All God's Children Have Gifts: Disability and worship

How do you recognize each other's gifts and support each other's needs while avoiding a "you're not like us"? attitude? A feature story exploring ways to be inclusive in worship and make room for those with or without special needs.

Worshipers usually swallow hard and blink back tears while Jonathan von Dobschutz and other Circle of Friends drama group members mime the passion story. Facial expressions and actions—like exchanging black scarves for white scarves or receiving a hug—tell the story.

“To tell you the truth, it feels so real to me. The black scarves make me scared. It’s like playing around with sin and death. The white scarves remind us of the forgiveness of the Lord. God has to forgive me for lots of things.

“The reason I give them a hug is it reminds us of peace and forgiveness. Sometimes I say, ‘Peace be with you,’” says Jonathan von Dobschutz, who plays Jesus. He has Down Syndrome. Some cast members deal with cerebral palsy, cognitive impairments, or speech issues.

“The Circle of Friends visually represents the body of Christ as it should be—including those with and without special needs,” says Barb Newman, an inclusive education specialist in Zeeland, Michigan.

The traveling drama group is just one example of how congregations across North America are learning new ways to include people with disabilities. Instead of simply creating programs that keep some members apart from others, more congregations are focusing on how to use the gifts of all members in worship and ministry.

Everyone has gifts

“Unwrap each person as a gift from God to your community,” Newman advises.

Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta, has two young adults, Marlow Witten and Dena Ruiter-Koopmans, who are deaf and have mobility challenges. Because Fellowship has always provided a sign language interpreter, Witten and Ruiter-Koopmans sometimes lead parts of the liturgy. They sign and the interpreter speaks. Witten has also designed art work for a youth service.

At Alberta School for the Deaf, Ruiter-Koopmans performed in dramas and acted as mistress of ceremonies. Since graduating as valedictorian, she has volunteered as a storyteller for younger students there. She shares the same gifts in worship.

“I told a story during children’s story time, using a cardboard model of a church building to show the children that the people are the important part of church. Even if the building was gone—and I collapsed the model flat to show this—we could still meet in another place and continue worshiping God,” she says.

“People at Fellowship accept me just the way I am and encourage me to become involved in story time, nursery care, youth group, and so on. Some are curious to learn sign language. Sometimes the minister will ask the interpreter the sign for a particular word and use that as a symbol for his or her topic…or just for fun,” Ruiter-Koopmans adds.

At Centreville United Methodist Church in southern Michigan, pastor Karin Orr says the whole congregation has learned patience along with a woman who had an aneurysm. Though given a five percent chance of survival, the woman moved from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane.

“Her thinking is way beyond what she is able to express verbally. When she has a prayer request, we’ve become prepared to stand there with a microphone for a long time. But give her the time and space, and she can make profound, gut-wrenching contributions by speaking or in writing,” Orr says.

Members of LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, know that Jonathan von Dobschutz can do more than act. He’s read the 23rd Psalm during worship. He also contributes drawings to the church fair, collects visitor registers after church, and serves at luncheons for college students.

Everyone has needs

The conviction that God gifts every member flows naturally into supporting members in using their gifts. “Fellowship actively seeks involvement from all members in all aspects of worship planning, the worship service, and member care. All members are valued for their contributions, period,” says Linda Ruiter, Dena’s mom.

She and her husband, Dave Koopmans, say their small congregation never questioned the cost of hiring an interpreter or building a ramp to the front of the sanctuary.

How do you discover what a person needs in order to use his or her gifts in worship? The answer is embarrassingly simple.

“Just ask,” advises Jake Heerema, minister of pastoral services at Hope Network, which helps Michigan churches to value and include people with disabilities. He recommends documenting how a person’s disability creates problems, needs, and opportunities. In fact, St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is updating each member’s profile—so leaders know which people have which needs.

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, also in Grand Rapids, recruits members and college students to mentor parishioners who have disabilities ranging from severe rheumatoid arthritis and Parkinson’s disease to ADHD. “One of our members with cerebral palsy recently read a Scripture lesson. We spent time practicing with her, and it was amazing how easy she was to understand when she was relaxed. It was wonderful for all of us,” says Cindy Nawrocki, a St. Andrew’s pastor.

Autistic members of St. Andrew’s usher, help with vacation Bible School, and distribute communion. When a 52-year-old autistic woman wanted to be in children’s choir, the director invited parents to sing alongside kids, so the woman would have other adults singing with her. Another man with autism gives an annual concert by playing his favorite CDs.

Centreville United Methodist has a choir member with Alzheimer’s. His wife confided to the choir director that her husband, conscious of his losses, gets extremely embarrassed when corrected. So the director is flexible with him. “We don’t count on him for solos, because he may be great in rehearsal and then forget to come on Sunday. We are grateful for whatever contribution anyone can make,” Karin Orr says.

Everyone needs to be heard

Happiness expert David Myers has found that even after a life-changing accident or illness, most people adjust and return to their former level of happiness. And the whole congregation feels good to share worship planning and leading with people who have disabilities.

But still…

Living with a disability—or loving and living with someone who has one—adds layers that may enrich life or drive one closer to God. Disability often also involves sorrow, wistfulness, uncertainty, frustration, logistical difficulties, continual energy drain, and financial hardship. Parents grieve the transitions, such as high school, dating, or college, that put children further out of sync with age mates.

“You can’t compartmentalize worship and life,” Karin Orr reminds people. That’s why it’s so important to give those with disabilities, and their caretakers, the chance to tell their stories. It’s also important to offer respite care.

In a talk she gave during a Disability Awareness Sunday at Centreville United Methodist, Michele Cripe said members can be aware of and accept someone’s disability without really understanding it. She explained what she and her husband had learned about how cognitive mental impairment and sensory integration dysfunction affect their young son Alex.

“Alex is a challenge and many days we don’t know how we will get through or—at the end of the day—how we did it. Yet we can’t imagine Alex any other way. He is a gift from God.

“And I do want you to know that he is as close or closer than any of us to God. He is obsessed with the solemn head of Christ pictures in our house and loves making thesign for Jesus. He loves to pray at dinner and at bedtime. After we pray, he says his prayer, which is so simple: ‘Thank you…sign for Jesus…Amen,’” Cripe said.

Orr says going through Stephen Ministries training helps members seek out people who isolate themselves when depression, bipolar disorder, or other mental illnesses worsen. “It’s a ministry of presence, of being there. By your presence and who you are, you are saying, ‘This is who God is, Immanuel, God with us,’” she explains.

More real-life ideas for inclusive worship

Reading what other churches already do may jumpstart your ideas on how to raise awareness, erase barriers, and make it easier for people with disabilities to share their gifts in worship and church life.

Leo Ferguson, deacon at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, uses “worship inclusion boxes” in the church bulletin to raise awareness and make all feel welcome.

Here are two recent examples:

  • Did you know?? Chairs in the church can be moved to accommodate wheelchairs. In addition, the aisle on the tabernacle side of the church is wider, so a wheelchair can comfortably be located at the ends of the rows of many of these pews.
  • Did you know?? Many parish ministries are already working toward inclusion. For example, parishioners assist at the Guardian Angel home. Some drive other parishioners to mass. Others visit the shut-ins. Some send cards and meals out.

Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan formed a worship inclusion task force to look at what’s in place, set goals, and keep members informed. They have a wheelchair accessible entrance, pews that accommodate wheelchairs, hearing aids, and large print bulletins at each entrance. They’re working toward a transportation ministry and mentor system.

Barb Newman, an inclusive education specialist in Zeeland, Michigan, says focusing on the individual works better than trying to create a special program for specific types of disabilities. “We are ALL a package of unique gifts and needs. Inclusive worship happens when you factor in everyone’s gifts with everyone’s needs.

“Start by delighting in each person. Get to know them. Provide places where they can use their gifts — and provide modifications for their needs.

“Johnny, who has Down Syndrome, may need extra support in the Sunday School class. He may also be gifted in prayer and willing to meet and pray for a list of people each week. Megan, an adult who has autism and difficulty in crowds, may need a separate coffee area in a quiet setting. She may also be gifted in computers and able to create and use a library check-in system that others may only have dreamed about,” Newman says.

In Edmonton, Alberta, Dena Ruiter-Koopmans spent her first eleven months in the hospital. Fellowship Christian Reformed Church provided countless meals for her parents, Dave Koopmans and Linda Ruiter. Fellowship deacons set up the Dena Fund—and invited area churches to contribute—for help with extra expenses associated with health care, medical equipment, and lost work time.

The fund has since been renamed Partners in Disability and is available to Christian Reformed families throughout greater Edmonton. “Our church still holds regular collections for the fund. It certainly meant the world to us when we desperately needed it,” Linda Ruiter says.

Brookside Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, formed a G.L.U.E. team, which stands for Giving Love Encouragement and Understanding. People at church take turns providing care for people with disabilities, giving caretakers and families a much-needed respite, whether for a few hours or a weekend.

Truly getting to know people with disabilities leads naturally to advocacy, according to Jake Heerema, minister of pastoral services at Hope Network in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Many people with disabilities do not have cars or cannot drive so depend on public transportation. That’s why many congregations have joined an ecumenical advocacy group calledFaith in Motion.

After all, paying attention to transportation issues not only shows that your church cares about including everyone. It also may bring new people with disabilities to your church.

Apart > for > with > by

Bill Gaventa, an expert on faith and disability, often speaks about how churches move through a progression of how they relate to people with disabilities. “Gaventa’s idea of apart-for-with-by fits with what I’m learning about churches,” Jake Heerema says.

Churches start by keeping the ones with disabilities apart, not really including them in the life of the church and community. Some begin ministry “for the disabled,” which can be paternalistic. Next comes ministry withpeople who have disabilities.

“Moving to ministry by those with disabilities requires a ministry and mission based on deep trust in all God’s people,” Heerema says.

Many congregations haven’t thought much about worship and disability. That’s because, according tonational studies, more than 80 percent of people with disabilities don’t attend church. They worry they won’t be accepted. And they face physical or social barriers to fully participating in church worship, study, service, and leadership.

Gradually, some congregations are wondering what they are missing out on by not including more people with disabilities. Thornapple Evangelical Covenant Church in Cascade Township, Michigan, is building a home next to the church for people with disabilities and profound mobility issues. “They want residents to have ready access to the life of the congregation,” Heerema says.

Steve Datema, pastor of Spring Lake Christian Reformed Church in Spring Lake, Michigan, volunteered at a nearby Hope Network home for adults with developmental delays. He became friends with several, inspired his church to form a Friendship program, and many residents have joined the church.

“True worship is the way the congregation lives together and models being brothers and sisters in Christ,” Heerema says.

Learn More

Get ideas you can use from Barb Newman’s books: Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders (available from Faith Alive Resources), The Easter BookHelping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities.

Contract with Barb Newman to do an individual education plan (IEP) for special needs children in your church education program. Consult with Judi Warner on how your church can form a support or respite team for people and families that deal with disability. You can reach them both through CLC Network, (616) 245-8388. Or use this Mennonite questionnaire  to ask parents how to best include their child in church school or youth group.

Improve your inclusive worship ability by acting on resource lists compiled by Boggs Center on Developmental DisabilityCalvin Institute of Christian WorshipCongregational ResourcesFaithability, and the United Church of Christ.

Pathways to Promise ministers to people and families who deal with mental illness. Disability affects the whole family, and often leads to family breakup. Eleos Ministries offers help.

Jim Vanderlaan, a blind pastor and head of Disability Concerns, a Christian Reformed agency, preaches in many churches. His presence reminds worshipers that disability doesn’t disqualify someone from leading worship. Check out audio and Braille versions of Scripture, hymnals, and concordances. Read Rev. Vanderlaan's sermon "People with Disabilities Dine with Jesus" (Luke 14:12-14).

David Myers says it’s easy for churches to use hearing loop technology for those with hearing loss.

Disability Is Natural explains how to look at everyone more inclusively. National Organization on Disabilitypublishes That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People with Disabilities and sponsors regionalworship conferences.

Take this quiz to assess your church’s barriers. Follow tips to make worship more welcoming for people with disabilities, starting with ushers and greeters.

Consider reviewing relevant books about living with disability for your church library, and include quotes from church members familiar with this disability in your review.

Plan a Disability Awareness Sunday using ideas from these AnglicaninterdenominationalNew ZealandPresbyterianUnited Church of ChristUnited KingdomUnited Methodist resources.

Browse related stories on intergenerational worship and worship and dementia.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get members talking:

  • Who are the people in your church with disabilities? How much or often do they participate in planning or leading worship?
  • In what ways do you sense discomfort about or from worshipers who have a disability? When did you last ask someone to tell their story about living with a disability…or ask how they’d like to serve in worship…or find out what prevents them from participating more fully in church life?
  • Who keeps track of individuals and families who deal daily with disability? What structures do you have in place to offer support and respite? In what ways do these structures clear the way for more people to participate more fully in worship?
  • Which words—apart, for, with, by—best describe your church’s relationship to people with disabilities?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to include more people with disabilities in worship—including planning and leading worship?

  • Did you form a friendship circle of people with and without special needs? If so, did you focus on fun and fellowship, serving together, an arts ministry, a book and film club, or something else?
  • If your church includes several people with the same disability, have you developed any worship plans, education programs, accessibility checklists, respite and support policies that you can share with us?
  • Can you share visuals, songs, dramas, or other creative worship resources that were developed by members with disabilities—and convey an inclusive worship message?  

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