St. Paul church designed to welcome those with disabilities

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Imagine feeling unwelcome, even excluded, in your own church. That's what's happening every week to countless people with special needs. But there are efforts in the works to build more bridges between certain families and congregations.

Every Thursday night, Pastor Larry Campbell welcomes dozens of kindred spirits to a church service like no other. Nestled in the basement of St. Paul's Summit Church are dozens of people with a wide spectrum of special needs.

"What you'll see tonight will not be acceptable in a typical church. But it's typical for them,” Campbell said.

Many go there because they can worship freely – free of stares and free of shushes. There, they can be seen and heard.

"They love to talk. They love to shout out answers. And they don't have much of a filter so whatever they see they talk about,” Campbell said.

Pastor Campbell and his wife Carolyn started this ministry called “Friend to Friend Chapel” five years ago. They're helping an overwhelming number of people with special needs who want to worship, but struggle to feel included – or sometimes even welcome – in more traditional church settings.

“That's something we see so often. If somebody makes the general population feel uncomfortable then we don't want to deal with the discomfort. They're a member of the church and yet the disability brings up a barrier,” Campbell said.

The pastor knows those barriers well. Growing up, his family's church turned its back on his sister Lila as she battled multiple sclerosis.

"When she lost ability to sing and speak she would express her praise and enjoyment with screeches or grunts and loud sounds,” Campbell said. “And so the church asked mom and dad not to bring her anymore because she made people uncomfortable."

It's hard to know exactly how many people with disabilities are falling through the churches' cracks. A third of special needs families polled recently say they've left a church because they didn't feel welcome. So why aren't more churches stepping up and creating support systems?

"One of my prayers is that the church would be riskier,” Lisa Jamieson said.

Jamieson is the mother of a child with disabilities and the driving force behind a local initiative called “Twin Cities Disability Ministry,” a non-denominational group helping metro area churches better understand special needs, and conquer their fears.

"When you're not exposed to disability in your own family, you sort of don't know what to do,” Jamieson said.

It’s part hand-holding, and part mirror-holding.

"As a church we get fearful and intimidated by that. We know somewhere in our spirits that Jesus wants us to engage and we watch Jesus do that and for some reason we don't think we can. Or we think we have to do it perfectly before we even start. And we somehow have to get rid of that mentality,” Jamieson said.

Jamieson empathizes with church leaders and members who worry about supporting “yet another program” – but says the best disability ministry doesn't have to be a program. She's seen the concept play out in her own church with her own daughter in small, simple ways.

"We have had people come and tap us on the shoulder when they recognized that she was getting restless and say ‘could I take her for a walk?’ People think they have to have some special training or something and so very very often, unless there's a high medical situation for an individual or child, very often, just a very warm, loving welcoming body, person who's willing to engage for an hour or so,” Jamieson said.

Back at Friend to Friend Chapel, a spirited symphony marks the end of the worship. It’s a simple service with a few bells, but no whistles, and just a room full of people willing to open their hearts and engage.

"It's people being themselves and that's what so good about this ministry,” Howard Kern said.

It’s people being themselves, no matter what that looks like – some with disabled minds, some with disabled bodies, but all with perfectly able souls.

"If the church can't give hope, nobody can give hope,” Jamieson said.