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Interview - Justin Reimer

The Elisha FoundationIn the past months you may well have heard me mention The Elisha Foundation. This is a foundation I first discovered through my pastor (who is a regular speaker at the Foundation’s annual retreats) and subsequently learned about more when I designed a new website for it. I quickly came to respect what they do and wanted to share with you an interview I conducted with Justin Reimer who founded and still heads up the organization.

What is the Elisha Foundation?

The Elisha Foundation is a non-profit organization created to provide encouragement and resources for families of people with special needs (kids and adults). Our primary vehicle of ministry is through small and intimate Family Retreats geared towards biblical encouragement and disability specific resources. Soon we will be providing monthly respite resources for families in our area as well.

When and why did you begin the Foundation?

My wife, Tamara, and I started the foundation in the Fall of 2005 after years of anticipation. Though the idea started some 10 years ago through a series of Sovereign circumstances preparing us for our calling when our first child, Elisha was born. Just hours after his birth he was diagnosed with Down Syndrome and was admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit due to medical complications. During the early hours of this new and blessed addition to our family we were overcome with the moment. God saw fit to make us stewards of such a wondrous and enigmatic blessing as a special needs child. The enormity of this responsibility was only made more sweet by the grace of God. This was a defining moment in our young lives with profound impact on our faith, goals and dreams.

Prior to the birth of our son Tamara and I shared the ambition of one day being missionaries to a foreign country. With the new direction our lives were taking we were left wondering how we could minister to the needs of others. Early on a sweet lady put it plainly to Tamara in this way, “Instead of you going to the mission field, the mission field has been brought to you through Elisha.” So simple yet so profound was that little morsel of wisdom. It helped us to look beyond the circumstances and realize that God had given us a new direction, to minister to those with special needs and their families.

Over the next seven years we lived in six different states and experienced the disability resources and programs that each state offered. Though each offered great things none provided the foundational emphasis on family and definitely not on Christ. Through these travels and experiences our hearts desire was to provide an environment for families with disabled family members where the emphasis is on familial growth in Christ rather than on “dealing with” the disability. A place where faith in Christ is strengthened, love is flourished, passion is reformed and intimacy is encouraged. What greater resource than to build the family on those four fundamentals - faith, love, passion, intimacy in Christ. We experienced great growth in these areas through our own trials and experiences. We have had three more sweet children (and another on the way!) since the birth of Elisha and have been greatly encouraged by their interaction with Eli as well as the opportunity for them to recognize and minister to the needs of others of lesser health or condition.

Most confirming to us in our pursuits with TEF was our most recent Retreat. We had a family there who had a daughter with an extremely rare genetic disorder. So rare that the doctor’s gave her little chance of survival and recommended abortion. She is now 4 years old and although there are great delays in her development she is exceeding anything the doctor’s thought possible. It is a rough road though, be it feedings every 2 hours for the first three years of her life, the growth hormone shots, or the litany of other care she needs. She cannot sit up on her own and when she is ill she suffers from seizures. Along with raising her, her parents have six other children to not just care for, but to raise.

We invited them to the Retreat knowing that there was a good chance they wouldn’t be able to make it due to her situation. It was a stretch for her to be around a large group of people possibly carrying the latest flu strain. But they were able to come although under slight duress. By the end of the Retreat they were overwhelmed by how much they needed that time away as a family. You see it was the first time in three and a half years that they were able to worship together as a family. They had to take turns going to church and no one offered to help them with her so that they could go together. In tears, the dad stated what the whole weekend meant to them and that there were not words enough to describe the benefit to their family. He is now a dear friend of mine and his family has been challenged anew by the Word being taught at the Retreat and by simply being together and having people help them there be unencumbered.

How does the Foundation seek to serve families of people with disabilities?

Of primary importance to TEF is to see that families make much of Christ in their circumstances, not to make much of their circumstances with a side order of Christ - so to speak. It is common place to see a family put so much emphasis on their circumstances (autism, Down syndrome, etc.) that that becomes central to who they are as a family and , in a way, defines who they are. We know and understand the challenges from our own experience but by God’s grace He has compelled us to keep Christ central to our lives, not Down syndrome, and that is what ultimately should define our family - lives centered on Christ no matter what.

God has placed within our stewardship the blessed parent child relationship with a special needs child. We have been and will continue to be challenged and encouraged by this great blessing.

As our faith in Christ has been strengthened through this relationship we have sought to aid the growth of the faith of others in similar situations. Teaching them to love Jesus more deeply, develop a passion for the unique circumstance that God has placed them in and develop a more intimate relationship with Him out of which flows a more intimate relationship with God and family.

When focusing on the vehicle for this objective our minds were immediately set on a retreat. A quiet, beautiful, peaceful, rejuvenating place that would be conducive to allowing people to let down their guard and relax while providing them with pampering not common to them nor even available to them. And to provide focused Bible teaching to edify and build up the Faith.

Who typically attends the Elisha Foundation retreats? Who is permitted to attend?

We specifically chose a broad “label” to target our field of ministry - “special needs”. We have had varying levels of severity of diagnosis’ from Asperger’s to autism, from Down syndrome to Hunter’s syndrome, from extremely rare genetic disorders to malignant teratoma’s and even leukemia. One of the unique aspects of the environment we aim to create for a Retreat is that by having needs from a wide range of spectrums each set of parents is drawing from the diversity of experiences of the other parents.

For example, I have a child with Down syndrome and another parent has a child with Hunter’s syndrome. I can learn a lot from that parent as they may have a very short time on earth with that child and the window of interaction with the child is brief, where I see through a long term window for my child. It reminds me of the brevity of life and to treat each day with more earnestness; whereas, they can learn from our experiences perhaps in how we educate our son or even a level of endurance as we will care for our son until we pass from this life.

To answer your question, anyone who has a “special need” be it a disability, medical condition or other chronic issues is welcome to our Retreats. If they aren’t sure about how they might “fit in” they can call us and talk it over with us. Our future plans include Retreats for those who have lost children and for our wounded military veterans as well. If people are hurting we want to help them see Jesus in it and through it.

Are there any books you have found particularly useful in helping people come to terms with disabilities within their families or their churches?

The most obvious and significant answer is Scripture; however, God has Sovereignly placed the likes of Joni Erickson Tada in the midst of the Body of Christ to encourage support and help people come to His terms with their appointment in life. When God Weeps by Joni is a must read and is a book that we give to every family that comes to a Retreat. She and Steve Estes do a great job of applying the Christ to painful situations with experience and biblical conviction.

What books do you recommend on the subject of suffering?

With today’s technology sermons are a great source of encouragement, keep in mind some of these families can’t always make it to church, etc. Sermons by the likes of Paul Martin, John Piper, John MacArthur among others have been a great encouragement to my family and to others that I have been able to pass them along to. As for books, I guess I gave some of it away already but in addition to the aforementioned book there are a couple of others I would recommend.

The Holy Bible, by God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God by Justin Taylor, John Piper, Mark Talbot, and Stephen F. Saint

A Path Through Suffering by Elisabeth Elliot

The Power of Suffering by John MacArthur

Also, we have found biographies to be very helpful as well. The likes of William Cowper, Fannie Crosby, William Wilberforce, etc.

What can local churches do to better serve families that have a family member with a disability?

This is a good question as it doesn’t start with specialized programs. It starts with the Body of Christ first enfolding that family or person on a practical relational level. This is a challenge as many of us don’t feel comfortable around a person with a disability. Consider this, is a person with “special needs” any less created in the image of God than you or I? Answer, no. With that in mind I would challenge every believer to do something so sweetly simple when you see a needy person or family and you don’t know what you can do to help them. Just ask!

When a family walks in the door and you recognize that perhaps they may have a child with special needs, ask them what you can do to help them worship together with you. “May” is italicized intentionally as not all of us can spot and name a child’s “special need” so even if you have a suspicion offer to help. It is okay to not know or even be uncomfortable with a special needs situation. It may be awkward to you but think of what some families are faced with when they attend church and are told to leave the service because their autistic child yells out involuntarily.

This is an area of great concern as in certain parts of the country the willingness to approach someone in a needy situation is lacking. If a church finds themselves in a position to target a special needs ministry then there are two books I would recommend:

Special Needs Special Ministry by Jim Pierson, Pat Verbal and Louise Tucker Jones

Let All the Children Come to Me by MaLesa Breeding, Dana Hood and Jerry Whitworth

The simplest and, in many ways, the most helpful thing someone can do is to simply offer to be a special needs persons “buddy” on Sundays. Assist in whatever way needed to facilitate that family and that persons Lord’s Day.

How can Christians support the Foundation?

Praying, volunteering and giving. We have sought to have TEF not be exclusively Christian in our servicing these special families. At each of our Retreats we have had non-believers and believers alike in attendance. Pray that we would continue to have opportunities for the Gospel.

Volunteering is a vital part of all that we do. During a Retreat we have 20+ dedicated, full time volunteers. We have been richly blessed by our volunteers as we push them to the point of exhaustion but they see it as an act of worship. We are always looking to add to our book of volunteers. If anyone would like to volunteer please contact us we would love to have your help.

Giving is vital to us as well and is not my favorite subject but it is necessary for doing what we do, this includes not just our monetary needs but books for our Retreats as well. Right now we have no paid staff and schedule Retreats as we have funding.

If a person is interested in learning more about the Foundation and its ministries, how would they do that?

The web site is the easiest way to find out about us but you can contact myself (Justin.Reimer {at} TheElishaFoundation.org) or our newest Board Member, Chris (Chris.Wick {at} TheElishaFoundation.org) directly. My phone number is 541-419-6007.