Every first Sunday of the month at the Busti Church of God, Pastor Roy Ferguson stands at the alter and tends to the spiritual needs of the area's developmentally disabled. And while the special service provides those who have gathered with an unfettered opportunity to worship, the pastor says the monthly service is just as meaningful to him.
Many of the disabled congregants have social, behavioral and communication problems, which makes it difficult for some to sit still. Some may shout or laugh at inopportune times, while others have difficulty reading or singing.
This makes attending church services a daunting task for many of the developmentally disabled worshipers and their families. In churches across the country, some families say they are reluctant to bring their disabled family member to church for fear of disrupting the service.
Sharon Post and Norma Jean Angelo prepare to celebrate the five-year anniversary of Rejoicing Spirits.
In Minnesota, one church made headlines in 2008 when it sought a court order to ban a 13-year-old with autism from Mass because of his loud outbursts.
But five years ago, the Busti Church of God joined more than 30 other churches nationwide that have instituted an inclusive program into their churches called Rejoicing Spirits. The program provides a format where individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities can express their faith in their own way.
The service includes music and singing, along with short, meaningful messages. Worshippers are provided an opportunity to serve, lead, learn and participate. Most important of all, perhaps, is that it's a "shush-free" environment, which helps to meet the needs of the participants. The church also provides a special FM receiver for the hearing impaired and is handicapped accessible.
"The only rules here," said Ferguson in regard to the special services "is that there are no rules."
The program - which will celebrate its fifth anniversary next Sunday - was spearheaded at the Busti church by members Michael and Sharon Post. Their son Nathan had developmental disabilities and they were looking for a better way to include him in family's spiritual life. With the support of Pastor Ferguson and fellow congregant Norma Jean Angelo - whose daughter Stephanie also had disabilities and died before Rejoicing Spirits took root - the program was born and has proven to be highly successful in meeting the spiritual needs of the disabled community.
In discussing the Posts, Ferguson said, "We were their last ditch effort at trying to go to church together as a family."
Two years ago, Nathan passed away, but Sharon kept her position as the Rejoicing Spirits Ministry chairperson.
The program has grown, and on any given Sunday the first week of the month, as many as 50 to 60 worshippers fill the pews. "We did quite a bit of advertising and sent information to a number of group homes in the area, Ferguson said, "and we may have had well over 200 rejoicers here over the years."
In looking back at the program, Ferguson says he's learned a few things about life. "Our rejoicers are not encumbered by the things that steal our joy. They don't shake their fist at god because they've found joy in their circumstances. We can learn a lot from them about what we stress over in life.They prioritize relationships and we prioritize achievements. They've taught me a lot."
A celebration of their five-year anniversary will take place at 4 p.m. on Oct. 6 at the Busti Church of God. For more information, contact Sharon Post at email@example.com, or the church office at 487-1636. The church is located 2 miles southwest of Jamestown.