There are birthday parties with maiden aunts smelling of menthol planting unwanted kisses. There are birthday parties with parents who arrive by cars that cost more than a house, making sure kids don’t get a paper cut while opening expensive presents.
And then on Thursday night, at Grace Community United Methodist Church in Fort Mill, there was a birthday party that was so thrilling, so much fun, so raucous and wild, that the roof shook. Cars were parked on the side of busy Gold Hill Road because there weren’t enough spots. Inside the church, the people proved that fortunes are found solely inside the human heart.
It was a birthday party where many of the guests of honor could not talk. Some could not walk. Some needed guide dogs because they cannot see.
When Forever Friends throws a birthday party for disabled and special needs teens and adults, they do not just sing the song about “raising the roof.” The roof and the building shake.
Not an earthquake, but a dancing, singing, joyful noise celebrating the lives of 206 of the most special people.
And this group, incredibly, does something similar every month. And they have for all six years the church has been in existence.
“When we started, we had more of these wonderful people in this ministry than we had church members,” said the pastor, Randy Madsen. “They made this church. They created this church. That’s when we really became a church – with their wonderful spirit.”
Forever Friends remains this church’s largest and most powerful outreach ministry. Yet it is more than a ministry, the volunteers say. It is plainly the sharing of joy and love.
And the energy, the power, comes from the uninhibited, the truly joyful, the dancing and singing and swaying special needs people themselves. This is not church for disabled adults to be preached to. This is about celebrating special needs people.
It is, the third Thursday of each month, their special day. Some months, the parties have seasonal themes. Every month has singing and dancing.
The idea came from the late Beth Austin and Jo Ella Mohr, parents of special needs children who grew into special needs adults. Dozens of other members and friends joined in to volunteer. The premise is simple – celebrate these people who are looked past so often, looked down on too often, and who worship all at the same time.
Any special needs teen or adult from the area is invited to attend. People come from as far as Charlotte and Chester.
Most months, there isn’t room to breathe in the sanctuary. For Thursday night’s birthday bash, 206 special adults were there. There were cake and cupcakes and sparklers and presents and hugs and dancing. Inhibitions must be left outside. All are there to hug and sing; the only rule is to smile the whole time.
These people who live in group homes and other places walked in, or rolled in, from special buses and vans. Clowns and volunteers met them all, giving stickers that said simply, “I’m special!”
Inside, the place was bedlam. On what most churches would call an altar, this church had a gaggle of volunteers banging drums and singing and dancing and leading songs. Not songs sung by a choir, but songs sung by everybody as they stood if they could stand and sang if they could talk.
Cathy Trotter, technically a worship minister but really a concert emcee, jumped around the stage and led the songs. The 206 special needs people rose to their feet if they could rise and stomped for more than an hour. Many of the disabled people, incredibly, stood the entire time. It was their party, but nobody sang, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”
The only tears were joyful tears.
“This is the most special birthday party that maybe there has ever been,” Trotter said. “We celebrate every person here whether it is their birthday today or any day this year. Tonight is their birthday.”
“Celebration!” by Kool and the Gang exploded out of the speakers. So many songs of joy and love and inclusion were sung. Jo Ella Mohr ran around the building dancing with people and handing out joy. Dozens of other volunteers as young as elementary school helped make this party.
“These people are nice and they deserve birthday cake,” said Jumana Martin, 7 years old, who pushed out a cake with the number “6” on it for the 6th birthday of “Forever Friends.” A sparkler rained out from the top of the cake.
Every person in the church knew that the cake was for each of them.
And in that church Thursday it was their birthday. Special needs people singing “Lean on Me” and hugging each other and strangers. Special needs people all together singing, “You are my sunshine.”
When “Happy Birthday” was sung, the building seemed to explode. Forever Friends was not at that moment a church group, but the largest family in York County.
206 special people sang if they could. They held hands. They hugged.
The party lasted 90 minutes. Nobody wanted it to end.
But in a month, it starts again.