This article is the first in a two-part series, in which Steve Nyenhuis tells the story of the Friendship Ministry at Anaheim CRC. In part 2, we will ask him what he has learned along the way and what suggestions he has for CRC church planters who want to learn to fully include people with disabilities. Although Steve’s focus has been on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, much of what he writes could apply to engaging with people who have other disabilities too.
Around ten years ago, I was leading our Adult Sunday School class, and I noticed four or five adults who appeared different. I found out these folks were part of a Friendship Class, but their teacher had recently moved away. I had never even heard of Friendship Ministries, and in all my years I had not associated with people with intellectual disabilities. I have been a member of Anaheim CRC since 1969, and I did not know we had people in our congregation with intellectual disabilities. However, God put this desire on my heart to be their new leader.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I found out they were using materials by Friendship Ministries in Grand Rapids, so I continued to use the same lessons. It did not take long for us to become friends. We met on Sunday mornings for an hour, sang some songs, acted out some skits and studied Bible stories together. We had lots of fun. I soon learned how to incorporate Power Point into the lessons.
For seven years, we had about ten participants. During this time, a few other church members joined our class and assisted in leading. I learned about our denominational ministry Disability Concerns, directed by Mark Stephenson, and I also learned about ministries such as Joni and Friends. I took their online course, “Beyond Suffering,” which helped me understand more about the history of people with disabilities, as well as the theology of including people with disabilities in our churches. As I started reading books and becoming involved with Disability Concerns, my passion for this ministry grew.
We had a Saturday morning prayer group, and we began asking God where He wanted to lead us in our disability ministry. How could we do more? The Lord was about to teach us a lesson in how He answers our prayers. In early 2013, I was encouraged to call Elizabeth Santos, who owns nineteen group homes; she was looking for a church home for her residents and staff but was not ready to make a commitment yet. One year later, on a Saturday morning after our prayer time, Elizabeth called. She was bringing thirty of her residents plus staff to our worship service the next day. We were asked to reserve the last three pews. The first thing I did was to call Pastor Joel to let him know. We had no idea what to expect.
The group showed up for our 10:30 AM worship service, and we greeted them. The following Sunday, a number of our new friends joined us in our Friendship Sunday School class, which meets before the Sunday service. Each week more people came. At our last class of the season, we had over sixty people in our class. The people coming included staff members from the homes who had to be there; Elizabeth was actually paying her staff to attend church. During summer break, we discussed what to do in the fall. While having sixty people attending sounded great, Elizabeth’s desire was to have a church home for all of her residents who wanted to come. There are 114 residents, plus staff, in her homes, which meant we needed room for about 180 people!
Since we did not have room for that many people to join us on Sunday mornings, we decided to begin Friendship worship services on Sunday afternoons. We now have around 160 people join in a time of praise and worship on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. Many of our friends join the praise team to lead us in worship, and Pastor Joel and I take turns giving the message. We are currently using “Jesus: Face to Face”, which is one of Friendship Ministries’ Together Small Group Bible Studies. To help in presenting the message, there are videos and skits and other ways to encourage participation.
For me, one of the highlights of our Friendship Ministry was when I was commissioned as our Disability Ministry Director, a part-time paid position. While I appreciate the additional income, creating a paid position shows that our church recognizes the importance of this ministry. God also led a group of about fifteen members of our church to work with me as our Friendship Ministry Leadership Team. Members of this team help plan and lead our worship services and also plan events like Special Olympics. They have been an encouragement to me in many ways. It has also meant a lot to me and to our ministry that Pastor Joel not only supports us but is actively involved in building relationships with our friends.
Read Part 2: Inclusivity Learning and Resources.