Disability Outreach Program Becomes Church

Date Posted: 
Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Joanne Van Sant didn’t set out to be the pastor of a church.

She spent three decades in the nonprofit world, where she gained experience with disability issues after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, before attending seminary. After graduating from New Brunswick Theological Seminary in 2010, she hoped to become a chaplain, so she completed her Clinical Pastoral Education as chaplain of five group homes in the area.

When a downturn in the economy made full-time jobs scarce, she sought pastoral work and eventually landed at a church with a long history of disability advocacy, Friends to Friends Community Church (RCA) in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

The journey of Friends to Friends likewise follows a nontraditional route.

Fifty years ago, First Reformed Church of Ridgewood housed and helped start a community Sunday school for children with special needs. Over the years, the congregation aged, died, or retired and moved away. The Sunday school children also grew up—they aged into adulthood, and now many are retirement age themselves. But the ministry expanded. In addition to Sunday school, they began hosting a monthly worship service, which became weekly, and then what had been an outreach program became the congregation.

In 2014, First Reformed officially became Friends to Friends Community Church, a name bestowed in the ’90s by volunteers and parents who longed for their children with disabilities to have a place of spiritual growth.

“We’re not a typical congregation,” says Van Sant, “but we are a standalone RCA church, with congregants who participate as worship leaders, acolytes, offering bearers, Scripture readers, and prayer offerers. People can sign up, no qualifications. If you can’t read, one of our priceless volunteers will help you.”

Over decades, a tremendous amount of work with group homes and agencies laid the groundwork for what happens today: a worship service for 75 to 80 people each Sunday evening, which allows them to attend church with their families in the morning. The finances for it come from offerings, donations, and a preschool that’s housed at the church.

“With more than 25 group homes and 15 agencies participating, we are dependent on staff to bring our congregation,” Van Sant says. “And when staff change agencies, they often encourage new employers to join the effort. It takes on a life of its own.”

Van Sant is currently writing the dissertation for her doctorate of ministry. Called A Place at the Table, it focuses on the core question she has for the church today: are we ready in attitude—not just in accessibility—to be welcoming, hospitable, and inclusive in our own congregations?

“We need to broaden our parameters of worship and not stay stuck in questions of ramps, elevators, and pews,” she says. “There are many people who are not physically disabled who want to worship. The question becomes, ‘What do we have, and how can we accommodate the needs of the people who come?’”

At Friends to Friends, these accommodations include lots of visual and interactive elements. Everything is presented in such a way that the congregation doesn’t have to read. And familiar, repetitive songs signal transitions and help participants engage.

“These are spiritual people who wish to practice their faith,” says Van Sant. “We underestimate people’s connection to God. There are advantages to persons with disabilities having a worship service of their own, but there are more advantages to a church welcoming and including persons with disabilities into their own congregation. Just because we don’t understand what to do is no excuse; we are all children of God, and we all have a place at the table.”

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