Welcoming the Visitor

As I walked out of St. John Chrysostom, a Catholic Church in the Philadelphia area, I was filled with the warmth of acceptance and belonging. How does that happen after one visit to a church? Let me explain…
Since my position leading Faith Inclusion Network began, I have learned about and experienced everything from the most inclusive of faith communities to the most unwelcoming and exclusive. I am sensitive to the efforts faith communities make to include people like my daughter who have disabilities and always grateful when someone, either from my home church or in another place of worship, welcomes us.
This past Sunday, my family and I attended Easter Sunday Mass at St. John Chrysostom Catholic Church in Wallingford, PA. http://sjcparish.org/ we were visiting our oldest at Swarthmore College and wanted to attend Mass as a family for Easter. Easy enough, right?

Well, maybe not. Because being in a new, crowded place is not always best for Samantha, who has autism. I had reason to be optimistic that our experience would be positive however.
First, we had already been to worship many times in our home church with success. The Mass is the same everywhere, which works in our favor, for sure.
We had also attended a different church the previous year when on a similar trip. The ushers were welcoming and even helped us find the perfect seat for Samantha, assuring us that she would be fine. –(Easter Sunday, 2015 at St. Madeline’s Church http://www.stmadelineparish.com/ .)
But I was particularly excited about this worship opportunity because I had encountered St. John’s online before we left Norfolk. A brief glance at their website and I was convinced I wanted to go.
First of all, they had received the 2015 Loyola Press Opening Doors Award from the NCPD. This award is “given to a parish that is doing exceptional work in facilitating meaningful participation of Catholic with disabilities.” http://www.ncpd.org/ and without even attending a Mass, I could see some of the reasons why they had been given this special recognition. The regular schedule of Masses included a “Mass of Welcoming and Inclusion” on the first Sunday of every month. ASL interpreters were also regularly scheduled.
Reading further, I noticed Disability Ministry activities, one with a special speaker and the other, a community project. Things were looking promising here.
We got to St. John’s at 9:05 am for a 9:30 am Mass and watched as people started filing into the sanctuary. A notable amount of families with young children were there, restless, even crying children could be heard all around. Many people smiled and warmly welcomed us with their expressions, observing, I’m sure, Samantha’s somewhat unusual behavior of looking straight up at the ceiling at the lights for minutes at a time. I observed only smiles of welcome.
I glanced in my pew and found a blue paper. The message included comforting words to the parents of young children (and an inferred message to parents of children with special needs, I thought as well). The notice expressed something about God putting the “wiggle” in your children, and do not be worried if they express this during the Mass. Again, the ASL Interpretation was noted as well as a statement about greeting and accepting all of the congregants, regardless of age and amount of “wiggleness” (my word not theirs) with acceptance and understanding.
It is no wonder that St. John’s was filled to capacity, the pastor even guessing that, with standing room only they probably had 900 people in church. Pastor Hallinan’s exclamation to this observation-“Alleluia and Praise Jesus!”-made us all smile.
When the Mass was over, we filed out with everyone else and my heart was full. We were anonymous at this church, no one knew us or anything about my advocacy work as Director of FIN. But I felt that we, as a family who experience disability, were welcomed and even belonged there.
The good news is that there are faith communities all over Hampton Roads who are making similar efforts to welcome and include all. One of the lessons I take away from this visit to St. John’s though, is that the efforts were obvious, even to the one time visitor. Information online made it clear that this is a place that cares about including everyone…and my family’s experience bore witness to this.
As we continue to do our work in the Hampton Roads area; developing disability ministry efforts, holding FIN events and all the other fabulous work being done here, let’s also keep in mind that we need to make our efforts known and obvious. Share what you are doing online, on social media and with our community at large. You never know who is passing through and will be encouraged and comforted by your efforts.
God bless.
K. Jackson


Samantha, Karen, Jacob and Joseph Jackson (Dad, Scott taking the photo) after Easter Mass, 2016