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45th Anniversary Is A Milestone For Unique Ministry To The Handicapped

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Mattie Lackey celebrating her 90th birthday with her church family. She was born April 3, 1929. Her daddy hard borrowed a car to fetch the doctor. When she didn't arrive on time, Daddy returned the car. He had to get the doctor on a mule.

At 90 years old Mattie Lackey has no plans to quit.

For 45 years, she and a team of dedicated van drivers, volunteer and staff teachers and workers have served the mentally and physically handicapped through The Church of the Exceptional in Henrietta.

On April 28 at 2 p.m. the church celebrates its 45th anniversary, a celebration that, in Lackey's telling, is the culmination of miracle after miracle.

It came together fast in what Lackey calls "a God thing." In March of 1974, shortly after a divorce, she was working as a spool tender in the Avondale Mill, a job that gave her lots of time to think. The idea for the church came "rocking across my brain," as she tells it after hearing that a friend's nephew was getting made fun of in school for being disabled. "If they're making fun of him in school, they're probably making fun of him in church," she said.

She mentioned the idea to her sister, Hazel Appling and a friend, Jewell Crawford. Crawford's husband, Tom, was a member of the Wesley Methodist Men's group that was meeting shortly thereafter. The men's group liked the idea as did two Methodist preachers, Harry Sellers and Clay Morgan. The members of the Cliffside United Methodist Church voted on April 28, 1974 to allow the first service, which followed on May 5.

From the first spark of the idea rocking across her brain to the first service less than two months passed. Lackey was amazed, but added, "It's a God thing." She wondered if she could do it, but remembered the scriptures promise, "All things are possible." She has no formal education in religious leadership. She calls that, "a God thing," too.

The church met in the fellowship hall of the Cliffside church, rent free, for eight years and in 1982 the present location in Henrietta became available. Over the next few months a second building became available.

"We got two buildings and four acres of land for $5,000. It was another God thing. Of course, we didn't have any money so we held yard sales, poor man's suppers, had one auction," she remembered.

The Church of the Exceptional operates totally off contributions which come not only from 38 local churches and dozens of individuals, but also from a network of donors in South Carolina, Virginia and one family each in Charlotte and Cary.

Does she remember a particular miracle that confirmed her call to lead the church?

"Not one in particular, but the money has always come when we needed it. On Aug. 12 one year the Temple Church across from us, held a supper to help us raise $23,000 for a new roof. Chester Walker was a staff member and a van driver. He said it would take us years to raise that kind of money. On October 1, we had the money, just over six weeks later," she said.

Johny Carson, who spells his name with one "n," and has been a member of the church for eight years, said coming to that church has been the best thing to happen to him in his 64 years.

"I ain't saying the spirit ain't present in other churches, but I felt it the second I walked through the door," Carson said.

"People tell me that all the time," Lackey agreed. "They feel the spirit when they walk through the door."

Roger's story is particularly heart-warming to Lackey and Carson. Roger had been unable to remain quiet during services at his old church. He would stand up and start talking and need to use the bathroom. The first time he came to Henrietta, he asked to use the bathroom five times during worship.

Carson said, "I know because I took him all five times."

By his third service, he remained quiet for worship and did not need to use the bathroom.

Another man's family had been told by three professionals that he would never speak. After a time in the Henrietta church, he began speaking after years of silence.

"And he didn't just speak. He spoke in sentences," Lackey recalled.

The church's flagship quality is acceptance. Chris Campbell joined the story telling in the beautiful garden that surrounds the meeting house.

Because of a rare skin condition, "People stare at me in Walmart and other places. When I came here, nobody did that. I felt at home here," Campbell said. The Campbells had stopped attending another church because they felt uncomfortable with the stares. Chris's mother, Robin, is now writing a book about the church.

Before launching into her stories, the 90-year-old director of the church, had spent an hour working in the garden and planned to work two more hours that afternoon. Azalea and iris blooms color the four-acre campus like a story book. The garden is called The Crawford and Dysart Memorial Garden and was established in 1999. Many statues and memorial markers dot the site.

"In spring and summer something is always in bloom," Lackey said. "E.K. Parker did some work for me and I asked him if ever did anything like this. He came down here and we paid him for a while, but he just keeps coming."

The congregation received a national Caring Church award from Joni and Friends Ministries. Duke Power has also recognized the work with a service award and Lackey has received North Carolina's highest civilian honor, The Order Of The Longleaf Pine.

Often featured in television and newspaper stories, Lackey believes the Church of The Exceptional is the oldest congregation specifically targeted to physically and mentally handicapped persons in the United States. There is a serious need for van drivers and anybody thinking of volunteering could learn more by attending the anniversary service on April 28 at 2 p.m. The church is located at 2843 U.S. Highway 221-A in downtown Henrietta. Donations can be mailed to Box 42, Caroleen, 28019.

Many church groups also donate drinks and snacks for the church which helps stretch the budget. "We've got five jars of peanut butter right now, so it'll be a while before we need any peanut butter."

Simple Faith, a singing group, will be part of the anniversary celebration. They are sisters, Hannah Jolley and Sara Sheppard and their sister-in-law Sherry Allen who have sung Gospel music together since 2003. Mrs. Allen is a member of the East Rutherford High School Class of 1972.

When Mattie Lackey finally ages out of her job, who is slated to replace her? She laughed to say originally she had hoped it would be one of her sons, but added they're getting too old now.

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