By Anne Marie Gerhardt
The Rev. Jason Turner admits his more than one-hundred-year-old church, Faith Evangelical United Methodist in Elmhurst, is one of the least accessible buildings in the Northern Illinois Conference with stairs, no outdoor entrance ramps, a basement and limited space for wheelchairs in the sanctuary. But that is not stopping his efforts to reach out to individuals and families with varied abilities.
“I was sitting in my office one day working and praying and noticed the students from York School District 205’s transitional center, (a post-high school educational and vocational program for students age 18-21with disabilities), walk by our church everyday,” said Turner. “This is a group of students that’s often overlooked and I thought we as the church could do more to reach them.”
Turner, who also has a 38-year-old step-brother living with autism, said he knows the obstacles he and many others like him face everyday and wanted to encourage his congregation to reach out beyond their four walls to offer an accessible worship experience.
“It started by building relationships,” said Turner. “I walked over the to transition school, introduced myself and asked how can the church serve you?”
Turner then met with a parent advocate whose son has Asperger syndrome and said the last church she attended people avoided her family. Turner believed they could reach out to families like hers and many more. He began working with local groups such as Elim Christian Service for individuals with disabilities located in Palos Heights, Ill.
The church’s next step was to organize their first creative arts Vacation Bible School in the summer of 2015 for children of varying abilities. In 2016, the VBS grew and moved to the Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church, an ADA compliant facility. The program offered Bible stories and activities during the week as well as some much-appreciated respite for the parents.
Then in October, Turner held an inclusive worship experience titled,“Accessible Hearts Worship” again at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church. “It was a multi-sensory and support-based experience designed with families of children and adults with disabilities in mind,” said Turner. “About 200 people of all ages and abilities attended. It was an amazing experience with a praise band, a drama from Elim and fellowship.”
Elena Cutri, whose 9-year-old son Franco has Down Syndrome, attended the service with her family.
“Our family cherishes these worship services as all of my children feel included and closer to God,” said Cutri whose family regularly attends Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Elmhurst. “This is a special time where my family truly experiences being part of the same body as Christ.”
Turner took another faith step to reach individuals and families of all abilities and ages in the community and launched their first Accessible Hearts monthly worship experience on Nov. 13, this time at the Elmhurst Public Library. It again offered music and interactive worship aids, but also a special sensory room for those who may have needed it. Turner says the goal is to be a “learning lab where we live by grace and try new things” including, support for individuals and families, participation in mission projects and education.
“It was a wonderful demonstration of how to take the good news of Jesus Christ to a community that is often overlooked,” said Terry McDorman, Chair of NIC’s Committee on Accessibility Ministries. “The service transcended barriers and allowed for the fellowship of those with physical and/or mental challenges. No matter what, we are all welcomed in God’s house.”
McDorman says Faith Evangelical UMC is a great example of a church that’s discovered a way to bring church to those that cannot access structures such as its building with physical barriers.
Faith Evangelical continues to work on building improvements to make it welcoming to everyone. They received a grant from the NIC Accessibility Ministries Committee to make one bathroom accessible and they are fundraising the money needed to install an elevator.
“The bottom line as pastors we need to ask ourselves – what are we doing intentionally on a regular basis to include more people in worship and giving people the opportunity to come to feel the closeness of God?” said Turner.
Turner says he feels this is God’s call for his ministry and hopes to faithfully continue working to move the church to find new ways to reach new people.
The next monthly accessible hearts worship experiences are scheduled for Dec. 4, Jan. 15, Feb. 19, Mar. 19 and April 23 at the Elmhurst Public Library, located at 125 S. Prospect, Elmhurst, IL from 3 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. For more information visit: feumc.org.