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Church offers worship for special-needs adults

Billie George, Ruthie Hendricks and Kimberly Elam join Sue Miller (second from right) in leading singing during the Rejoicing Spirits service at Central United Methodist Church in Lenoir City, Tenn. UMNS photos by Heidi Robinson.

By Heidi Robinson*
July 8, 2008 | LENOIR CITY, Tenn. (UMNS)

Billie George, 66, sits on the edge of her bed waiting for help with her shoes. Her ride to church will arrive soon, and she is eager to go.

Her live-in caregiver, Linda Kirksey, offers last-minute reminders.

“This necklace makes you look so pretty. Do you have your pocketbook? Your lunch is ready to go. ”

Two years ago, George didn’t like to attend church. Mentally challenged because her mother drank alcohol while pregnant, George found neither comfort nor inspiration from attending traditional worship services.

“It’s hard,” says Kirksey. “I would take her to my church. Sometimes she would speak out and then she would be embarrassed, or she just wasn’t sure what she should or shouldn’t do.”

Despite her disability, Billie works two jobs, making boxes at a produce company and cleaning a convenience store’s equipment.

Church offers service

Responding to people like George, members of Central United Methodist Church in Lenoir City created “Rejoicing Spirits,” a worship service for developmentally delayed people.

“Research showed us that families with developmentally delayed members felt alienated from the church,” says the Rev. Betsy Switzer, associate pastor at Central Church. “We felt called to do something about that.”

Some social agencies estimate there are as many as 7 million developmentally delayed adults and young people in the United States.

Sue Jane Hatley (left) and Sherlia Johnston have their noisemakers
ready for the opening hymn.

Highlight of the day

“Going to this service is the highlight of Billie’s day,” Kirksey says. “She feels such acceptance and such joy.”

George smiles as she tells about the singing, her favorite part of the worship experience.

“Billie, what about the hugs?” asks Kirksey. “Do you think you’ll get some hugs? You like those hugs, too.”

“Yah,” responds George with a smile.

Kirksey explains the importance of the hugs given by volunteers at the church. “These developmentally delayed adults look different and they may act differently than other folks. The world does not always open its arms to them. That’s what makes this service so important.

“Billie calls it her church,” Kirksey says. “But it’s really for anyone. You feel God’s presence there.”

Hugs and tambourines

At the church, a praise band begins to play an upbeat version of “Oh Happy Day” as the sanctuary fills. The service is held twice a month, once on a weekday and once on a Sunday.

Sue Miller greets folks at the door with high-fives and hugs. She also hands out maracas and tambourines.

“Having the noisemakers gives them an open OK,” says Miller, a retired business executive. “If they didn’t have the noisemakers they wouldn’t know if they should be as joyous.

“We want each person to know they are loved and cared about in this place where God meets their needs,” she says.

Miller introduced the idea of Rejoicing Spirits to Central Church after hearing about such a service in another community.

About 30 developmentally delayed adults and caregivers take their seats in the sanctuary as the service begins. They are joined by members of the congregation, like Barbara Caldwell, a retired supervisor with the state of Tennessee.

”I come to this service because it has such joy. It has helped open my eyes to see people who need to be served and can be served by the church,” Caldwell says.

Nondenominational program

Rejoicing Spirits is a nondenominational program used in churches in four states, including Tennessee. The program offers model worship services for the developmentally delayed community. The order of worship and songs encourages everyone to participate.

“Maybe some of the folks here can’t sing, and some can’t read the words to the hymns,” says Kirksey. “Here they can hum or keep beat, and it is making melody in their heart.”

George and three other women take their tambourines down front during the hymns. They play and sing alongside the worship leaders – Miller and the Rev. Ron Fisher, senior pastor.

“Rejoicing Spirits is characterized by spontaneous acts of worship that often leave us with tears of joy,” Switzer says. “We always start the service with a plan, and we just wait to see what happens.”

William Martin lifts his hands in a spontaneous burst of joy that emphasizes the importance of the "no-shush" policy
at the heart of Rejoicing Spirits.


No shush policy

Switzer says the service offers opportunities for everyone to participate. They read scripture, offer prayer requests and play instruments. At the heart of this service is a “no-shush” policy.

“We want people to feel acceptance at church, not alienation,” Switzer says. “This often means we have to let this service unfold.”

During Rejoicing Spirits, a young man with Down syndrome dances and plays his tambourine on stage with the praise band. His caregiver says he doesn’t initiate conversation much, but in the church service, he finds another way to communicate. Another young man sings two stanzas of “How Great Thou Art,” while some church members brush tears from their eyes.

“This worship service is a place where they can express anything they like to say and anything they like to do,” Miller says.

“We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ at the end, whether someone has one or not,” Switzer says.

“It is another opportunity to express joy and celebrate each person who attends.”

*Robinson is a freelance producer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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