Faith through hearing — and signing — the Word
FAIRFAX, Va. — Sunday morning at the Fairfax Church of…
RALEIGH, N.C. — Laughter filled the Brooks Avenue Church of Christ on a recent Sunday as Melissa Woodhouse approached the stage, intent on helping lead “Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain.”
“I have more help than I ever needed,” song leader Caleb Cochran announced with a chuckle.
Woodhouse, 31, who has a rare developmental disorder known as Smith-Magenis syndrome, swayed to the melody.
Five other members of the Eagles class — named for Isaiah 40:31 and offered for adults with disabilities — quickly joined her in front of the pews.
On their feet or in wheelchairs, the congregation worshiped together on “Special Sunday,” the annual service led by disabled members.
Jeremy Marshall, Brooks Avenue’s family discipleship minister, climbed on stage carrying his 3-year-old son, August, who is autistic.
“Some of us here today live with these cold, hard facts: We love our children. They bring us joy,” Marshall said. “But we have long ago accepted that they, and we along with them, face many challenges that others simply do not.”
Inclusive worship is a rare experience for many people with disabilities and their families.
Brooks Avenue added the ministry after Woodhouse’s parents approached church leaders in 2001. The family wanted to give children with disabilities a space to socialize and offer caregivers a reprieve.
“Before we had the ministry, my husband and I would take turns as to who would watch her versus who would sit in the worship service,” said Paula Herman, Woodhouse’s mother. “But when we started the ministry, then we could actually sit together at church and during the worship service.
“It means the world to our whole family,” she added.
For many families like Herman’s, it’s a challenge to find a church not only receptive but equipped to accommodate members with profound disabilities.
Aaron Waid and his wife, Alexis, spent more than 20 years in pastoral ministry before the births of their children. Rhett, 7, who has autism, and Lucy, 5, who has Turner syndrome, changed how they were able to serve in ministry.
“When your family has the most needs of any in the church, it’s really hard to be a minister,” Aaron said. “You do really feel like you’re an exception to everybody else.”
“When your family has the most needs of any in the church, it’s really hard to be a minister.”
When they heard about Brooks Avenue’s ministry, the Waids were impressed.
Finding a church that tolerated members with disabilities wasn’t too unusual, Aaron said. But finding one that proactively accepted and planned for their limitations proved difficult.
“People are always very sensitive and kind and understanding,” he explained, “but at a loss for what to do. … It’s well intentioned, but the burden is always on you to tell everybody what you need and to have to manage things in your own way, which is just as tiring.”
Yet the Brooks Avenue church employs four licensed professionals — Angel Cowling, Tina Grady, Tracy Grady and Courtney Smith — to assist with lessons and oversee care during services. All are certified in first aid, crisis prevention intervention and nonviolent crisis intervention.
Another 14 volunteers — including one with 33 years of experience teaching students with disabilities — rotate shifts as teaching assistants.
Related: Faith through hearing — and signing — the Word
The classes — Eagles for adults and Eaglets for children — are offered on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. The church hosts a concurrent class on Sunday mornings for caregivers and parents.
“It’s very difficult to find anywhere we can fit in,” Alexis Waid said. “And so when we heard about … this church, we were like, ‘I can’t believe there’s a church that is addressing this, not putting the special needs off to the side.’”
Religious institutions, except as employers, are exempt from the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandated access requirements for public spaces.
While many churches have made their buildings accessible to some extent, Sunday morning service remains unfamiliar to many in disabled communities.
People with disabilities are 40 percent more likely than those without disabilities to report they have never attended worship, the Disability Studies Quarterly reported. They are also 28 percent more likely to say religion is unimportant to their lives.
Quentin Germain, who has low muscle tone, said he appreciates the accommodations at Brooks Avenue. Elevators and wide hallways make it easier to navigate the building in his wheelchair.
The 23-year-old began attending two years ago with his grandparents but now occasionally gets rides on Sunday morning from friends.
“It’s a nice change,” Germain said. “I’ve always thought of my disability and my spirituality as separate, but knowing that they’re one in the same, and there are other people like me out there, is nice to know.”
Brook Avenue’s inclusion doesn’t end after Sunday morning service.
Dynamic Opportunities, a private school for students with disabilities, meets in the building Monday through Friday during the school year.
Every spring, Christians from multiple congregations gather at Brooks Avenue to host a carnival for disabled people of all ages, limitations, ethnicities and religions.
“The carnival is the perfect representation of Jesus, really,” said Dennis Conner, Brooks Avenue’s former minister. “It’s reaching out to a community that’s often overlooked, marginalized. Just the love and the interaction, providing something that never has been provided, Jesus all over the place — that’s what I love about it.”
On a recent Saturday, 469 guests from 151 families in the Raleigh community attended the event. Of the 151 families, 69 responded that they would like more information about the church’s ongoing ministry.
A few attended Special Sunday the next morning, their children sitting with Brooks Avenue church staff.
From the podium, Marshall spoke on what the image of God means for those who have disabilities. While he talked, his own son clutched a stuffed animal in the pews.
The image of God, the family discipleship minister stressed, isn’t a quality one possesses, like self-awareness, intelligence or communication. Nor is it a function one fulfills, like planting a garden or painting a picture.
“Here’s how we need to shift our thinking: The image of God is not related to our abilities or appearance,” Marshall said. “It’s not a quality we possess or a function we fulfill. Human beings are in the image of God because God declared it so when he created us.”
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