By CHRIS SCHUTZ
Jingling bells in the pew? That’s OK. Exploring the sanctuary during the service? That’s OK, too.
Talking to the preacher as she gives the sermon? That’s OK, and she might even answer back.
Christmas Eve marked the start of what could become a tradition at Mustang United Methodist Church – a service tailored to families with special needs.
Donna Dodson, pastor of the church, said the idea of the special service came up in discussion at a staff meeting, and it just blossomed.
Rev. Dodson asked her staff to meet with two mothers of special needs children to plan the service, which was held at 5 p.m. Dec. 24, in addition to more conventional Christmas Eve services.
"I wanted to make sure that we did this right," she said.
Dodson said the church also asked for the input of parents who attend support groups, that regularly meet at Mustang UMC, for families dealing with issues such as autism and Down syndrome.
It wasn’t a silent night
When the Christmas Eve service started, Dodson assured the congregation of about 55 people that "it was OK to make noise."
Jingle bells were on hand for anybody who felt like ringing them, and it was fine for worshippers to wander around the sanctuary during the service. There was a supply of toys with which to play during the service, too.
"Whatever they chose to do, it was OK," Dodson said. "We just accepted anybody who came in."
One teenage girl talked to Dodson while she was preaching, and Dodson responded.
The service featured gentle music and lighting because of the sensory sensitivity of some in the congregation.
Most of the people who came are not members of the church, Dodson said. One family traveled from Harrah with their foster children.
Dodson said she told a simple version of the Christmas story, illustrated with pictures projected on a screen at appropriate points.
"I just told it. I didn’t read it from the Scriptures," she said.
Instead of lighting candles at the end of the service, the worshippers received glow sticks, which they placed in a manger display during the singing of "Silent Night."
Families who wanted to receive a blessing after the service came forward and joined hands with Dodson for a prayer.
Extending a welcome
The pastor said she hopes the Christmas Eve service will lead to something bigger – regular services for special needs children and their families. "That’s been a dream of mine," she said.
In the past, families have remarked to Dodson that they had given up on going to regular church services. "When they go and their child makes noise, people turn around and look."
Families were pleased with the service, she said. "They indicated that they hoped we could do it again."
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