, you have not lived,” says Helen, laughing. “It’s total chaos. Everyone has their own method, but in the end it somehow works. We don’t have to do the things the same way!”
I pray that Ridglea Presbyterian and the FISH Class will continue to demonstrate this message of love and inclusion for another 40 years!