By Kristina Marie
(Part 2 of a 2-part series. Read part 1 here)
Portland area spiritual communities are coming together to discuss practical solutions for including people with disabilities. The Interfaith Disabilities Network of Oregon (IDNO) represents Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and other religions. The goals are to help people with disabilities find a more enthusiastic welcome in their spiritual community and educate religious communities on how to recognize the gifts of people with disabilities.
Sang Lee, coordinator for the Well Able Program at The Well Church, has been involved with the IDNO while serving at his church.
“We started the Well Able Ministry about 2 ½ years ago because we knew there were disabled people within families at our church, but none ever came,” Lee says.
Lee, who has a heart for people with a disability, started a Saturday program once a month, which included a simplified sermon with videos and graphics to help comprehension. There was also arts and crafts, music and games.
“The elders in our church were very supportive and they gave me a budget to work with,” Lee says. “We brought in a disability trainer and used materials provided by Joni and Friends. We immediately had 25-30 volunteers sign up to help because serving the underserved in our community is the heart of our church.”
Volunteers provide rides for those that do not drive, and shortly after the Well Abled members started coming by bus to regular Sunday service.
“When that happened, we thought, why not just take some of the same accommodations we were already doing on Saturday, and incorporate them into the regular service so it is accessible to all?” Lee says.
The church discontinued the Saturday program and now volunteers sit with the Well Able members to help them during regular Sunday service. The pastor gives a 10-minute overview of the sermon with visual aids and then goes more into depth. A room is provided for people to take a sensory break if needed while still listening to the sermon.
“Pretty soon, our congregation came to understand and accept their needs, and now we have one integrated Sunday service,” Lee adds. “It’s so wonderful for everyone to see their free and joyful spirit during worship. We still meet afterwards for arts and crafts and games, and the whole church is invited.”
Another inclusive faith community is Tigard Community Bible Study, offering classes for children ages birth to 12th grade. Many children with autism and other special needs attend classes at CBS.
“At CBS, our vision is to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in our communities through caring, in-depth Bible study that is available to all,” says Alexandra Cook, CBS Children’s Director. “I work with each mom and we figure out which class is the best fit for each child. Each class has two teachers, but when we have a child who needs more help, we bring in an extra ‘love lady’ to provide support. God has provided every time we have a need and no one is ever turned away. If God brought them to us, we will teach them the Gospel in ways they can understand. We believe children belong to the Lord and He will instruct and reach them at a heart and soul level. When we reach out in love just like Christ did, God makes a way,” Cook says.
If parents don’t give up, there is a lot of hope for parents. Karyn Zerr tried many churches before finally finding a Lutheran church that works for her 7-year-old son, who has Sensory Processing Disorder, severe ADHD and various other auditory and speech delays.
“We are never judged, we are never avoided, even by those that do not know what challenges we have in our family,” Zerr says. “We are accepted, and we are loved, just the way we are. On his good days, they love his enthusiasm. On the rougher days, people in the congregation don’t turn their heads to avoid looking, they acknowledge the efforts that are made and encourage what we do as parents. They look upon us with a sense of pride and understanding, that we love our child enough to work so hard to give him the opportunity to be part of the community.”
Zerr’s son, who normally hates wearing clothes and brushing his hair, is now up early and excited to get ready for church.
“I think all people with disabilities have different needs. It’s really no different than anyone else, neurotypical or not,” Zerr adds. “We all seek something different from our place of faith, and there isn’t one special needs program that that fits for all families that deal with autism spectrum disorders. I think the key is to find a church, or a pathway in faith that works for your family, and that takes thinking outside of the box.”
QUESTIONS FOR PARENTS TO ASK WHEN CALLING PLACES OF FAITH:
- How many people attend your church?
- Do you have a special needs ministry? If so, who is in charge?
- What is the ratio of teachers to students? Are you able to provide a volunteer assistant or “buddy” for my child if he/she would like to be part of the mainstream classes/activities?
- Would you be willing to meet with my child and I in a quiet environment so I can explain his/her needs?
- Are there other families with disabilities at your church? If so, are there any parent support or prayer groups offered?
- How are people with disabilities encouraged to serve and use their gifts at your church?