It had been 18 years since Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware associate executive director Tom Stolle had been able to sit uninterrupted with his wife, Shelley, for an entire church worship service.
As parents of a teenager affected by autism, the Stolles had spent Sundays taking turns caring for their son during services. Jimmy, a nonverbal 19-year-old, needs constant care from his parents. Tom considers caring for his son to be an enormous blessing and privilege, but it can also be exhausting and pose unique challenges for their family. According to Tom, it can be a struggle for most families and individuals affected by special needs to fit into a church family because most churches are not equipped to meet their needs.
It wasn’t until Jimmy was paired up with a “buddy” at High Tide Church in Dagsboro, Delaware, that things changed for the Stolle family.
“I remember when Tom, Shelley and Jimmy came to church, and someone approached me and asked me to be Jimmy’s buddy,” said Ray Jenkins. “I asked, ‘What does that mean? What do I do?’”
There was no special needs ministry at the church. Ray was to spend time with Jimmy so the Stolles could sit in church. Not sure what to expect, Ray was willing to step into the role. Tom stayed with Ray for some time, and they talked while hanging out at the playground. Jimmy smiled as he spent time playing on the swings. Tom gradually began leaving as Jimmy and Jenkins bonded, but an entire year passed before Tom and Shelley felt comfortable allowing Jimmy to spend time with his “buddy” on his own.
Mario Howard, another member, joined Jenkins and Jimmy. The group of three would spend time doing things Jimmy enjoyed. The two men would often catch up and discuss concepts from the Bible while spending time with Jimmy.
Trust takes time
“It was tough on Tom and Shelley to release Jimmy to us and know that he would be OK,” said Howard. “We were excited that Jimmy trusted us and wanted to be with us. I love that dude. He’s an awesome young man.”
After several months of this, Jenkins said that he began to realize that he and Howard were messing up — they were spending time with Jimmy, but they really weren’t ministering directly to him. They began to speak Bible truths to Jimmy, knowing he would understand parts of what was being taught, even if he could not verbalize his responses.
“I believe God is sovereign and can communicate to any of His creatures,” Jenkins said. “Our job is to talk about Jesus so Jimmy will hear the message. The Lord will reach Jimmy in Jimmy’s language. You can tell he is in the conversation; he makes gestures and noises.”
“We talk to Jimmy about what we’ve been reading,” said Howard. “We love to hang out with him and see his attitude — he always seems to be in a good mood.”
Howard and Jenkins continue to share Jesus with Jimmy each week. It doesn’t look like regular “church” — Jenkins and Howard bounce a ball back and forth with Jimmy, who bounces on a yoga ball between them — but the Bible is being preached and received.
Tom approached them while this was going on one day, and he was blown away by the conversation. “You’re preaching to my son right now,” he said.
Sitting with ‘his buddies’
The relationship between Howard, Jenkins and Jimmy strengthened and grew over time. Jenkins recalls when Jimmy had a tough morning and couldn’t come to church, so they called him over Zoom. Jimmy’s face lit up with excitement when he saw his friends. On Jimmy’s 18th birthday, they attended his party at The Greene Turtle. Jimmy was thrilled. “He didn’t even want to sit next to me; he sat next to his buddies,” Tom said, smiling. “It was cool.”
While Jimmy heard the Word of God, Jenkins and Howard were also growing spiritually. “The Lord has used Jimmy to change me and soften me and let me see people differently,” said Jenkins.
Howard agreed. His granddaughter, who was affected by special needs, passed away, and he said that “there’s a special place in my heart for Jimmy.” The ministry has been a blessing for all involved — Jimmy, Tom, Shelley, Jenkins and Howard.
“It really is building us up,” said Howard. As they read and share, they are growing in the Lord. “We always have to make sure we’re reading something,” he related. “It holds us accountable.”
Tom said he is also thankful for Hide Tide Church members Les Grow and Rick Jensen, who, along with many others, love and care for Jimmy and support the family.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Sharon Mager serves as a communications specialist/church correspondent for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, where this story originally appeared.