Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Including All God's Children:
Rock Bridge Christian Church
Woodhaven Learning Center was founded in 1964 to serve children with developmental disabilities. In a wooded setting on the outskirts of a university town, the campus provided residential care for an average of 100 children at a time. Many of the original residents grew to adulthood at Woodhaven. They acquired the skills necessary to maintain employment, some in a sheltered workshop setting and others in the wider community, returning “home” to the campus each evening. Their spiritual needs were attended to by Woodhaven’s chaplain, and Protestant worship services were held each Sunday morning.
By the early 1990’s trends in caring for persons with developmental disabilities had taken a decided shift away from segregated care facilities and toward integrating individuals into a more normal community life. The Woodhaven board of directors decided that moving from campus-centered care to decentralized housing with staff support would be in the best interests of the residents. Apartments, duplexes, and houses were secured and over a five-year period most of the residents moved into individualized living situations with staff support and supervision provided by Woodhaven. Campus chapel services were discontinued during this process, and some residents who had been faithful participants at the services were keen to continue Sunday morning worship elsewhere. The executive director invited them to attend her church, Rock Bridge Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), with her. Several eagerly accepted her invitation.
Rock Bridge, founded in 1981, is a small-membership church with a strong commitment to outreach (“serving the least of these, Christ’s sisters and brothers” – Matthew 25) and inclusivity (welcomingallof God’s children regardless of race, class, age, ability, etc.). When the first Woodhaven clients attended worship, they were warmly welcomed (as every visitor is) and urged to return again soon. They did. They also told their friends about the warm reception they had experienced and invited them to come, too.
As pastor, I visited with each one after repeated attendance indicated their interest in our church. I explored with them their faith journey (most had been baptized as infants or children at their parents’ home church) and whether they would like to become members of our church. Many were eager to claim Rock Bridge as their church home. As is customary in most Disciples churches, we offer an invitation to membership every week during worship. Individuals or families indicate their decision to join by simply coming forward while we sing our hymn of commitment. At the conclusion of the hymn, either they transfer their membership from another church or profess their faith in Christ as the Son of the living God. I welcome them into membership, the congregation reads a statement promising to love and support them on their faith journey, and, during the fellowship time following the service hugs are exchanged and new members are celebrated. Woodhaven clients began to join and to invite more of their friends until they became quite a significant presence in Sunday morning’s attendance, constituting an average of close to 20 percent of our total.
Our worship service is informal and begins with a sharing of joys, prayer requests, and announcements. Many of our Woodhaven members participate quite vocally, sharing the celebrations and concerns of their lives. One man spontaneously prays at some point during this part of the service. Although most of us don’t comprehend much of what he says beyond “Dear Lord Jesus” and “Amen,” he feels affirmed by the enthusiastic congregational “Amen” that follows his. On occasion, an elder has been known to speak to him about the length of the prayer, always expressing gratitude for his sharing but emphasizing the importance of brevity. The response has been one of understanding and, for the most part, compliance – for a few weeks anyway.
Disciples celebrate communion every week. Deacons have responsibility for preparing and serving communion as well as collecting the offering. In a 1995 meeting with our nominating committee, I suggested that a particular Wood-haven resident would be capable of serving as a deacon. The committee responded with enthusiasm, knowing how honored this individual would feel and what an important statement her service as a deacon would make about the full inclusion of persons with developmental disabilities in the life of our church. She was overjoyed to become a deacon and will start her third term next January. In each of the subsequent two years, another Woodhaven resident has been added to the rota of deacons so that there is one on each team (a team is comprised of four individuals who serve a total of four months throughout the year). Having a Woodhaven resident on each team requires a little extra attention and support from their teammates, who have been glad to offer that because of how much being a deacon means to each of the Woodhaven folks and to our worshiping community.
In addition to serving as deacons and participating so broadly in the opening of worship, Woodhaven members are also active in other ways. One serves regularly at the local soup kitchen. He cooks and serves dinner to 50 homeless people with the help of a friend who was formerly one of the support staff at his home but who now works at another Woodhaven residence. Their friendship continues to grow through serving others. In fact, this Woodhaven resident was very instrumental in his friend’s choosing to join our church, too, and he is now an elder and board member. He has spoken of how the loving embrace of Woodhaven residents in our faith community is what made him want to give “organized religion” another try. He’s not the only Woodhaven staff person who has been persuaded to join our congregation due to the heartfelt invitations of our members from Woodhaven. Their unbridled enthusiasm, devoid of the self-consciousness that inhibits some of us, makes them the best evangelism activists a church can have.
Their participation across the life of the church, from bringing food to share in our fellowship potluck dinners to helping with annual church clean-up days, to all the other ways they take part has had a transformative effect on our congregation. I won’t say there haven’t been occasions when my patience has been tried and we’ve had to confront challenges but, on balance, we’ve been blessed by the gifts they bring: simplicity, enthusiasm, faithfulness, genuine compassion, openness and warmth – these are qualities any faith community gives thanks for in its membership. Welcoming Woodhaven residents into the full life of our faith community has helped Rock Bridge Christian Church discover the kingdom of God in our midst.
My name is Robert Morrow and I have been a member of Rock Bridge Christian Church since 1995. I like the people there because they are happy and I am, too. Every Sunday I greet people there. Now I know everyone’s names and they know me, too. Sometimes I take care of people’s dogs when they go out of town. I’ve been a deacon for four years. I help pass the offering plates and bring them to the communion table. Then we serve communion to all the people. One month out of the year I get to prepare communion: I put grape juice in little cups and put them in trays. After worship, I wash the cups. It’s fun to wash the cups and it helps our church. Sandi is my deacon partner. We help each other.
Our church cooks and serves dinner to 50 people at a soup kitchen two times every month. Over two years ago, I started helping to cook and serve with my friend Bill. He used to be the staff person at my house and now he goes to my church, too. We fix noodles and salmon and jello and put them on plates for the people who come to the soup kitchen. They thank me. Then I wipe the tables and sweep the floors, which I learned how to do at work. (Note: Robert is employed by Alternative Community Training, a nonprofit organization that provides supported employment).
I like being a member of Rock Bridge Christian Church because I have many friends there and because I like to help other people. I get to do that when I’m acting as a deacon and working at the soup kitchen. I also love to sing at church and enjoy refreshments with my friends at coffee time after worship.