Story Magazine

Spring/Summer, 2014

Welcome to God's House

by Marc Hequet

A church tries to be a welcoming place. How best, then, to welcome those with special needs, especially kids?
Monica Hammersten, '08, has made this question her focus. She leads a ministry for special-needs children and adults at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

Hammersten, a lifelong member of the congregation, now serves it as an associate pastor. Her son, Jack, 22, is autistic. And that is a key reason why special-needs ministry matters to her. "Advocating for and welcoming these kids and their families into God's house is my great pleasure and privilege," Hammersten says.

It's not a simple question to answer: How should congregations welcome people with special needs? What about those with Down's syndrome or autism, for example? What can members of a congregation do so that such individuals and their families feel welcome rather than excluded from worship, Sunday school and special events?

At Mount Olivet, Hammersten once encountered a mother who asked if the congregation had a classroom for special-needs children.

Hammersten was able to say, "Yes, Mount Olivet has a separate space for kids who are nonverbal." So the family felt welcome and returned. A congregation without such a program or special-needs room might have meant the family wouldn't return—and may not go to church at all.

But it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. Some families may want children in a separate space, where special-needs kids can feel safe and protected. On the other hand, some families may want special-needs kids mainstreamed in Sunday school with other kids.

Where to begin? Mount Olivet's Sunday-school questionnaire asks about special needs. That's a good start, says Mary Hess, associate professor of educational leadership. Hess argues that children—all children—"should be at the heart of a congregation." The best way to begin, Hess adds, "is to listen carefully and deeply" to their families.

Hammersten resolutely agrees that special-needs individuals should participate fully as members of a congregation—if the family is willing. The family, argues Hammersten, must be able to choose what's best for the individual at church.

In mainstream Sunday school, some kids may need a volunteer aide to help one-on-one. Mainstreaming is a great way to go, if the family is OK with it. "We love that," Hammersten says, "because the 'typical' kids learn empathy and that a child with special needs is nothing to fear."

In such a setting, she adds, people can "learn and grow and love each other exactly as they are. We don't differentiate who has disabilities and who doesn't. We're all just friends hanging out together."

Indeed, Mount Olivet hosts three special-needs groups. When teenage members of the earliest group entered their 20s, they kept coming to the teen group. So Mount Olivet launched a 20-something group. Likewise, now there's a 30-something group.

In many cases, organizers pair what Hammersten calls "typical" kids with special-needs kids. Activities include movies, basketball, trips to restaurants, a Valentine's Day dance and summer trips to Cathedral of the Pines, Mount Olivet's camp 260 miles north of Minneapolis.

Speaking of Valentine's Day, two couples from the adult group have wed and two more are engaged, Hammersten says.

Beyond her own church, she guides other congregations in the matter of special-needs ministry. Congregations, she says, may be wary of creating and publicizing such a program. "People have a build-it-and-they-will-come fear," she notes. "What if all special-needs kids flock to their church? People fear they won't be able to handle it. They can."

And perhaps we must. Hammersten points to Matthew 25: "And the King will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'"

"Parents of special-needs kids have spent their whole lives hearing people tell them, 'We're sorry, we'd love to welcome your child, we just don't have the resources to do so at this time,'" Hammersten says.

At Mount Olivet, "our goal is to say, 'Yes, we'd love to have your child. Welcome to God's house!'"