By Dana Lawrence
Joan Wittwer recalls a unique challenge faced in 1984 by a committee at Stillwater-First UMC. Church member Dorothy Lowery wanted her developmentally disabled son, John, to attend Sunday school.
Wittwer was superintendent of the Sunday school and thus part of that committee. At the time, inclusion of children with developmentally disabilities was an unfamiliar concept to many people, even in public schools. Efforts were made to accommodate John in a "regular" Sunday school class, but they were viewed as unsuccessful. His parents were asked not to bring him back to the class.
Charles Lowery, John’s father, says he was disappointed, but "in their defense, I don’t know if I would have been as understanding without my experience."
In that era, parents who had developmentally disabled children often experienced rejection by churches’ members. "It had a great impact on us," Lowery says. "I told myself, ‘Remember, you joined the church—not the people.’"
Today at First United Methodist, the acceptance level has changed dramatically for including developmentally disabled individuals in church life. The Faith Class is key.
According to Wittwer, "The beauty of the situation is not just the fact that we’ve been able to provide the Sunday school class. The acceptance level of the congregation has gone from a very small percentage to a very large one. The Faith Class members are an instrument of ministry to others."
She feels that class participants aren’t developmentally disabled—they’re "differently abled." Wittwer says, "They provide an opportunity to enhance the spiritual life of individuals who attend the church, and for the church as a whole to grow spiritually."
Class participants are asked to make one-year covenants about what they’re going to do to express their faith. Each one commits to something that’s part of daily life and can be done at home or in the community.
With the help of Suzanne Carpenter, who plays hymns on a ukulele, Faith Class has "Singing Sunday" once a month. Carpenter says, "Music is a universal language, and they sing with their hearts."
She’s been told by participants that the class helps them get through the week. Lela Wright explains, "Faith Class is what helps me have faith. I learn about God in a way that I can understand."
Each week, a participant is asked to lead the group in prayer. Volunteer Carol Headrick says prayers that have been most memorable to her have included: "God, we won the game Saturday, but the season isn’t over yet," and "Take care of (a friend who died). He can walk good now and eat good and I miss you, buddy."
A banner that reads "God Has Made Me Extra Special" hangs in the classroom, where attendance has grown from that one participant in 1984 to 17 people—and there’s a waiting list.