Category Archives: Christian Faith

All Are Welcome

“All Are Welcome” is a well-known and well-loved Christian hymn written by prolific liturgical composer, Marty Haugen. I’ve sung it often as a member of the congregation and even led it as a cantor on a few occasions, but never did the song impact me in the way it did this past Sunday when visiting St. John Chrysostom in Wallingford, PA.

This was not my first visit to St. John Chrysostom. I wrote a piece several years ago, called “Welcoming the Visitor”. My family and I had attended a Mass at the church at Eastertime while visiting our oldest son at Swarthmore College. I was so overwhelmed with their intentional inclusion, I wrote a story and connected with the pastor, Fr. Hallinan by email.

More than a year after my son has graduated from Swarthmore, I found myself preparing to bring our youngest son to the school for an official visit on campus. I happily anticipated an opportunity to attend church once again at St. John Chrysostom…I was not disappointed.

The moment I walked in, about ten minutes before the start of Mass, I observed several people with various kinds of disabilities. Ushers and members of the congregation greeted everyone in a kind and gentle way, expressing their joy to see them. One young adult, who seemed to be non-verbal, shook hands very enthusiastically with the greeter, a huge smile on his face. It was obvious to me that he was a valued member of the congregation and everyone he encountered was as glad to see him as he was to see them.

A few more steps into the church and I noticed some signage; one an announcement about a Caregivers Support Group and another about an Autism help line. These notices were not buried among many on a full bulletin board, but prominently displayed and easy to read.

I finally found a seat in the pew and listened to the choir warm up (a folk group with guitars, bongos and several singers.)  Of the six vocalists, the soloist chosen to lead a prominent part of one of the songs was an elderly woman with an exceptionally quiet voice. She was singing in tune, but it struck me as particularly refreshing that she was the one chosen for the solo. Not the strongest or the youngest voice, but an important voice and another obvious way that this church embraces the gifts of every person.

I could go on but you probably get the idea. St. John Chrysostom is a vibrant congregation with a strong understanding of what it takes to be inclusive.

I waited a few minutes at the end of Mass so I could re-introduce myself to Fr. Hallinan and hopefully get a few minutes to talk. We ended up chatting for more than ten minutes about our shared passion for inclusion and concluded our time together with a photo (thank you for that, Fr. Hallinan!). I expressed how grateful I was for all that this church does to promote inclusion and headed out the door.

As I got back in my car to head back to the campus baseball field, one of the points from my conversation with Fr. Hallinan that resonated strongly with me kept running through my mind.  St. John Chrysostom, like many other faith communities around the country, holds a designated service especially for individuals and families affected by disability. The “Mass of Welcoming and Inclusion”, as it is called at St. John Chrysostom is celebrated the 1st Sunday of the month. (The Mass I attended, by the way, was not on the 1st Sunday of the month, it was a regular Mass without this distinction) Fr. Hallinan said that his goal is that eventually they would not need to have the Welcoming and Inclusion Mass, that all Masses would feel welcoming and inclusive! We both agreed that an inclusive service can really be a helpful stepping stone for congregations and is still important for some individual and families affected by disability.  I couldn’t help but think, however, as I left the church, that if any congregation was nearing the goal of letting go of this kind of stepping stone, it was this church.

“All Are Welcome” at St. John Chrysostom, that is for sure in both obvious and subtle ways. I am grateful for their efforts and appreciate the opportunity to be an occasional visitor. I also know that there are many Hampton Roads local faith communities doing equally awesome inclusion work and seeing great results. If you aren’t already connected with FIN, please do share with us what you are doing. Your efforts could really be an encouragement to someone else or another faith community.

God Bless.

Karen j.

Lead with Love

If you have a disability or are the parent or guardian of someone with a disability, then you are very familiar with assessments for eligibility of services. These assessments are designed to identify whether  or not an individual requires support of some kind which would then lead to the kinds of intervention or available services. Assessments can be just a few minutes long or take hours and hours and require you to answer hundreds of questions.

As the parent of a young adult with severe autism, I have sat through my fair share of assessments and can assure you that they usually are not fun. This is mainly because the whole reason for the questions is to determine what my child can not do, what her weaknesses are, and why she needs support for daily living, etc.

No one wants to have to spend time focusing solely on their child’s weaknesses, because, despite the truth off all the information, this does not define our child, it is just a part of who they are. Unfortunately, it is the only part that is usually relevant during an assessment.

Recently, this idea of assessments came to mind when consulting with a local small church. I met with a very kind group of people who wanted to discuss how best to support a young person with severe autism. This is the kind of situation I get calls and emails about most frequently as Director of FIN. Due to the challenging behaviors, people leading religious education programs, Sunday schools and other children-focused ministries in churches and synagogues are often at a loss as to how best to include children with autism.

Discussing the situation of inclusion for a young child with autism always brings me back to when my daughter was nine years old. We had just started attending a new church and I was working with the director of the religious education program on how to understand and include Samantha. Even though this was over 10 years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. Do you know what sticks out most in my mind? The initial response from the director of RE. She didn’t ask about all the challenges and how we were going to accomplish including Samantha into Sunday school classses, she just said, “We will figure it out” and asssured me that the church would help. She asked me what Samantha liked to do and what she was like at home. I felt that Samantha was going to be loved and appreciated because of those questions, and I was right.  

The small group I was asked to join was assembled to address and develop strategies to include the child with autism. I have no doubt that they too want what is best for this child and family, as well as the congregation as a whole. I arrived with a small stack of books, resources from some of my favorite authors like Barb Newman, Jolene Philo and Shelly Christensen who have detailed suggestions as to how best to develop support and develop a positive inclusive environment. I brought along some Joni and Friends resources too and I threw in David Morstad’s latest book, “Whole Community” for a big picture look at the importance of developing inclusion.

It was an informal meeting and the group leader jumped right in with some ideas they had been thinking about and the conversation they wanted to have with the parents. As I listened to all their suggestions, it occurred to me that this well-intentioned meeting felt like a group that was assessing and solving a problem, much like the assessments I go through with my daughter to receive services.

Eventually, I chimed in with the suggestion that we back up to the initial talk with the child’s parents. How would I feel if members of my church started a conversation about my daughter with questions about her weaknesses, about the challenges and how to address them in the Sunday school class? I am pretty sure it would feel like an assessment. What is wrong? What are the weaknesses? How do we fix it or what do we provide to make this work?

I made the suggestion that perhaps they could start by asking the parents what their child’s strengths were? What does he do well? What does he like? Yes, the challenging behaviors do exist and need to be discussed to find a way to best support and include the child, but this young person is first and foremost a child of God, with their own set of gifts to offer the community.

The suggestion was noted and appreciated, I think. The group was a well-educated, smart and loving group of people who are all interested in what is best for this individual child, family and the rest of their children in the congregation too. I was glad to be a part of the conversation and hopefully had some good suggestions and helpful resources.

But what I came away with personally was an important reminder of what I believe we all must remember as we go about the work of developing supports and inclusion in our faith communities for people with disabilities or special needs. In addition to learning and utilizing best practice strategies to help our children be included in congregational activities, which very often means religious education classes, we must always start by seeing the person as a precious child of God, a person that brings their own gifts, talents, and special qualities to the table…and we must keep in mind how loved that individual is by their family and by God. We must lead with love.

 

A Christmas Extravaganza

As most people are aware who know me through FIN and the disability community, my daughter Samantha is severely affected by autism. The past couple of years especially, have been a struggle as we help her through some challenging anxiety and medically related issues. For Samantha and many other people in our community with severe developmental disabilities, it can be very difficult to participate in community events and gatherings. Instead of risking a meltdown or maybe not even being able to get in the door because of anxiety, we opt to stay home.

Yet the social, community-loving person in me never gives up and I am grateful to the many organizations and faith communities in Hampton Roads that are striving to be welcoming, understanding and inclusive, making it easier to participate in the community.  From organizations like Virginia Stage Company that is offering a sensory-friendly performance this week (Theater for Everyone-Wed. Dec. 12) for people with disabilities and their families, to faith communities who intentionally welcome and celebrate people families affected by disability, I sense a developing tide of awareness in our community. I share the following story to encourage all who are working hard to develop awareness and provide opportunities to support individuals and families affected by disability. Thank you and God bless!

Karen Jackson,

Executive Director, Faith Inclusion Network

A Christmas Extravaganza

The other night, my daughter and I attended a beautiful gathering put on by the youth of Grace Community Church (EY2S Missions) in support of The Chosen Ministry, a social ministry for adults with disabilities that Samantha and I attend regularly. This “Christmas Extravaganza” included dinner, music, fellowship time, preaching and even a modern, adorable Christmas play. It truly was an extravaganza, but so much more in terms of their efforts to make everyone feel loved and welcome.

When Samantha and I arrived at the church, we were greeted by at least a half dozen members of the youth group, all at the door with the sole job of welcoming us to the gathering. Samantha shyly made her way into the well-lit church, her eyes sparkling at the sight of the holiday lights. She loves all things Christmas and I could tell she was excited to be at a party!

Samantha and Samantha posing for a quick picture at the end of the evening.

We made our way in the gathering room and were immediately befriended by a young intern named Samantha. She works with Pastor Jeff Montgomery coordinating the work with their youth and EY2SMissions. After just a few moments, it was clear to me that she has a heart to love and connect with people with disabilities. I enjoyed watching her speak with my daughter, unfazed that Samantha was not speaking back but none-the-less making a connection.

The evening continued with dinner served by the joyful and engaged youth. We also listened to the testimony of a friend of ours, Jenny, who has a disability and also a gift for sharing her faith and her story. “How perfect”, I thought, “that this gathering encourages people affected by disability to not only participate, but to lead!”

Jenny and Pastor Jeff

I enjoyed my conversation with the other people at our table. A sweet couple next to us shared that their son has Aspergers. They live close to the church and participate in many of the activities offered. I was thrilled to observe that their 15-year old son had a part in the youth’s entertaining Christmas play. Even though we just met, I could tell these parents were proud of their son for participating on stage. He really did a great job!

As the evening progressed, I realized that Grace Community and their youth were living out their faith and doing everything so right in the way they strive to love and include everyone.  Regardless of the person’s abilities or behaviors, the feeling of acceptance was palatable.  From the warm welcome to the understanding of inclusion, this place is actively building leaders that will one day be engaged, understanding adults. This gives me tremendous hope and it was a blessing to be a part of the evening.

Members of EY2S Missions Youth Group at Grace Community Church

Samantha didn’t want to leave that night, and who could blame her? She felt welcomed, accepted and understood. (And so did I.) As the youth were busy cleaning up and putting up the tables, Samantha and I reluctantly headed out, feeling the warmth of true acceptance. It was an extravagant night, and we feel blessed to have participated. Thank you, Pastor Jeff and the EY2S Missions team. God bless!

 

In Pursuit of Self-Care: One Caregiver’s Summer Journey to a Healthier Place

FIN is just getting started on planning a new event in May 2019 that will focus on supporting caregivers. So many of our families affected by disability include caregivers who need support as they manage taking care of family members affected by disability, other children, marriages and jobs. There is often not enough time to ensure they are taking care of themselves as well. In the following article, Karen Jackson shares her own experience as a caregiver and some strategies for moving toward a healthier lifestyle. 

In Pursuit of Self-Care: One Caregiver’s Summer Journey to a Healthier Place

I am writing this article for that mom or caregiver out there struggling to take care of herself, overwhelmed with the responsibilities of taking care of multiple children, maybe some with special needs and some just at a challenging age. He or she also takes care of her home, her spouse and probably holds down a job.

Everyone tells her how important “self-care” is, but she can’t seem to get a grasp on truly putting herself ahead of all the other people and responsibilities in her life. If that is you, I hope you will read on. If its not, then I am guessing you know someone like this; caregivers who need your love and support…And the encouragement and opportunity to take care of themselves as well.

As a 23-year veteran parent with one out of the house, one high school-er and an adult child with special needs, (not to mention recently having turned 50!) the self-care dilemma had come to the forefront of my life. Facing pre-diabetes, high cholesterol and a multitude of other issues, I had to admit, I wasn’t taking very good care of myself…and I needed a plan.

This past summer I embarked on a little project I called “A Healthier Me”. My project included self-care aspects regarding my physical, emotional and mental well-being.  Ironically, it was also an extremely stressful summer caring for my daughter, Samantha who had been struggling with extreme anxiety. Somehow, with a combination of stubbornness (I have plenty of that), faith and a good plan, I made it through this summer and can honestly say I am now in a healthier place. I may not be exactly where I want to be ultimately, but I have made progress.

The following is an outline of my experience. I pray it is helpful for you and might inspire you to get to a healthier place too.

  1. Faith

Before I even began setting goals, I prayed for God to bless this experience and help me find the time, energy and resources I needed to make it happen. In mid-May, He led me to a local personal trainer business called Fitness Together.  One of the owners just happened to be a recent author of a faith and fitness book called 365 Power Diet, How to Overcome Obesity and Strengthen Your Faith with New Habits that Last a Lifetime by Marti Carrier. I took it as a sign and not only purchased the book but registered for my evaluation and first ever personal fitness training session.

  1. Support and Encouragement

I started a secret Facebook page (did you know that was a thing?) and invited ten of my most encouraging friends. You know, the ones who build you up and keep you going. I am blessed with a lot of those kind of people in my life but really you only need one or two.

On my secret page I posted about food, exercising and a lot about my personal training experience. I also tried to be honest about my emotional challenges. I had lots of great comments and feedback from my friends.

My husband was also very encouraging and, despite the extra cost associated with the personal training and healthier food, encouraged me to do it. He was also up extra early in the morning sometimes if I was out exercising helping take care of our daughter. I am very blessed to have his support and I also enjoyed sharing my little successes along the way with him.

  1. Goals

I am a goal setter and this was a prime opportunity. I set some specific goals, like working with a trainer, finding a nutritional plan that would work for me and running a 5K. Posting my goals, even if only for a few friends, helped me to stay focused and motivated.

  1. Emotional Eating Issues

I am the textbook definition of an emotional eater which is one of the reasons I was so overweight. A bad day teaching? Not enough sleep? Medical problems with my daughter? My answer was usually comfort food at some point in the evening.

My biggest prayer in the beginning of the summer was to find the self-control and strength to fight the urge to de-stress with food. I relied heavily on my faith here and as I made this issue a daily prayer focus, I could feel myself developing more self-control. Of course, I had relapses, but I have made big strides.

  1. Nutrition Plan

There are more diets and nutritional plans out there than anyone can count. I think I have tried most of them. For me, a lower carbohydrate, higher protein diet has helped me stabilize my blood sugar. I have done Whole 30 in the past but currently consider my diet Paleo. Whatever you choose, make sure you check in with a doctor to ensure it is a healthy plan for you.

  1. Exercise

Mandy, Personal Trainer at Fitness Together

I delved into personal training 3X/week for most of the summer. The time of day that had the least impact on my family and caregiving responsibilities was 5:30 AM. With my daughter getting very little sleep (and therefore getting very little sleep myself) there were mornings I barely could get out of bed. I had an awesome trainer though. She became an great personal support and didn’t even mind when I had the occasional breakdown because of my lack of sleep. Thank you, Mandy!

I also began getting more cardio exercise. I used to love to run but had injuries that kept me from running and sometimes from even walking for exercise. The strength training helped build up my back and core enough to get my body in a better place to be able to run.  Yesterday I registered for a 5K race. Even if I come in dead last, I will consider running the race a victory.

  1. Emotional and Mental Health

Taking care of someone who has special needs, not to mention if they are going through a particularly difficult season, is not just physically draining, its mentally and emotionally draining as well. I wish I had the answer for everyone here, but some things I found that helped me were developing my prayer time and finding ways to physically relax. In the past I have gone to counseling, which I highly recommend, but did not pursue this summer.

I have long been in the habit of taking time in the morning to read the Bible, pray and journal. Lately, however, I felt like I was in a bit of a rut. My journaling had become more complaining than anything else. So, I began to use my journal time to ask God questions. “What should I do about this or that?” “Should we try a new medication for our daughter?”, “Who should I call for help on Sat. night?” etc.…And then, I just waited and I listened. Miraculously, my stress level came down as I handed over questions to God and was urged one way or another with answers to my questions.

Physically relaxing also became a pursuit for me. Since I love being in water, (and summer is a good time for that) I tried to get to a pool or the ocean as much as I could. Toward the end of the summer, as my daughter was feeling better, she came along too. Between a little more time in the water, a few professional massages and more quality prayer time, I began to see a reduction in my stress level.

Moving Ahead

Author, out for a run in early September

The summer is over and I am very glad to have taken the time to make some significant changes in my self-care strategies. I am hopeful to continue to take better care of myself and get to an even healthier place. My “A Healthier Me” project gave me the focus I needed to jump start a transition to healthier habits.

An important, unintended result of my summer endeavor was realizing that I could focus on taking care of myself, even during difficult times and even as a mom to a child with special needs. I felt like God wanted me to know that He not only loves and cares for me, but He wants to help me be the best I can be. It is not selfish to take care of myself, rather it is an important part of my journey. I am blessed to be able to keep learning and hope you too will be inspired to put self-care on the top of your list as you continue to be the best caregiver and person you can be.

 

Essay Contest: Blog #4 Brittany French

Brittany was one of the first people that befriended me many years ago when my daughter and I started attending The Chosen Ministry. In her shy way, she would ask about Samantha and then about me, always remembering details that many would miss if they weren’t really listening. What a gift!

FIN would like to both thank and congratulate Brittany for sharing her story and being the winner of our very first essay contest.  As you read her essay you will realize that the remarkable thing about this story is how simple it really is…a church doing what many others do; reach out to the community and educate children in the faith.  What made a difference in Brittany’s life is how she felt and the continued acceptance as a person with a disability as she grew up in the church.  Even more wonderful, being a member of the congregation eventually led to finding a job nearby.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more adults with disabilities were able to find work through the natural connections we make in our congregations?

So again we thank you, Brittany for not only writing this essay, but presenting it at our Gifts of the Heart Gala on March 11. You did a great job! -K. Jackson

My Faith Journey

Author Brittany French with Karen Fox who leads The Chosen Ministry in Norfolk

by Brittany French

The hospitality of a neighbor inviting me to church and the hospitality of the church folk accepted me even though I have several disabilities and this changed my life forever. I was three years old when a neighbor invited my twin sister and me to attend Sunday School at a church down the street from my house. My twin sister does not have the intellectual and physical disabilities that I live with every day. I began this adventure in the classroom with two wonderful teachers that made me feel loved and wanted.

In Sunday School we did arts and crafts related to Bible stories, we memorized verses and sat on a rug to hear the bible story of the day. My favorite event at church was attending Vacation Bible School in the summer. I loved playing outside and being with the other children. The other children did not treat me differently because of my disability. That made me feel good. I was always accepted for who I was. In fact, my church has five people with disabilities in the congregation because this church accepts and welcomes all people who come in.

Throughout the years, I continued to go to Sunday School each week. My faith grew stronger as I grew older and began to understand what the bible stories were saying. As an adult I joined the church I had been going to for so many years. This was a place I was accepted as God’s child, made in his image. I am what God wanted me to be. The church has helped me accept my disabilities and believe in myself.

I now have also joined “Chosen Ministry” which is a group that works with intellectually disabled adults. I love having other disabled friends. They understand some of the challenges I face. Being a part of “Chosen Ministry” has helped me see my disabilities in a different way. I am grateful to be who I am.

After several years of looking for a job, and many hours of prayer, I got a job in the daycare center which is next door to my church. Knowing that I am helping others is an answer to my prayers. My faith continues to grow as I work with little children and see how they love everyone.

Note: Brittany attends Third Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, VA

Brittany with friend Angela West at the Gifts of the Heart Gala-2018

 

Essay Contest Blog Series-Blog #2-Jenny the Jewel

I have known this next author for many years through the social ministry first called Young Life Capernaum and then The Chosen Ministry. I have always been a bit in awe of her confident faith and am so grateful to call her friend.  Thank you “Jenny the Jewel” for your strong words of faith and for being such a kind and loving friend. -K. Jackson

 

What My Faith Means to Me

My faith means EVERYTHING to me! When I was in high school, the kids on the school bus were very mean to me and and called me all kinds of bad names. They told me I was a mistake! When I got home I would be crying. My Mom met me at the door every day and we would talk and pray. She told me that people called Jesus bad names too and that He understand exactly how I felt. She told me that real truth is only found in God’s Word and not in what other people say about you. My Mom told me that if I could find anywhere in the Bible where God calls me bad names or said I was a mistake, she would pay me $5,000. I read the Bible to see what God said about me. All the Scriptures I found said just the opposite! Some of my favorite Scriptures are Psalm 139:14 where God says I am fearfully and wonderfully made. In Psalm 17 God tells me that I am the apple of His eye. In Deuteronomy 7:6 God tells me that I am His treasured possession. In Phil 4:8 God tells me to think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure and lovely. I like to think about the truth that God tells me and spend my time thinking about what God says is true. The last Scripture that means a lot to me is Psa. 119:114, that says “You are my refuge and my shield. I have put my hope in Your Word.” My confidence and hope and trust is in God. I love to memorize Scripture and fill my mind with the truth of who God says I am. Doing this has made all the difference in my life!  Now I know that God has a plan for my life and He created me just the way I am for His special purpose!  I love my life!  I love to share God’s love with other people and tell them about Jesus and to pray for them. This fills my heart with great joy!  I am so thankful that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, and that I will live with Him forever!

He is my very best friend. I don’t make any decisions without asking Jesus first. I want what God wants for my life. I want to please Him in everything I do. My passion and desire is to serve Him. He is my reason for living, and He gives my life meaning. My favorite part of the day is the evening when I have my quiet time with the Lord. I LOVE to read in God’s word and to listen to Him, and write down what He says to me in my journal. I LOVE to pray, it makes me feel so close to God. I LOVE to copy Scriptures in my journal. I like to meditate on the Scriptures and see what God is going to say to me. I LOVE to be in God’s presence and to listen to worship music. I LOVE to rest in His Almighty arms. Jesus fills my heart with joy and excitement.

I LOVE God with all of my heart and I want my life to bring glory to His name. I can’t even imagine my life without God!

Jenny The Jewel

Author Jenny Jenson (far right) with mom Cherry behind her and friends Mika Fox, Karen Fox and Katie Mann at FIN’s Gifts of the Heart Gala-2018

The Parking Lot

I was excited when Virginia Pilot journalist Denise Watson replied to my email about doing a story on Faith Inclusion Network and our upcoming Gifts of the Heart Gala.  I always love to share about FIN and the work we do. After Denise and I talked on the phone, we decided to meet up at my church, Blessed Sacrament Catholic in Norfolk, VA one weekend before Mass to have a picture taken of my daughter Samantha participating at church, a shining example of inclusion as a person severely affected by autism but very much part of our church family.

I knew our Pastor, Fr. Joe Metzger would be fine with the plan, he has always been supportive of our efforts to include Samantha and the various cameras and reporters in the past coming in to film or take photos.  I should have known it would not be that easy this time around though.  Samantha’s anxiety, built up over the last few weeks for what is as of yet undetermined causes, kicked into high gear and she refused to get out of our van when we got to the church parking lot.

Samantha with Fr. Joe, Pastor at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in June, 2017

“Really Samantha?” I thought, “Here we are, trying to share about our wonderful inclusion experience and you won’t even get out of the car!” I dashed inside the church to tell Fr. Joe that Samantha was super stressed and not willing to come inside the church building.  He followed me outside to talk with her himself.  Samantha absolutely adores Fr. Joe so I thought he might convince her to get out of the van.

There in the parking lot we all gathered around Samantha.  Denise, the journalist and Bill, the photographer, could not have been nicer or more understanding. While Denise and I chatted, Bill snapped a few photos of Fr. Joe talking through the window to Samantha.

It wasn’t until the next day that I could organize my thoughts over this whole experience. On the one hand, I was sad and disappointed.  In addition to being worried about what is wrong with Samantha, I felt frustrated. We have worked so hard to get Samantha comfortable at church over the years and it has seemed to pay off. We generally sit together as a family in the sanctuary now and she is usually relaxed and happy, often wanting to linger after Mass. Her current behavior is unusual and a mystery. It is hard on all of us when we do not know what is wrong.

But another part of me realized that I was also very grateful.  I appreciate the people who meet us where we are, even if it is in the church parking lot.  And isn’t that what we really need to do when it comes to our families affected by disability? We need to meet them wherever they are, give support and encouragement through the challenges and let them know that they are not forgotten, even if unusual circumstances make attending church difficult or impossible.

So today I choose to be grateful. I am thankful for all those who love and support Samantha and our family, especially those connected through our church family.

I am sure Samantha will get through this period and we will be back in the pews soon. For now, I pray that this experience is used to touch someone else and be a reminder that sometimes, when you can’t go to church, church has to come to you, even if that is in the parking lot.

Amen.

Karen and Samantha Jackson

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!