How two Charlotte churches are trying to create a true sanctuary for people with special needs

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Inclusion and interaction are top of mind for two well-known Charlotte churches hoping to boost services that will meet the needs of members with an array of special needs and disabilities.

Next month, Dilworth United Methodist Church will debut “The Hideout,” a new multi-sensory program aiming to create an environment that allows people of all ages and ability levels to engage with God openly and creatively.

And Forest Hill Church is hoping to add interpreters to its services to reach the hearing impaired at its campus across the state line in Fort Mill.

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The additions come just months after the issue of how Charlotte’s faith community welcomes people of differing abilities emerged as a public issue. Six families sued Calvary Church — another of Charlotte’s prominent houses of worship — for allegedly booting their children out of its child development center because of their medical conditions or developmental disabilities, according to the suit. The lawsuit is still pending.

Advocates say it’s not uncommon for families affected by disabilities to feel alienated by the very institution purporting to be a sanctuary. That’s why these two area churches are working to change that stigma, their leaders say.

“We’re doing it because that’s a need we (want) to fill,” said Jared Ginsberg, Dilworth Church’s director of children, family and adult ministries. “We’re looking at everything we do and saying how can we make this more accessible to families with special needs?”

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Photo via Facebook

Failing the flock?

According to a 2010 survey from the National Organization on Disability and the Kessler Foundation, 50 percent of Americans with disabilities reported attending religious services at least once a month, compared to 57 percent of people without disabilities. That rate drops to 46 percent for people with “very or somewhat severe disabilities.”

Even more sobering: Of the 1 billion people worldwide who are affected by a disability, less than 5 percent of them are reached with the Gospel, says Jim Cashwell, director for the Charlotte chapter of Joni & Friends, a nonprofit which helps churches establish disability ministries in their congregations.

So, why the gap?

“I think the historical view of disability is that people with disabilities are abnormal in a normal world,” Cashwell said. “I think the church is guilty of taking on that secular view of disability, where a Biblical view of disability will be that we are all created in the image of God. When Christ said to seek and to save that which is lost, He meant everybody.”

Among Charlotte’s faithful, attitudes toward the disabled are growing more inclusive, he said. Cashwell rattled off several area churches engaged in disability ministry, including First Baptist Charlotte, Christ Covenant Church, Steele Creek Church and Carmel Baptist Church, which each year hosts a prom for individuals with special needs.

“We’re seeing…some churches transitioning where they’re integrating people with disabilities in their Sunday school classes, their programming,” Cashwell said. “They’re recognized as part of the Body of Christ.”

Stirring engagement

But why don’t more congregations make adjustments for those who require special assistance?

“A lot of churches don’t know what to do,” said Ginsberg of Dilworth Church. “They want everyone to feel welcome…they really desire to make disciples…but I think a lot of churches don’t have the resources available or aren’t sure” where to even begin.

That’s where “The Hideout” comes in. For 45 minutes, once a month, people with varying abilities and needs will gather at the church’s fellowship hall, where they’ll spend time learning the Bible and participating in activities designed just for them.

The first service, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 7, will focus on a piece of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as told in the New Testament’s Matthew 6. In that passage, Christ tells followers not to worry about the ups and downs of life. After all, if God takes cares of the flowers, grass and birds, how much more will He care for them?

With that in mind, participants will visit three activity stations that incorporate the lesson.

The first station involves planting seeds — a reminder, Ginsburg said, that “as God takes care of this plant, God will (also) take care of you.”

Next up, a prayer board doubling as a mural, where attendees can write or draw the things they’re worried about as a prayer. Finally, the third station will immerse them into the story and allow attendees “to get up and get a little squirmy,” he said.

But if they’d rather just hang out at one station, that’s OK, too, he said.

“This is all worship,” Ginsburg said. “It’s not just playtime; not just guided activity. It’s ways to engage with God.”

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Creating more ‘Access’

Such engagement has been in the works at Forest Hill Church for more than a decade, said Todd Lesher, the church’s collaborative team lead (a fancy title, he says, for director over children and student ministries).

The church has five campuses in the Charlotte area — the main one is in SouthPark. Each is equipped to accommodate pre-school and elementary-aged children with mental, physical and developmental disabilities, he said.

But at the SouthPark campus, a program called “Access” addresses specific child needs in smaller group settings. There, trained volunteers lead children in Bible lessons and activities.

There’s still more work to be done. The church is looking at what it will take financially to provide interpreters for its hearing impaired after hiring one to communicate with a deaf child enrolled in its summer camp. Soon, two hearing impaired children at the Fort Mill campus will move into elementary-aged programs, where interpreters will be critical.

“We’re trying to get more of that,” Lesher said. Children with special needs are “part of our community and we want them to be part of our church, as well. Ultimately, it comes back to what we believe about God, what we believe in our faith. Jesus didn’t turn away anybody.”

Want to hang at “The Hideout?”

The Hideout’s first service starts at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at Dilworth Church’s fellowship hall on 605 East Boulevard. Call (704) 333-4173, or email Ginsburg at jared.ginsburg@dilworthchurch.org, for more information.

Need more “Access?”

Call Todd Lesher at 704-654-0813, or email him at todd.lesher@foresthill.org, for more information.

Just want some help?

Joni & Friends also offers free services and help to churches hoping to create disability ministries. Reach them at 704-841-1177.

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Jonathan McFadden
Jonathan is a Charlotte Agenda contributor.