Gregg and Judy Sykes had gone to Christ United Method Church in Mobile for more than two decades when they had to stop attending Sunday services together as a family a few years ago.
Their son, Kevin, who is autistic, found it difficult to sit through the hour-long affair, and as an older teenager, had also outgrown the capabilities of the church’s childcare services. But a new kind of service specifically designed for persons with disabilities and their families has made it possible for the Sykes — all three of them — to worship together for the first time.
“For a while, my wife and I had to swap Sundays for services so someone could stay at home with my son, but this service has given us an opportunity to come and worship as a family and it’s been wonderful,” Gregg said. “I got to see Kevin take communion for the first time.”
The Sykes are one of several families of persons suffering from a range of physical and intellectual disabilities who’ve found a home at the Joy Service — a monthly service Christ United Methodist Church has held since March 2018.
From the ground up, the experience was designed with special needs in mind.
The service is condensed, the message is shorter and the setting uses lower-volume audio and dimmer lighting for those with sensory issues. A sign language interpreter is there to translate, and noise-canceling headphones, stress balls and fidgets are available at the door.
Visitors can expect three “fun songs,” a puppet show and a 10-minute sermon.
Brad Boland, director of ministries at Christ United, said the service was developed with input from special education professionals and was envisioned as a family experience because there were families with children whom a traditional worship service just didn’t work for.
“They couldn’t place their kids in a class, and yet, they didn’t feel comfortable bringing them into worship either not knowing what they might do or how people might receive or perceive them,” Boland said. “In an environment like this, it doesn’t matter. There’s going to be noise. There’s going to be interesting things that happen during the service, and all of that is fine.”
Leslie Franklin, a longtime member, was in the situation Boland described not long ago.
In fact, she and another Christ United member, Glenn Redd, actually helped push the idea of developing a service catering to special-needs individuals because their sons, Josh and Jonathan, had “autistic tendencies” and were unable to attend worship with them.
Franklin said she never felt judged by the congregation, but her son was simply unable to handle the number of people, the length and some of the noises. There were several Sundays where she and Josh sat outside the sanctuary, watching on a mounted TV monitor.
“He just would not go into the sanctuary, but he’ll go in here today … he’s fine,” Franklin said before a Joy Service in June. “I think it’s the community. He knows the kids here, he knows the adults here and he knows it’s for him and that makes a difference. For some reason, he’s OK with it. If I had all the answers I’d be a millionaire, but I know it works.”
While several families have benefited from the service, their children and a number of adults with special needs from throughout the community have as well. Boland said an average attendance includes more than 40 people from all over the county and from all denominational backgrounds. Some come from group homes like the Mulherin Home, which volunteers from the church will transport to and from the services whenever possible.
Peggy Windham, who worked as a special educator for 38 years, was one of the members who helped develop the Joy Service, which she said is based on many of the environmental and physical accommodations that can be found in special education classrooms today.
She told Lagniappe that organizers felt it was important to accommodate special populations but also to make their experience as close to a traditional worship service as possible. That’s why from communion and Baptism down to the offering, many parts of a Joy Service should be recognizable to anyone who grew up in the South going to church, Methodist or otherwise.
“It’s not that we want or expect money for anything, but [the offering] gives the attendees a feeling that, ‘we’re the ushers in our worship service, and we do the offering.’ It just gives them something special to be a part of,” Windham said. “You’d just have to come here to see how this service affects those kids and those adults with disabilities and what it means for them.”
Currently, the Joy Service is held once a month at Christ United Methodist Church, which is located at 6101 Grelot Road. The next service will be Sunday, July 21, at 3:30 p.m. More information and a future schedule can be found at christunited.com/joy.
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