Faith grows in those with special needs
By Lindsay Peyton
When St. Peter’s UMC in Katy welcomes “all” families on campus, the offer couldn’t be more serious. A Special Needs Ministry for children, teens and adults provides a safe and calming space so that all God’s children feel they belong.
“God says, ‘All you need to do is open the door and let me do my work, the work that only I can do,’” Rev. Whitney Peper said.
Then, God accomplishes great feats. Peper heads the Special Needs Ministry. She explained that the church began the ministry by offering Friday Night Friends, a respite program for children once a month.
“They come in to play games and have snacks, while mom and dad can run errands, go to the grocery store or just take a nap,” Peper said. “It’s an opportunity to have some time off.”
The church then expanded the option to include adults with special needs, who are aged out of the school system but not able to work. The H20 Program is held once a week, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays, and features interactive games, crafts, lessons, music and outings.
In 2018, Peper added “Courage Worship,” a service for families with special needs loved ones, at 5p.m. on Sundays. The service is shorter, but otherwise completely the same as normal worship.
“There’s a message, communion, offering and music,” Peper said. “It’s the same message. We don’t water down the sermon.”
She explained that other churches have special needs sermons that closer resemble children’s services. “That’s not what ours is about,” she said. “Families want to worship together.”
And Peper has designed an option that works for everyone – and is completely inclusive. Her mission is to help those with special needs grow in their faith.
“We have braille Bibles, adaptive listening devices for children and apps on iPads,” Peper said.
“I never thought I’d see the Gospel this way.”
She’s excited to make it available for families and to offer a service they can all attend together. “To be a part of a team that can regularly do this is amazing,” she said.
Peper was inspired by her niece Paislea, now 13-years old, who has been physically and mentally handicapped since she was 3-weeks old. “My sister is not able to attend church with her,” she said. “There is no church equipped to help. I saw how much that hurt my sister.”
She was not alone. “Most of the time, families with special needs loved ones stop going to church all together,” Peper said. “About 90 percent of special needs families do not have a church home or have been turned away from theirs.”
The pastor’s research on this issue inspired her to start a special needs worship service. Once she voiced what was on her heart, she was amazed at the number of volunteers who jumped in and also felt called to help.
Still, the first Sunday Peper offered Courage Worship, she was nervous how many would attend. “I was biting my nails,” she said.
Then, the families started to show up. Some were members of St. Peter’s, while others were totally new.
Many attendees have remained since day one. Families come from all denominations, and even different religions.
The same is true of the Special Needs Summer Camp, which recently wrapped up its third year. There were Jewish, Muslim and Hindu families who attended. “They all know this is a place where their loved ones will be loved,” Peper said.
She explained that their stories are what keep her motivated to help. She has heard, “We haven’t been able to worship as a family for years” and “Our church asked us to leave, because our loved one was a distraction.”
“These families had no way to participate in the full worship experience,” Peper said. “Courage has changed that.”
St. Peter’s also developed support groups for parents, siblings and caregivers, as well as a Buddy Program to pair children with special needs with a friend who will allow them to attend Wednesday nights or VBS.
“We’re continuing to grow and offer new programs,” Peper said.
There are also plans to expand the program to the church’s West Campus. “And in an era when it can be difficult to find volunteers, we continue to be graced by God,” Peper said.
The pastor has seen God work in amazing ways, she added. Simply because an individual with special needs cannot speak to profess faith or read a Bible, does not mean they are not experiencing God.
She sees them smile to be in church and bow their heads in prayer. “They want to be there and don’t want to leave,” she said. “I continue to see God move.”
If Peper is preaching during Courage Worship and a ball thrown her way, she simply continues without a pause. If there’s noise, no one taps a special needs person on the shoulder to ask them to be quiet.
“We just keep going,” Peper said. “Here they can worship together as a family.”
She explained that she often hears how the same families were denied access to church.
“I sit there and think that’s just not the Gospel,” she said. “It’s not what we’re called to do.”
It’s one thing to say a church is welcoming, Peper added. “It’s another thing entirely to do the work that allows them to be involved, to grow and to develop their faith,” she said.
She asks, “Are we welcoming and inclusive to people who fit what we are doing already? Or are we welcoming to someone who walks in our door?”
For other churches interested in developing their special needs ministry, she suggests starting by a call to volunteers.
“Find those people who also have this on their heart – because they’re there,” Peper said. “Find the people who can meet the need you have. Let them step up and be a part of it.”
Being truly inclusive is not easy, Peper said. “But it’s not impossible,” she explained. “Shift your mindset. A lot of times, churches think ‘I need them to adapt to us.’ But we’re the ones who have to adapt. We have to adapt our way of thinking so that everyone has a place.”