One in five Americans has a disability and most likely, their caregivers aren't attending church.
"The caregivers worry their special needs child or adult will cry out during the worship service. This would be not only distracting the pastor and the congregation but embarrassing their caregiver," says Pastor Don Geller. "Embarrassing moments such as these are the main reason we see very few caregivers of people with disabilities in our worship services."
With the support of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church, Geller has planted a new church. In this church, those with differing abilities will be welcomed into a unique worship experience designed specifically for them. Community With A Cause, the new congregation, began holding worship services in the fellowship hall of Lexington Park United Methodist Church on September 12.
The messages will be tailored to the challenges parents and caregivers of children and adults with disabilities face in everyday life. Everyone will be given an opportunity to learn about God and God's grace as a family. They will be given a chance to experience God on their own level.
An Inspired Idea
Geller understands first-hand the challenges caregivers and those whom God has gifted differently face in attending worship.
This licensed local pastor and his wife, Cindy, have a 30-year-old son with disabilities. Geller has made it his mission to learn about the barriers to worship these families face. He vows Community With A Cause will stand with Christ connecting or reconnecting caregivers of children and adults with disabilities with The United Methodist Church.
Led by the Holy Spirit, Geller developed a proposal to plant a hypothetical church that would serve families such as his during a church-planting class at Wesley Theological Seminary.
His final project used the MissionInsite resource from The United Methodist Church. He packaged the project as a report for the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church and Path 1 to consider.
In this project, he conceived planting a new faith community as a missional outreach of Lexington Park United Methodist Church. His research revealed more than 64,000 people lived within a seven mile radius of Lexington Park. Further research with the St. Mary's and Calvert County governments revealed that more than 7,000 of those residents have a disability of some sort.
"Armed with that data and the Holy Spirit, I wrote a proposal to plant this hypothetical new faith community," he says.
Turning the Hypothetical into Reality
The course professor, the Rev. Paul Nixon, was impressed by the project and told Geller there was nothing hypothetical about his proposal. Nixon felt Geller had an idea inspired by Christ's example and founded in solid research.
Geller shared his project with his pastor, the Rev. Doug Hays, who shared it with the district superintendent, the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Iannicelli. After Geller presented his project in person to Iannicelli, she took the idea to the bishop and his cabinet.
"Within six months of submitting this proposal, the bishop appointed me to plant this new church. Many, many people are behind me who believe in this vision. I couldn't have started Community with a Cause without their support," says Geller.
The Worshipers Didn't Want to Leave
"The church is open to anyone who wants to come, whether they have a disability or not," Geller says. Sixty-six people attended Community with a Cause during its first worship service. On that day, Geller told the congregation that "God has not forgotten you or those whom God has gifted differently!"
"My launch team and I worked very hard to make sure it was a smooth service. We celebrated the sacrament of Holy Communion and we sang. Afterwards, we celebrated our inaugural service with cake and refreshments. It was an hour and a half after the worship ended before everyone left. Everyone wanted to keep it going," he says.
When asked about the highlights of the day, Geller talks about a message a worshiper texted him that evening. The message read: 'Thank you for one of the most moving and meaningful worship services of my life.'
"I knew we were going to praise God even if only one person showed up. I give God the thanks for all the people who attended and were moved by the Holy Spirit," says Geller.
Three months later, Community with a Cause is thriving, with an average of 50 people attending Worship and 25-30 attending Bible Study each Saturday.
"We've integrated those with differing abilities into the worshipping experience," Geller says, adding that members serve as greeters or assist with collecting the offering.
"On our closing song, I bring all of them upfront with me to sing back to their families and the congregation," Geller says. "To see the faces of those who God has gifted differently, to see the faces of the parents, it's something that's hard to explain.
"We will measure our success by the number of lives we change and the number of people we bring to Jesus Christ. We believe the lives of the families who are attending are already being changed by Community with a Cause," he says.
Reprinted with permission from the Wesley Theological Seminary website.