First Reformed Church of New Brunswick, New Jersey has had a long run. Founded in 1717, the congregation occupies a sanctuary that once seated 600 people. Seventy members show up regularly, leaving many empty pews in a building that is dwarfed by its neighbors. One way to look at First Reformed Church is to see it as an example of the mainline decline narrative that is so pervasive in stories about American religion these days. An old, established institution, with declining membership, it seems to invite gloomy forecasts.
But look more closely. In a new book written for the Alban Institute, Mark I. Pinsky tells how a few new members can bring life into a congregation. A young mother, Sandy, and her four year-old daughter, Kathleen, started showing up on Sundays. When the mother filled out her membership form, she also named another family member, Walter, but never brought him to worship.
Walter had autism, was non-verbal, and had an IQ of about 50. His mother did not bring her son because she was worried that he might disrupt worship, that his eating habits and personal hygiene might prove troubling for the congregation’s members, and that his coming to church might result in rejection for all three family members.
First Reformed Church’s new co-pastors, Hartwig and Susan Kramer-Mills, encouraged Sandy to bring Walter with her. She did and soon after that she was baptized. Then it was time to baptize her children.
A strange process began—the small congregation began to reshape itself around one person and in so doing it found new life. The Kramer-Mills recognized that Walter had a fear of confined spaces so they decided that he—and his sister—would be baptized outdoors. For several weeks the clergy-couple rehearsed with Walter—using an empty bowl on a camping table in the front yard of a nearby farm. The Baptism came off without a hitch.
The Kramer-Mills recognized that they needed to learn more to welcome Walter fully into the congregation’s life. They went first to the special school he attended in Princeton and then turned to the Boggs Center at Rutgers University which specialized in working with people with disabilities. There they were invited to join the Center’s Autism and Faith Task Force, a group of lay and clergy from a variety of faith traditions who shared experiences about how their congregations welcomed people with disabilities into their lives.
Back home in their congregation, the co-pastors put into practice what they learned. The autism task force evolved into the Special Needs Accessibility Project which widened the congregation’s focus to include other developmental needs beyond autism. Three years later Walter reached confirmation age and the congregation adjusted its confirmation practice creating a curriculum and ceremony that allowed him to share his faith by participating in the telling of the Creation story (his line was “It is good!”) and then acting out his vows. Now Walter is seen as an integral part of his congregation and First Reformed Church has a new network of groups that are focused on welcoming others into the congregation’s life.
What is going on here? Decline or new life? A boy with autism is included in an old church, a family carrying the heavy burdens of caring for someone with disabilities is given real support and help, a small congregation is turned toward its community in new ways. More than that, if one looks closely one can see a faith tradition, in this case the Reformed stream of the Christianity, pulled, stretched, and transformed into something that will share its gifts in new ways with the next generation.
What if there were more stories like this? The story I have just related takes up only seven pages of Mark Pinsky’s powerful book, Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion. (For the full excerpt, see Congregations 2011 Issues 3 & 4.) The other 298 pages are brimming with equally compelling stories of how congregations, often small and with seemingly few resources, are changing themselves to make room for the 54 million people with disabilities in this country that all too often are not seen in our worship services. As these congregations do the hard work of changing their ways —their buildings, their patterns of communication, and their attitudes—new vitality is released within and beyond them.
Take for example, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Exton, Pennsylvania, where two lay women, Susan Cawford, and Cynthia McCurdy, the mother of a child with Down Syndrome, have created a Rejoicing Spirits ministry that focuses on families with Down Syndrome children. The ministry has now grown to include twenty-eight churches in five denominations spread across five states. In an era when many talk about the weakening of social capital in this country, St. Paul’s tells a different story—one about new connections being formed around real human need.
This story is not just an American one. Clegg’s Lane Methodist Church in a depressed part of Manchester, England, is supporting a partnership between a congregation, the local government, and a men’s health group that has led a congregation that not too long ago voted to close its doors to reverse course. It opened its doors to “a ragtag bunch of men with a history of debilitating physical and mental illnesses” (p.93). As the congregation gave these marginalized people room to become a community the congregation received back many gifts.
My first thought was that Pinsky was offering us a modern version of the Acts of the Apostles in his new book. Like the fifth book in the Christian New Testament, Amazing Gifts abounds in examples of faith communities coming to life where we least expect it. But then I noted that there were also stories here—wonderful ones—about Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu communities of faith making similar breakthroughs. Something important is happening. We need to look more closely.