Church focuses on special needs
Kids and adults with special needs or chronic health conditions usually don’t go to church.
But, First United Methodist Church in Hollidaysburg is changing that.
On the third Thursday of the month, the church is holding a service called Journey with Jesus. It is specifically geared to youths and adults who have challenges. Children and adults with Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and other conditions are welcome to attend.
Pastor John Godissart, lead pastor at the church, initiated the program in November with many members of his team having served as special education teachers or who have experience with children with special needs.
He said he met in early autumn with people who were interested in helping, and they volunteered for different responsibilities, including registration and greeting, worship and preparing meals and cleaning up.
Having obtained an undergraduate degree in special education, Godissart is aware that those with special needs process information differently. Although he felt led to attend seminary during his college career, his student teaching gave him experience working with students who have special needs.
Godissart said First United Methodist Church is offering Journey with Jesus because he felt that it’s a population group that the church as a whole is not addressing.
A national study released in 2018 showed that America’s religious communities are failing children with chronic health conditions, such as autism, learning disabilities, depression and conduct disorders.
According to the study, children with conditions that limit social interactions and their parents, who are often excluded from other social settings and have the greater need for a community of social support, were most likely to feel unwelcome at religious services.
Dr. Andrew Whitehead, the study researcher, a professor and sociologist at Clemson University, said in an email: “It is important for churches to reduce the barriers they present to those with chronic health conditions because we know from surveys that people with disabilities value faith just as much as able-bodied people and faith can have positive benefits (physical, mental, emotional) for those who are able to participate fully.”
Godissart sees the service as a way to focus on those spiritual needs.
“Jesus reached out to the least of these,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for people to get connected to God through a different method, a different type of environment.”
The next Journey with Jesus service will be held at 5:45 p.m. Feb. 20.
It will include worship with music and a story, a meal, as well as either crafts, interactive games or missions projects.
Godissart said the service is more hands-on than a regular Sunday service. He said those services are more of a cerebral encounter where people think or meditate on the message. At Journey with Jesus, worshippers let their hands and heart be part of the experience.
He said while all the services include music, the services will be different each time. At the first service in November, the children’s coordinator at the church, who is also a former special education teacher, taught on the parable of the lost sheep.
Previous to the service, the coordinator scattered plastic sheep throughout the sanctuary and challenged the worshippers to look for the lost sheep. Godissart said she taught them that each sheep was special to the shepherd and that they are special to God who knows each of them by name.
Although only about 15 people attended the first service, it grew to 50 in December when the Arc Angels, a choir of the Arc of Blair County, sang Christmas carols. In January, the worshippers listened to a Bible story and assembled student and health kits for the HUB. The HUB is a local outreach for Mission Central in Mechanicsburg, a partner of United Methodist Community on Relief. Kits are given locally to children in need as well as all over the world.
After the service, a meal is served in the church activities room. Godissart called it a win-win situation because it frees parents or caregivers from having to cook. In the kitchen as well as the sanctuary, the church is learning to accommodate special needs.
Godissart said for the first meal, the church served macaroni and cheese only to learn that one family required a gluten-free diet. Another attendee only ate salad and none was on the menu.
Despite the growing pains, Godissart said those with special needs have reacted favorably to the worship service.
“They seem to be all smiles,” he said.
Among those who attended the January service was Luke Hullihen of Blandburg, who was accompanied by Robin Cherish, his direct support staff from CrossRoads to Independence in Johnstown.
Cherish of Altoona said Luke, a young adult with autism, liked the service and they plan to attend the next one. She said he especially enjoyed putting together the kits for children who are homeless or may have lost everything in a fire or national disaster.
“For him, it’s more fun to give to other people,” she said, adding that he loves people.
Luke’s mother, Jaynee, said he also loves music.
“He’s a drummer,” she said.
He gets the opportunity to play the drums during a traditional service annually at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Johnstown when worshippers who attend the Special Needs Ministry provide the program.
The Hullihens are members of Blandburg United Methodist Church and Luke has attended services there, but Luke’s not very traditional, Jaynee said.
So the family makes it a point to attend the services for special needs children and adults in Johnstown She believes Luke also will enjoy future Journey with Jesus services at Hollidaysburg First United Methodist Church.
“They (people with special needs) are extremely spiritual,” she said. “They have a direct line to God. I firmly believe that.”
If you go
What: Journey with Jesus
When: 5:45 p.m., third Thursday of month
Where: Hollidaysburg United Methodist Church