In a former church near downtown is an unusual gathering – not for the spent pizza boxes and half-empty salad bowls littering a half-dozen tables, nor for the silly games being played, such as a competition to fill numbered plates with objects like pens and shoes.
What’s different is that about half of those gathered here have some form of cognitive impairment, and the others have no such problem.
But here at the Reality Center, this is not a gathering where some come to help and others are helped. This ministry is devoted to connecting people whose disabilities often isolate them from the wider community, and every such event is a gathering of friends.
Jeff and Susan McSwain are at the center of Reality Ministries, now in its eighth year. Jeff McSwain founded the organization, was once its director and remains its spiritual center. Susan, his wife, headed its outreach to the cognitively impaired, and is now its director.
Both have helped the group become a thriving community with an impact far beyond its home base. They have launched educational programs for at-risk youth and communities where people with intellectual disabilities live among others – including one where the McSwains live.
In recent years, they have re-centered their focus on their growing group of friends, who now make up about 300 volunteers and participants. They bring groups to summer camps, hold dances complete with red carpet photographers, do yoga, laugh and pray.
I don’t believe our community can flourish if a whole segment of our population is largely invisible.
Susan McSwain, director, Reality Ministries
The McSwains insist that this work benefits all of Durham, not just those who might otherwise live in isolation.
“I don’t believe our community can flourish if a whole segment of our population is largely invisible,” says Susan McSwain. “It’s limiting for them and a loss for the rest of us.”
Those who spend their time at the center believe their unique approach reaps huge dividends.
“It’s the only place I’ve come across that encourages actual, natural friendships across social divides,” says Allison Waters, a 26-year-old social worker who has volunteered with Reality Ministries for three years. “It’s genuine. It’s not showy.”
Finding each other
The McSwains were both born in North Carolina and went to college here, but they met in Washington, D.C. She was working with at-risk youth in a community development program; he was a history teacher and coach at a private prep school.
Jeff McSwain left that job to work with Young Life, the national Christian ministry focused on adolescents. Susan volunteered with the group, where they met. After they married, they took a year’s leave in Scotland while Jeff earned a master’s degree in theology.
Eventually, they relocated to Durham, and continued their work with Young Life as Susan also focused on homeschooling their four children.
A rift with Young Life gave Reality Ministries its start; the local committee Jeff led was dismissed by the national group due to differences in their approaches to ministry – namely whether all participants in the program needed to profess their faith.
Eight members of that committee formed Reality Ministries, continuing one of their prized programs from Young Life – a ministry devoted to teenagers with developmental disabilities.
Jeff McSwain says he saw the group as a ministry focused on grace – a belonging with God that everyone enjoys, whether or not they’re able to articulate their faith.
“We didn’t believe that the gift of grace was determined by the capacity of a person to accept it,” he says.
If Jeff’s approach encompassed his interest in theology, Susan’s was based squarely in her love of people. She recalls the first time she was involved as a volunteer working with a group of cognitively impaired people, on an outing to a mall theater when her whole group jumped up and danced at the end of the movie.
Afterward, she noticed the looks people in the mall gave her group.
“I remember walking out and thinking there was no other group of people at this mall or on this planet who are just enjoying themselves and being together this much,” says Susan. “I felt swept up in their freedom and delight in just being who they were in that moment.”
After Jeff incorporated the nonprofit, the group raised $1 million from private donors and when the old church at Gregson and Lamond streets went up for sale, they were able to buy the space for $500,000 without taking out a loan. It was a risk, but the young organization, then housed in tiny donated office space, felt the building would give their work a much-needed tangible presence.
Once in their new home, Reality Ministries quickly grew. The group expanded its focus to include anyone 14 or over, helping to create daily interaction for people who are often left with little to do when they age out of the public school system in their early 20s. One program they started, to tutor students suspended from school, has spun off into a separate organization.
In 2013, Jeff returned to Scotland to study for his Ph.D., and Susan took over as the group’s director.
The building houses evening meetings two days a week, and small groups have occasional dinners at volunteers’ homes or churches so they can build deeper bonds.
The group tries to keep as close as possible to a one-to-one ratio between participants and volunteers, which helps blur the divide between the groups.
Daytime activities held four days a week – soon to be five – include walks through the neighborhood and art activities.
Participants have come largely without official recruiting, as word of the programs spread through group homes and from family to family.
Latora McRae, 34, heard about the meetings from a friend who was already coming, and now counts off a number of friends who don’t share her cognitive disability.
“I like being around these people,” she says. “We do a lot of fun things together.”
This year, the group welcomed its first group of interns, young people from across the nation who work full-time at Reality Ministries for a year.
The group has also spawned several communities that provide spaces where cognitively impaired residents live alongside others, though they are operated independently of the nonprofit.
The idea for the North Street development, made up of 16 condemned houses being turned into apartments, was developed among regulars at the Reality Center, and several families now live there, including the McSwains.
A similar arrangement pairs disabled residents with students at Duke University’s divinity school.
The McSwains aren’t sure what other ideas might be launched by the spark their center has created – but they’re open to new ideas.
“We’re growing here as a community of people of all abilities who are sharing life together,” says Susan. “We’re all incomplete without one another.”
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Jeff and Susan McSwain
Born: Susan, Henderson, March 1961; Jeff, Charlotte, May 1962
Career: Jeff, founder and resident theologian; Susan, director, Reality Ministries
Education: Susan, B.A. political science, Wake Forest University; Jeff, B.A. history, Davidson College; M.A. theology; finishing a Ph.D., University of St. Andrews, Scotland
Family: Children Emily, Caroline, Malissa, David