By Matt Bunke, Community Editor
Lyndale Lutheran Church is launching a new ministry in July designed to accommodate children and adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities.
The program, called Rejoicing Spirits, will officially start Sunday, July 8, with a service at 2 p.m., and will subsequently be held the second Sunday of each month. Lyndale Lutheran is located about 6 miles east of Watertown on Highway 6, at the intersection of County Road 92.
Rejoicing Spirits is a national program that started in 2003 in Pennsylvania and is spreading to churches throughout the country. It is intended to give people with developmental disabilities, including autism, a chance to worship in an inclusive environment with their families, friends, or anybody who wants to attend the monthly service.
"It’s a real church service, but it is presented in way that’s more accessible to people with cognitive disabilities and people with issues like autism," said Lee Stephenson, who is coordinating the program at Lyndale. "The service is presented in simple, concrete terms."
Stephenson said one of the keys to the service is repetition. Instead of expecting churchgoers to understand everything the first time, the sermon is reviewed several times, and then reinforced with a short skit that churchgoers can be a part of if they wish.
"It incorporates a lot of different avenues for taking in information," Stephenson said.
The service also incorporates a significant amount of music, generally short and upbeat songs that Stephenson said convey a lot of meaning in a few words. Stephenson said the service also stresses more than just singing the words.
"We use sign language and hand motions and body movements, so that even if somebody isn’t able to sing, they can still move their body to the music, or sign, or just watch other people," she said.
Stephenson said there is a great need for worship programs such as this one. By its general nature, a traditional church service requires silence and stillness for an hour or more, a setting that is not well suited for the developmentally disabled. Many families have tried to attend church services, Stephenson said, but stop attending after a short while.
"Often times, people with these disabilities have a real need to move and vocalize, and that doesn’t work in a formal, traditional church stetting, because it can be disruptive," Stephenson said. "A lot of families have had problems and haven’t been back to church in years. We’re hoping to provide a place where everyone can worship together, and movement and noise and things that are normally a problem in a traditional church service aren’t a problem here."
Stephenson said there are several organizations around the area that offer similar programs for children, including MOCHA, or Mothers of Children with Autism. However, according the Rejoicing Sprits Web site, there are no other churches in the state that offer this particular program, which caters to people of all ages.
"This is a really neat program because it’s for parents and children," Stephenson said. "This is really geared for the whole family to be part of a community. The goal is inclusion. A lot of times families with children – or adults they care for in their home – don’t have an opportunity to be part of worship."
The services will be led by Pastor Gale Reitan, along with a number of volunteers who are helping to coordinate music, sign language, hospitality, and other aspects of the service. The Rejoicing Spirits national organization serves mainly as a resource throughout the process, offering suggestions and different materials for the services. Lyndale Lutheran Church had to go through a fairly significant feasibility study before it could become part of the program.
Stephenson said the church felt a calling to become part of the ministry because numerous church members have family members with developmental disabilities, or work with them on a regular basis. The church has also been in conversation with service providers and group homes throughout the area to see if they would like to participate in the program, and one group has already committed to joining the church for the first service on July 8.
Stephenson said she wasn’t sure how many people to expect for the first service, which closely follows the Fourth of July holiday, but said she hopes the program continues to grow.
"We’re hoping to get our feet wet this summer," she said. "After we have an idea of how it works, we’ll do some fine tuning and really have it up and running by Christmas."
For more information on the program, visit www.rejoicingspirits.com or call Stephenson at 763-355-2502 or the church at 763-479-1719.