Happy Birthday to the Happy Hour Class

Today I had the privilege of attending worship service at Wesley Grace United Methodist Church, http://www.wmumcnor.org/ a small congregation in the Wards Corner area of Norfolk, VA that is known locally for a lot of community outreach, impacting the local area in many positive ways.

I was invited by my friend, Gray Puryear, who is not only a longstanding member of the congregation but also serves as a lay speaker among the many responsibilities he holds at Wesley Grace.

Gray, who I have known for 10 years as he is a founding board member of Faith Inclusion Network, invited me to this service because they were planning to celebrate an exciting milestone, the 50th anniversary of a ministry for adults with intellectual disabilities they call “Happy Hour Class”.

An excerpt from a description in the bulletin about the ministry reads, “In 1967, several parents attending a church t Wards Corner in Norfolk asked the church leadership to start a Sunday School class for their adult children with intellectual disabilities. No one in the church had any training or experience with working with this special population in an educational setting, but a few members of the laity gave it a try…Today, 50 years later, that class is recognized by the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church as the oldest continuous class for adults with intellectual disabilities in Virginia.”

I was unexpectedly emotional during the service and have tried to piece together why that might be.  Part of it, I expect, was the very familiar setting of the UMC. I was raised in a small Methodist church, much like this one and the warm memories of a close-knit community were close to the surface.  But it was more than that.

The congregation had a special air of welcoming as they began this celebratory time of worship.  Quite a few people greeted my daughter Samantha and I warmly, recognizing she has a disability.  I felt like members of the congregation were especially aware, on this day set aside to recognize the Happy Hour Class Ministry, that a person they did not know who has a disability was visiting for the first time. It was very welcoming and even encouraging.

The service was full of evidence that this was an important day; a large banner was dedicated to commemorating the 50th anniversary and every part of the service included members of the Happy Hour Class from the greeters, to acolytes and musicians. The theme of celebration was obvious and happily contagious.

Gray Puryear, Lay Speaker at Wesley Grace UMC and one of leaders of the Happy Hour Class

I was also quite moved by my friend Gray’s sermons both to the children and the adults.  His basket of different kinds of apples, an illustration of how people are all different yet still all apples, was simple yet effective for the children. His message in the sermon was equally clear. Referencing Exodus and the story of Moses telling God that he was “slow of speech” so he couldn’t possibly be God’s spokesperson, Gray pointed out an important point.  Just as God provided an accommodation in appointing Moses’ brother Aaron to help Moses, we too are called to provide accommodations to help each other. As Gray put it, “when we provide an accommodation for a person with a disability, we are acting in the image of God.

The beautiful service, complete not only with some contemporary worship music but also a song I have not sung since childhood, Jesus Loves Me, was thoughtfully organized. Even their special guest from Richmond, Ms. Cheryl Edley-Worford, Director of Inclusivity and Lay Leadership Excellence in the Virginia Conference of the UMC https://vaumc.org/LayLeadership was on hand to offer her congratulations and gifts to the congregation.

As Samantha and I left Wesley Grace UMC today, I was reminded that it is the small, thoughtful efforts that sometimes add up to make a big impact for the congregation and their visitors. Listening devices, a screen with large print of all songs and prayers, friends helping friends with walkers and wheelchairs, a clear message from the leadership preaching inclusion and acceptance and the inclusion of persons affected by disability in all parts of the services, make for a welcoming environment. In my eyes, these accommodations and attitudes of acceptance all added up to Faith Inclusion Network’s vision to Accept, Include, and Celebrate all persons affected by disability in our faith communities.

Congratulations and thank you to members of Wesley Grace UMC, Gray Puryear, and Pastor, Scott Beck on this special anniversary.

God Bless!