Though the level of spiritual interest is about the same among people with disabilities as with the general population, the percentage of people with disabilities who attend worship regularly is less than the percentage of the general population who attend worship regularly. For one thing, that means that people living in the group home in your church's neighborhood are a splendid outreach opportunity for your congregation. We've posted blogs about Chelwood CRC and Anaheim CRC that have grown numerically and spiritually by following God's lead in this way.
Here are ideas for how to do that from Susan Dorward, Chaplain, Eastern Christian Children’s Retreat, Wyckoff NJ.
1) Find the group homes in your area. This can be done through the state’s department of human services, or by looking online for organizations that support people with disabilities. Your town may also know of group homes in the area; the police, fire and EMT would need to be informed. In NJ there are special procedures associated with a group home.
2) Reach out to the House manager (they usually work during the day). Ask to meet in person and share the mission of your church and your thoughts with them. Ask if a couple of volunteers could come to the house each week to provide a short Bible study. If they agree, try to accommodate the schedule of the house. Many people with Intellectual and Developmental disabilities need to follow a routine.
Try to learn some things about each resident beforehand (for example, if they are verbal or non-verbal, tactile defensive or a hugger, family situation, and so forth). You can ask the manager, “What are the most important things for me to know about each person?” Do not bring food or drinks into the home without the manager’s ok. This may not seem like a way to build a relationship, but if you honor and respect the manager’s knowledge and position they will be more receptive to your initiative.
3) Develop a relationship with the residents and the staff. Developing a relationship with staff is very important. Find out and remember their names. As time moves on, ask if they have any prayer needs. If you can go the same day and time each week, you will most likely see the same staff. The same holds true for the residents—learn their names.
When entering the room, say hello to each one by name. Even if the residents are non-verbal, they will understand the care, love, and respect you are showing them. Also, developing a relationship through music is very effective. Most of the residents will love music; bring a CD with singable songs—a couple of sheets with the words (residents and staff may want to join in) and instruments, maracas, tambourines, flexible keyboards and the like.
4) Meet with them often, once a week if possible. Sing one song that is the same each time so those with lower cognitive skills can associate you with the song and they will begin to remember you.
5) For higher functioning residents, find out what they might be interested to learn about God/Jesus (prayer, lessons, songs, etc.). For lower cognitive function, music and a short dramatic message might be better; coloring, crafts, and other hands on activities might engage them as well.
6) Be ready to answer a lot of personal questions and be honored that you are being asked. This means they want to get to know you. They may ask the same questions each time, but it is their way of engaging in conversation and expressing their desire for relationship. It’s best not to ask them questions, but instead ask them to tell you about themselves.
7) One of the most important things you can do is to have fun! Enjoy and delight in all they have to offer and remember its ok to make a fool of yourself and laugh at yourself.
8) When all feel comfortable, invite them to your church if your church is accessible. Well in advance before they come, make sure the congregation knows the ministry you have developed and how they can help. Prepare the pastor and congregation that the residents may not be quiet all the time. If this will not be acceptable, don’t invite the residents. Remember, if you invite them into your church, they too are part of the body of Christ. They need to be treated as such and maybe even be given tasks.