Honoring gifts that differ: inclusive ministry with adults with intellectual challenges

By Wendy Wilkinson

It’s all about relationships. Paul writes in Romans 12:5–6, “So we, who are many, are one body in Christ . . . we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach, a family sized church, was asking Christ how to grow the church. The church had no idea that Christ was about to show them how the gifts that each person, especially those with intellectual challenges, brings to the Body of Christ supports the whole church in living the gospel. 
Volunteers of America had a group home right behind the church for men with physical and intellectual challenges. Some of those men became members of Good Samaritan. Richard was, and still is, the crucifer (the person who carries the cross in procession) each Sunday morning. When Richard moved to another group home he brought his new housemates with him to church. The staff and the men were wary at first because they had attended other churches and been asked to leave. The men had been considered too disruptive to the worship service. The group home staff was surprised by the response of Good Samaritan towards the men with intellectual disabilities. At Good Samaritan the men were given percussion instruments and encouraged to use them as the congregation sang the hymns. Many of the men were nonverbal, so the instruments enabled them to participate in the service music. 
The next week another group home brought their men with intellectual disabilities for the service. If the men got up to move around no one complained and space was made for those with wheelchairs to sit in the midst of the congregation. These were not the new members that the church had expected, but it was the ones that Christ brought them. 
Since the Episcopal Eucharistic liturgy is the same each week, the men soon learned the order of the service and while some of them have trouble speaking, they make their own sounds at the appropriate places in the liturgy. 
Over the months the men who had been withdrawn began to smile and hug people each Sunday morning. Some who had not said a word in months suddenly called other members of the church by name or asked for hugs. The joy was infectious! One young man was coming to church with his housemates and brought his parents to Good Samaritan. His father had left their church when they were told that their son was not welcome on Sundays. For the first time in six years their family was together again for worship and fellowship in the Body of Christ. 
In a desire to include everyone during the sermon, the gospel is often told rather then read and sometimes the preacher becomes one of the characters in the gospel for the sermon. During the birthday and anniversary prayers each week everyone extends their arms in blessing. The entire church asks the Lord to bless the person or couple in the coming year. During prayers for healing everyone is encouraged to lay hands on the person who desires healing. If the person can’t come to the front of the church the church gathers around the person where they are sitting to lay hands on them and pray with them.
The church uses Friendship Ministries material for Christian Formation classes after the Sunday brunch. The material is inclusive by providing activities that partner those with intellectual challenges with another person, so that the whole church can participate in the class together. 
The entire congregation has packed manna bags for the homeless on Sunday mornings and then each person takes a few to distribute during the week.
The community garden always needs attention with either weeding or harvesting so everyone is welcome to do their part, including taking the motorized wheelchairs out into the garden to gather the produce for the neighborhood food pantry. 
Those with physical and intellectual challenges make up at least a third of the gathered Body of Christ each Sunday. By honoring the ‘gifts that differ’ that each person brings the Spirit dances and the joy of being one Body in Christ spills out into the world though each person’s preaching the gospel with their lives.

The Rev Wendy Wilkinson is the Rector of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in VA Beach, VA and the Episcopal Chaplain to Old Dominion University.

The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.