Welcoming people of all abilities into our churches
by Angelika Dawson
As I arrive at New Life Christian Reformed Church for the Circle of Friends worship service, my friend,Amanda prepares me for what to expect.
“Get ready,” she says. “This is the closest to heaven you’ll get on earth.”
As we enter the sanctuary, I am aware of the cacophony of sound. Several musicians are on stage playing a variety of instruments, leading the worship. A young woman is dancing with ribbons, another woman stands, hands in the air, eyes closed, swaying to the music. All around me I hear people singing, talking, and laughing. I find a seat in the row of chairs. Other chairs are set around tables where coffee and cookies will be served after the service and some people are already seated here.
This unique service has been happening regularly on Monday mornings for the last 18 years. The service is designed for people who live with developmental disabilities as a place where they can worship God through “relationship, song and the Word.” It was initiated by a small group of staff who work for Bethesda Christian Association as a response to a felt need, giving the people they serve a safe place to worship freely.
“At Circle of Friends everyone is welcome to come and take part,” says Ron Balzer, who serves with Bethesda and organizes the services. “God has shown us, time and again, how He uses people with developmental disabilities to show His love for others. When we value these people and give them opportunity to be involved, I am amazed at how God uses them.”
People contribute in all aspects of the service from leading singing, to prayer ministry, to bringing the message.
It’s a similar experience at Freshwind Christian Fellowship. This unique congregation is built around four pillars: people with disabilities, children, the prodigals coming home and the poor. At Freshwind, these people-groups are seen as “mentors in the Kingdom.”
Their Sunday morning services have all the ‘typical’ components that others might find familiar: worship through music, teaching, prayer and encouragement. What makes their service unique is an openness and willingness to make space for and hear from these four pillars. Maria Dyck, the administrator for the church, explains that over time, it was noticed that these people-groups often heard the voice of God most clearly. “Since we believe that these people can hear God, we try not to ‘shush’ them, as God might actually be trying to show or tell us something through them,” she says.
Creating a welcoming community where people of all abilities can participate is also a hallmark of Communitas Supportive Care Society. CEO Karyn Santiago says that Communitas was built on the understanding that every human being is created in the image of God and has a variety of abilities. Creating places of belonging, growth and contribution – as Circle of Friends and Freshwind Christian Fellowship have done, for example – is an opportunity to reflect Christ, as people of all abilities are supported and welcomed.
“Jesus made room for everyone. He was a singular model of inclusion, supporting the whole person, welcoming individuals to come and to be,” she says. “In our own efforts at Communitas, we seek to be as Jesus was, providing people with opportunities to belong in the faith, to grow in their spirituality and to contribute their own special gifts to the community of believers.”
How that is reflected in churches may vary depending on the congregation. At Freshwind, people with disabilities are actively included as part of the service. Circle of Friends is not a church in itself but more of a para-church ministry. Other churches support families whose children live with disabilities by offering programs that run simultaneously with their worship services, offering respite to parents and caregivers.
Dan Steenburgh, director of operations at Bethesda, says what’s important is for church leaders to consider how people with developmental disabilities fit into their church’s unique culture. “If we believe that all people have value in God’s eyes, then we embrace the contributions of people of all abilities and include them as part of the body of Christ,” he says.
What all agree on is that relationship is key.
“We are all longing for connection,” Dyck says. “How much richer life is when you have a connection with many people of all sorts of life experiences that are different from your own.”
Santiago agrees, saying that it’s important to get to know those in the community who live with disabilities and the families who support them.
“Build relationships by being gentle, respectful and interested,” she says. “Everything else flows from these relationships.”
For Balzer, Circle of Friends is much more than a program; it is a place where God uses each person in their gifts to bless others. “We continue to run Circle of Friends because God is in it. People are being encouraged and God is touching lives.”
At the service that I attend, I see this in a profound way as Amanda and her husband, Jeremy, are commissioned for a season of service overseas. As they stand at the front of the sanctuary, several friends they have come to know through their work at Communitas come forward to lay hands on them and pray. The prayers are a reflection of the relationships they share. They are affirmed in their gifts and sent with words of encouragement. I am humbled – both by what I witness and by the recognition that I had expected less.
But I leave the service filled with joy. God has shown me, through the actions and words of these brothers and sisters, that all of us have the ability to bless and serve others, as long as someone gives us opportunity and believes that our contributions are valued.
Circle of Friends meets on Monday mornings at 10 am at New Life Christian Reformed Church, 35270 Delair Road in Abbotsford.
Communitas Supportive Care Society supports people across BC who live with developmental disabilities, mental health challenges and acquired brain injury. https://www.communitascare.com/
Freshwind Christian Fellowship meets Sunday mornings at 10:30 am at the Abbotsford Social Activity Association, 2631 Cyril Street in Abbotsford. https://freshwindabbotsford.wordpress.com/