"There were a few raised eyebrows," he said with a smile. "Many of these people are very outgoing and totally uninhibited about showing joy and affection."
Exhibitions of this "joy and infection" included some of the SPAN members giving bear hugs to startled male parishioners and kissing the hands of blushing women church members.
But as time has passed, the class members have become fully accepted, and their love of life and for the church and its members totally appreciated, Kestler said. Yes, some class members still give hugs and kisses - and they get them back in kind.
"Our class members are zealous about being here," he said. "Many of them will say, no, yell 'Amen!' during the service, and one or two of them will hold up their Bibles and wave them as the sermon is being preached.
"And everyone is used to it and most, if not all, of the members love it and some even join in."
When the class started, members formed their own "Amen" corner of sorts in the sanctuary auditorium. They pretty much sat by themselves as group. The corner has since grown.
"Now, several members of the congregation make it a habit to sit with our class," said Kestler. "Our church definitely has taken our class members under their wing."
The idea for a ministry to area mentally-disabled people was born at meetings last year of the regular SPAN organization. SPAN members discussed the religious life of mentally-disabled people in general and the idea of churches sponsoring activities, including Sunday school classes, in particular. About the same time Burgin Baptist had let be known that it would be interested in doing something along those lines.
The Rev. Mike Handy, pastor of Burgin Baptist, asked if a Sunday school class would sponsor a picnic for mentally-disabled people, and one stepped up and put on the event in April 2003, said Rachel Fraley, a staff member of the Bluegrass Mental Health and Mental Retardation agency and a member of SPAN and Burgin Baptist.
"We had some 75 people show up the picnic, including 20 mentally-disabled people," said Fraley. "Seeing so much interest, Brother Mike suggested the start of a special class and an ongoing ministry."
And that ministry, Fraley said, would reflect the church's mission statement - to "make the name of Christ known to all in all places."
The SPAN class held its first session on Sept. 5, 2003, and Fraley became its teacher and Kestler, who is with a Burgin-based employment recruiting agency, was its assistant teacher. Others helping with the class include Judy Royalty, the church secretary, Ernie Vaught, Katharyn Peavler, Lois Williams and Kestler's wife, Melinda.
Class serves dual purpose
The class serves a dual purpose, Steve Kestler said. It provides Christian education and other activities for the 13 members, and it gives their caregivers time off, he said.
"The caregivers have jobs to handle and other people in their lives to look after," said Fraley. "This class gives them a little time off to do what they want, and that includes, if they are not Baptist, pursuing their own faiths and attending their own churches."
One SPAN member's relative said she appreciated the class - for her relative and for herself.
"Burgin Baptist Church offers a wonderful ministry to the mentally disabled," said Gail Manning of Danville, whose brother, Rick Betz, is a class member. "Rick loves going to church. It's a big part of his life, and it is a big help to me."
The class that Fraley and Kestler lead includes several different activities, ranging from going over lessons based on Bible passages to singing to doing crafts to eating.
"Many of them love to eat and we make sure there is plenty of food for them," Kestler said with a laugh.
Memorizing Bible verses is difficult for many of the class members but some can commit to memory a couple of lines at a time, said Fraley.
"A few have the ability to memorize a couple of verses and can read them back when asked," she said. "But whether can memorize verses are not, they grasp that the book is important and the words in it will make their lives better.