What does it take to be a welcoming faith community?

This morning, my daughter Samantha and I attended Second Presbyterian Church, http://www.spcnorfolk.org/ , a small congregation near the Naval Base in Norfolk. I am well acquainted with the church as they generously house Faith Inclusion Network’s office and I count both Pastor Craig Wansink and Assoc. Pastor Catherine Monroe as personal friends. 
This was only the second time I have worshipped with the Second Presbyterian congregation and the first time I have taken Samantha along with me. I was invited to not only share the song “Let’s Share a Journey”,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-OmcOXxO_s&t=42s but also had the opportunity to sing and play flute along with their small praise band.
I was excited about participating in the worship Sunday morning but also a bit apprehensive. When I woke up Samantha, who has autism and is quite echolalic at times, I said “It’s time to get ready for church.” She spent the next few minutes repeating, “time for church, time for church” and my anxiety started to kick in. I was not sure how to prepare her to go to a different church. Although I had many words explaining how I was going to sing and play flute, I was just not sure if it was sinking in.
Our four-minute drive to Second Pres was over quickly and when I opened the door, Samantha took a moment to process the situation. She realized we were not at her church. For a few seconds, I thought maybe she wouldn’t get out of the van, but then she hopped out and in we headed for a short rehearsal before the service.
As I sang and played in rehearsal, Samantha seemed quite at ease. Quite a few people approached her to say hello. Of course, being non-verbal she didn’t respond, but no one seemed that confused or shocked. I began to relax.
Since I was up front performing most of the service, Samantha sat up in the first pew with the Associate Pastor Catherine Monroe’s’ family Again, any anxiety I had about how Samantha would do in this unfamiliar setting dissolved. I felt like I could relax and enjoy the worship time.
I have always enjoyed hearing Pastor Craig speak and his sermon this morning was no exception. The reading and topic of the day, taken from the Gospel of Luke, was the well-known parable of the Great Banquet. (Luke 14:15-24) In simple terms, Pastor Craig made sure the children up front understood: we shouldn’t just be inviting the wealthy or those who can pay us back. We need to invite the commonly overlooked, commonly excluded, the people on the fringes of society.
The service flew by and I very much enjoyed the chance to share the song “Let’s Share a Journey” as well as a short story about how that song came about.
But the real impact of the experience came at home after I had time to digest the whole morning.
Just a few years ago, I would NEVER had tried to bring Samantha to an unfamiliar church, especially when I couldn’t sit right by her. But with maturity, positive experiences in her own church, (Blessed Sacrament Catholic), and a welcoming atmosphere, she can now adapt to a different church and worship setting. This is so huge and exciting for us!
So why did we feel so welcomed at this church? Here are a few reasons:
1. The friendliness and acceptance of the church’s leadership and members of the congregation. We were intentionally welcomed with both formal introductions from the pulpit and informal greetings from the time we stepped into the church until we left.
2. Accommodations
I needed someone to sit with Samantha while I was up front performing and the Associate Pastor and her family were happy to help. In fact, Catherine’s response when I asked her was an enthusiastic, “Absolutely, thanks for asking!”. This meant a lot because she understood that there was a possibility that some autistic behaviors could kick in and things could not go well, but she wanted to help anyway.

3. Acknowledgement of importance of inclusion
I realize most people are not affected by disability in a personal way. Hearing a message of inclusion from the Pastor is extremely welcoming to people and families affected by disability.

Does this church have a disability ministry or program? No, and I don’t think that this is necessarily a prerequisite to being welcoming, even to people affected by disability, (although disability ministries can bring even more awareness and support to families affected by disability and are wonderful parts of many faith communities). What is a requirement, however, is leadership committed to the call of acceptance and members of a congregation open to embracing people that are different. It takes love and understanding and an inclusive attitude.

Thank you to Second Presbyterian Church and to all who are working diligently in their own houses of worship to be more inclusive and welcoming. God Bless.