As the congregation sang the words, “From my mother’s womb, you have chosen me,” Jess was brought to the small circle where her sister Heather and brother-in-law John offered the elements of holy communion to Jess. John dipped his thumb into the juice, drew the cross on Jess’s forehead and said, “You are covered by the blood of Christ.” Heather leaned in to embrace Jess and their mom, Grace, as the congregation continued to sing the chorus, “I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God.” Tears flowed on the faces of all who witnessed this tender and holy moment. Though Jess at 57 years of age was physically limited by her cerebral palsy and not able to verbally articulate a love for her Saviour, she was no less His child.
On October 28-30, 2016, the Marriott on the Falls hotel became the space for the Life to the Full Conference. Whether it was persons with exceptional needs, family members, church leaders, Christian ministries or volunteers, we were all welcomed for a weekend of conversations, presentations and resources focused on the intersection of disability and faith.
The conference was co-hosted by Christian Horizons, an organization that serves persons with exceptional needs both in Canada and globally, and Disability Concerns, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America that strives to assist and support church congregations and individuals of all abilities.
Keynote speakers Amy Julia Becker, Dr. Erik Carter and the Honourable David C. Onley, former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario challenged us to consider the abilities and gifts before the diagnosis, to examine aspects of a truly welcoming church, and to see the need for persistence and persuasion as they relate to advocating with our government to foster an accessible society and culture.
The Saturday sessions focused on the topic of belonging. Information presented spoke to the wide spectrum of needs and support, including the experiences of professionals, volunteers and families. Many who attended the conference spoke of the hurt and isolation they felt in their home communities and churches – and the longing to truly belong; welcoming words on a sign aren’t enough to make the front door wheelchair accessible or adequately support someone who is struggling with schizophrenia.
For many, the culmination of the conference was our Sunday morning worship service. Garth Leno, pastor of The Gathering in Windsor, Ontario, shared a message based on John 9. He didn’t mince words as he spoke to the anger, guilt, sorrow and frustration that threatens the pursuit of joy when living with or caring for disability.
After the message, Pastor Bernard DeJonge from Kitchener, Ontario, led the congregation through communion. Effort was made to make the elements accessible for all with bread and juice that accommodated for food allergies, and cups with straws as well as individual glasses for physical needs. The worship time together was intended foremost to glorify God, but it was also crafted as a model for churches to use in their home congregations. Attendees lingered after the service, savouring the sweet sense of fellowship and encouraging each other. We left the conference, renewed with this hope: God’s power is present in our weakness. We all belong. Tell the world.
That Sunday morning, Jess, Heather and Grace left the communion station and returned to their seats, and others came for their turn. The congregation, comprised of conference attendees and people from local churches, sang the hymn “What a Saviour” with the chorus of “Hallelujah” taken from poet and composer Leonard Cohen. As the hallelujahs filled the ballroom space, there was a feeling of something truly beyond human understanding. One could not ignore the sense that the Spirit was in that place, moving in and through the hearts that gathered. It was sacred ground. Jess returned to her group home that night. We later learned she left this earth and met her Lord and Saviour the next afternoon. No longer hemmed in by limitations, Jess was welcomed to the dance floor of her heavenly Father and King.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Should readers be interested in more information about creating an accessible service, please email Sara Pot moc.liamg@ylimaftopeht or Disability Concerns gro.ancrc@snrecnocytilibasid.
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