By Sharon Mager and Shelley Mahoney
COMERIO, Puerto Rico — On Feb. 7, One Church Comerio in Puerto Rico hosted the island’s first Tim Tebow Foundation’s Night to Shine (NTS) and Maryland and Delaware church members were on hand to help. A team of eight volunteers arrived in the verdant town, lush with mountains and waterfalls, on Feb. 6 to help the small church congregation with whatever they needed to make the big event a success.
Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) Associate Executive Director Tom Stolle led a team that included Jim McCaffrey, the pastor of Gunpower Baptist Church in Freeland, Maryland; Drs. Amir and Bergina Isbell, members of Maryland City Baptist Church in Laurel, Maryland; Ray and Diane Jenkins, who along with Stolle are members of High Tide Church in Dagsboro, Delaware; Kerry Day, a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Huntingtown, Maryland, and his daughter, Kristen; and Sharon Mager, a member of North Glen Community Church in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Dr. Bergina Isbell and Jim McCaffrey are both members of The Banquet Network, which, according to the organization’s webpage, “exists to inspire, equip, and resource churches to serve and include people and families with special needs and disabilities.”
The local government was happy to endorse the event and allowed the church to use a gym facility in nearby Palomas. One Church Comerio, together with the BCM/D team, transformed the plain building into a party venue, jam-packed with balloons and decorations, and complete with a dance floor. They created an enchanting environment which guests and their families are unlikely to forget. The mission team inflated and tied hundreds upon hundreds of black, white, pink, and silver balloons for hours on Thursday in preparation for the prom. The church used some of the balloons to assemble an elegant archway at the entrance of the building, framing a dramatic tropical backdrop. Other balloons decorated the dining and dance floor areas. The team secured most of the balloons in a net and — with the help of Ray, Kerry, and Amir — hoisted it above the dance floor for a dramatic drop before the dance.
Volunteers worked long into the evening assembling crowns and corsages, setting up a photo booth, buying last-minute kitchen and food supplies, preparing tables, cleaning, and setting up video equipment.
On Friday, guests arrived with their parents or guardians, some with grandparents or siblings, and a few with their entire family. Excitement and anticipation hung tangibly in the air as guests observed the many fanciful, decorative touches around the building and received an enthusiastic welcome from volunteers. One Church Comerio Pastor Jorge Santiago Reyes and his wife Rebecca, along with church members and volunteers, clapped, cheered, gave high-fives, and snapped pictures of attendees as they stepped from their vehicles onto the red carpet. Guests were smiling, their eyes dancing, mesmerized by the attention. At least 300 people filled the auditorium.
The church put their cultural twist on the prom, starting with the transportation. “Here we have ‘party busses,’ said Rebecca, the wife of Jorge Santiago Reyes, the pastor of One Church Comerio. Many guests arrived on a decorated school bus, escorted by a police car and an ambulance with flashing lights and wailing sirens, signaling the beginning of the special evening. Others came by car or in vehicles with wheelchair lifts.
At most NTS proms, “buddies” befriend and escort the guests throughout the evening, while parents and caregivers enjoy a respite. It was a little different at this prom. “This is our first time and almost all of the guests are not from our church,” said Pastor Jorge. He said that, understandably, family members would be uncomfortable leaving their loved ones with buddies who are strangers to them, so they stayed together.
Family members seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as their loved ones, especially on the dance floor. Some parents, with children in wheelchairs, whirled them around the dance floor.
One woman and a younger guest danced to a complicated, lively type of salsa while others gathered around to cheer them on.
Buddies, who served as hosts to the families, crowned their assigned special guests as prom kings and queens at a designated moment during the event. Then the balloons dropped — an enormous amount of silvery, shimmering balloons raining softly down on grinning guests. They seemed captivated and enchanted by the magic of the moment before stomping on the balloons and creating the popping sounds and festive atmosphere of fireworks going off throughout the building.
The team from Maryland and Delaware tirelessly served fried rice and pork, potatoes, and bread, along with fruit, cheese, and cake. Afterward, they gently interacted with guests, smiling, talking, and showing love and attention.
Diane Jenkins said that watching the guests as they entered and “took it all in” was the main highlight of the night for her. “It was amazing to be a part of such an exciting outreach,” she added.
“The hand of God could be seen on the faces of the guests,” said Stolle. “Jesus spoke about including those who one wouldn’t usually invite to a banquet in Luke 14. One Church Comerio did that with their Night to Shine. The faces of the guests and their families’ faces expressed incredible joy and the love and acceptance they received.”
Stolle shared the message of the evening, translated in Spanish, telling guests and their families that God loves them. “You were invited to this banquet because you are worthy of love,” he said. “You were invited to this banquet because you are worthy of respect. You were invited to this banquet because Jesus died for you and in the eyes of God, you are priceless.”
“I was extremely moved that two special needs guests understood enough of what I said from the message … to know that they were loved and cared for,” Stolle said. He added that he was also touched when these guests asked to have a prom photo with him.
“Who am I? I’m not a family member; I just told them God loves them and that they are worthy of love and respect,” Stolle said. “That they would receive that message and want my picture in a keepsake is a praise to God. The love of God transcends language and disability. It cannot be stopped. It cannot be contained. No barrier can stop love.”
McCaffrey said he noticed two girls at the dance who seemed to enjoy themselves immensely that evening. “One of the girls was in a wheelchair. Her caregiver would wheel her out and dance with her. The smiles and laughter of this little girl made it look like the best thing ever,” McCaffrey recalls. “The other girl danced in the middle of the floor by herself and was having such a great time. It is absolutely amazing to see how much they want to be loved and recognized. Something as simple as a prom for a couple of hours made them feel so special.”
The BCM/D team had a whirlwind trip. They arrived on Feb. 6 to meet Pastor Jorge, worked nearly around the clock on Thursday night and Friday, and returned to the continental U.S. on Saturday.
The team unanimously agreed that one of the greatest blessings they experienced was witnessing Pastor Jorge’s testimony. The young pastor quietly shared how God dramatically rescued and saved him, and how Rebecca loved him through the ordeal and was a catalyst to turn him to the Lord. He told how God has sustained and blessed their beautiful marriage, and how He called Jorge back to his home in Puerto Rico to share the Gospel and plant a church and how He provided all of their needs.
“It was amazing to listen to Pastor Jorge tell his testimony. But what really stood out was how he is leading his church so well,” said McCaffrey. “New members’ class, new believers’ class, 15 baptisms last year, 40 church members who came from evangelistic efforts. The building isn’t fancy, they don’t have all the latest technology, they don’t have big programs to come to. It is amazing to see how the Gospel can transform lives through simple means.”
Tom Stolle said another major highlight of the trip was to witness the way the team selflessly served, working so hard to ensure they would be able to provide a special night for the guests.
“For one night, they knew they were special,” Stolle added. “Not special needs —just special. And that’s awesome.”