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Peace that Passes Understanding: Communion and Intellectual Disability

It turns out that what helps churches include people with cognitive impairments in communion is good advice for everyone.

Bill Gaventa used to be a chaplain at a state institution where more than 4,000 people lived with developmental disabilities. During worship on the second Sunday of May, a resident named Dennis asked, "Bill, what's today?"

Bill replied, "Today is Mother's Day."

"Can I have one?" Dennis asked.

Among people cut off from family and society, the chaplain soon realized that communion was the most important thing they could do together in worship. Sharing bread and juice made real that they were, along with everyone else who shares the one loaf and cup, beloved members of God's family. Because Jesus died and rose for us all, they could share in his joy, hope, and love and extend those gifts to others.

Gaventa tells this story in the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health. It turns out that paying attention to relationships, perspectives, and gifts does more than help include people with intellectual disabilities in communion. It helps congregations see we need all the wildly different parts of Christ's body to reflect God's image.

Re-membering relationships

Jesus asked us to do something—share the Lord's Supper—so that we remember him till he returns. We remember what he did for us, proclaim his presence with us, and hope in his promise to gather us into one.

If you understand remembering as an individual intellectual exercise, then you can see why some leaders feel uneasy about offering the Eucharist to people who don't think, learn, or communicate in ways that our churches plan for. This is especially true in churches that require believer's baptism, confirmation, or profession of faith before someone may take communion.

"I know of people who had to wait until a new pastor came, because the former pastor felt the person didn't know enough," says Nella Uitvlugt, executive director of Friendship Ministries, an international, interdenominational ministry that helps churches include people with intellectual disabilities.

"I had a call from a Friendship program that wanted to have communion during Friendship. This is a common practice since many cannot come on Sunday. But the minister at this particular church wouldn't allow it. Nor would he allow another pastor from another denomination to come in," she says.

But if Lord's Supper remembering is healthy ritual action, something God's people do together to instill memory, then we need to partake together to honor the Jesus who said, "Let the children come." Our communions of saints need people with dementia, traumatic brain injury, and severe intellectual disability so we can collectively image the God of love. Otherwise, as the Chinese prayer song "For the Unity of Christ's Body" warns, our Head will say, "This is my body, broken by you."

Seeing communion through other eyes

Barbara Newman says seeing someone as sent by God to your community gives "freedom and even better understanding of the heart of God's direction for communion." Newman, a special education consultant and author of Autism and Your Church, helps churches consider nuances of ability-appropriate admission to the Lord's Table.

"Get to know the individual. How might that individual understand communion? Can that person physically hold, pass, swallow, come forward, dip, break off, keep from spreading germs, speak words aloud, read, tolerate movement, or tolerate a change in the schedule that communion often brings? What are the gift areas? How does that person communicate? Which body parts do move? How well does the rest of the community understand this individual?

"Now imagine being that individual during communion. Interview him or her if possible. What parts would be easy, hard, or impossible? How can you change or alter communion to better include or welcome that individual?" Newman asks.

About a dozen people with intellectual disabilities attend Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan. Pastor Gerry Koning says, "We invite all our special needs friends to celebrate the Lord's Supper with us. They seem to most enjoy coming forward to celebrate. I have made myself available for anyone who needs help holding the cup or immersing the bread. They seem to really enjoy the 'attention' of the pastor.

"We allow this to happen because we would certainly not want to put a barrier in front of somebody whom God has called to participate in the sacred supper. My daughter, who is severely multiply impaired, is given communion by intinction each time our church celebrates it."

Accepting God's gifts

Many people who've felt welcome at the weeknight Friendship ministry also attend Sunday worship at Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sitting next to non-professing Friendship members who take communion elements passed down the row "forced us to ask hard questions," says minister Steve De Vries, pastor of worship and leadership.

"What we in the Reformed tradition call 'faith' has usually meant 'knowing the right things.' Maybe simply sensing that 'Jesus loves me' is all you need. Maybe just being there is all you need. Maybe it is pure grace after all," he muses.

Plymouth Heights follows through by inviting friends and mentors to a four-week class on profession of faith, bringing them before the elders, and presenting them in worship—just as it does for anyone seeking adult baptism or profession of faith.

Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has around 300 children, youth, and adults in its special needs ministries. "I had no experience till asked to serve in this ministry three years ago," says director Marv Snedeker. He says he's been humbled by the faith, joy, courage, and emotional honesty of his new friends.

"If you ask them to pray for you, they'll ask you about that need next week—because they'll have remembered to pray, even if you forgot you asked. They know they are different but are comfortable in their own skin. Ministering with them, God teaches me, 'Will you just accept who you are? Be more forgiving of your own feelings and failings. It's not about what other people think,'" Snedeker says.

The Mystery of Christ, Broken for Us

Christians who profoundly respect the Lord's Supper often withhold it from people with intellectual disabilities. "How do we know they understand?" leaders ask. But who really understands the mystery of faith? None of us can explain exactly how Christ is hidden, present, healing us, or uniting us in loaf and cup. We can, however, welcome all who come to the table hungry for life, expressing faith in their own ability-appropriate ways.

Several congregations have discovered that making room for all in the Eucharist reveals God in fresh ways.

"Having a dozen cognitively impaired people in the congregation every Sunday leads to impromptu God moments," says Gerry Koning, a pastor at Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan. These members know through communion that they are part of a people called to be one in sorrow, one in joy. Some act on that confidence by walking forward to announce their birthday or ask for prayer—regardless of where the congregation is in the order of worship. Koning says the church responds in celebration and prayer.

Roger K. Peters, pastor of Emanuel United Methodist Church in Berlin, Pennsylvania, used to think of his faith as "explained and explainable in doctrines and precepts." But guest editing a Journal of Religion, Disability & Health double issue about communion and disability changed him. Stories poured in:

  • A young woman who never speaks lets loose a "simple clear word of praise" when the pastor finally offers her communion.
  • Someone who'd worked in an institution that warehoused people with disabilities notices the pure joy of real presence as a man with Down syndrome receives wine-soaked bread. The observer marvels, "He truly believes. In God's love. How can he?"
  • A nursing home resident with dementia usually seems out of it. Yet when he hears "the body of the Lord for you," his eyes become alert and aware.

"I have been disarmed of pretenses by people who bravely are who they are," Peters writes. Sharing communion with people who have obvious disabilities has moved him to moments of vulnerability "before a vulnerable, giving, blessing God" who unites us as "the people of God with all people."

Jean Vanier founded L'Arche to create communities where people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them can share life together. Over the decades he's experienced why Paul told the Corinthians that God chose the foolish and weak to confound the wise and mighty.

Perhaps you've felt afraid of how disability makes someone look or behave. Vanier says that if you persist in getting to know that person, you will move from fear… to pity…to desire to help someone you see as "less than"…to seeing the face of God in him or her. Along the way, you'll begin to care less about power and success, more about being with the weak and appreciating them for who they are. Vanier often says, "If Christians believed in Jesus hidden in the poor the world would change."

"Purposely Inclusive"

"We teach the whole concept that God will use you, just as you are. In God's eyes, our only disability is if we're apart from Christ. We are all gifted, and people with disabilities are gifted and expected to use their gifts," says Marv Snedeker, director of special needs ministries for 300 children, youth, and adults at Calvary Undenominational Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It's called A.L.L.Y. (A Life Like Yours).

Some people's gifts emerge while acting out Bible stories or doing a question-and-answer with a Bible character. When a woman playing Leah was asked, "Now how would you feel about Jacob getting another wife?" she replied, "I'd wring his neck!" Snedeker enjoys the unfiltered honesty.

"I see the gift of mercy when someone shares a prayer request, starts to cry—and a non-verbal person gives a hug or brings a box of Kleenex. One young man in our class is literally obnoxious. He doesn't have many social or coping skills. Yet when someone breaks down, he's the first to go sit next to them. Give him a mike and he'll sweep you away with how he prays," Snedeker says.

"We all have tendency to flock with those like ourselves. Sometimes we force inclusion when it's not wanted. People deserve the option. If you have special needs and just want to be comfortable with your friends, fine. But we mature when we begin to expose ourselves to other Christians. The learning goes both ways," he says.

Calvary has three morning services, so it's easy for an adult to meet with friends in an A.L.L.Y. Sunday school class and also do something else, such as volunteer as a one-on-one buddy in the A.L.L.Y. children's class, attend worship in the main sanctuary, or join an adult education class.

People with intellectual disabilities sometimes sing in a small choir, usher, give the opening prayer, or read Scripture in Sunday worship but Snedeker is planning for a lot more. "We need from a theological basis to do more purposeful inclusion," he says.

Churches across the U.S. and Canada are beginning to see that God spreads gifts regardless of intellectual disability. They've made the stretch so that people once overlooked now greet, usher,

take offerings, serve communion, pray, give testimonies, dance, sing in the choir, read Scripture or simple litanies, present dramas or biblical object lessons, and team-preach sermons. Those with gifts of compassion and mercy offer hospitality, serve as deacons or prayer partners, and visit those who are sick.

Learn More

Wondering about terminology? You probably know it's more respectful to use "person first" language: she has intellectual disabilities, not he's retarded. What used to be called mental retardation, developmental delay, special needs, or exceptional needs is now more often referred to as cognitive impairment, mental impairment, or (the latest) intellectually disability. Sometimes a person with an autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, or mental illness also has an intellectual disability.

Excellent portals for resources on faith and intellectual disability include Bethesda Lutheran Communities, The Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities (where Bill Gaventa is on staff), Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (look for resources by Barbara Newman), and Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Check your local college or seminary library for the fantastic Journal of Religion, Disability & Health double issue devoted to communion and disabilities. It's volume 13, issues 3 & 4, 2009. You can register to read this issue online for free.

If your congregation doesn't already have education or ministry that meets the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, then check out A.L.L.Y, Faith and Light International, Friendship Ministries, or Rhythms of Grace.

California Baptist University offers a Master of Arts in Disability Studies as a distance learning program designed to develop expertise in human differences.

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, education, or outreach committee meeting. These questions will help you think about communion as an experience through which God unites every member of Christ's body:

  • If God loves the person who can barely think or talk, what does that say about what you have to do for God to love you? Try trusting each other enough to share any feelings of discomfort about worthiness, ability, and communion.
  • Share an experience of changing a worship or communion practice to better include someone with intellectual disabilities. Did you simplify language, replace words with gestures or visuals, make it more interactive, or add drama? How did that change enrich worship for children, adults with dementia, immigrants with little English…or you?
  • In what ways does your church offer respite care for people who take care of someone with intellectual disabilities? In what ways do you also ask for stories of what this disability has revealed about God's love?