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by Laureen F. Guenther


Special Needs Ministry at Calgary’s Centre Street Church (CSC) has expanded since 1988, when two children with special needs began attending Jodi Graff’s Grade 2 Sunday School class.

Following the philosophy, “See a need, meet a need,” Graff adapted curriculum to meet the children’s needs, and more children with disabilities joined the class.

When a guest or family affected by disability came to church, Graff met with them.

“It was just really asking the question, ‘How can we as a church and I as an individual come alongside to support you and your family in a meaningful way?’” she says. “As we listened… we tried to find ways to meet the needs.”

In 1998, Graff became Pastor of Special Needs Ministry. Dallas Frank was pastor from 2009 to 2017. Corinne Thomas came in 2017.

Meeting special needs

There are children and adult Sunday School classes, weekday adult Bible studies, and weekly Bible studies for parents. The monthly Outpouring meetings alternate between being an inclusive worship service one month, and a potluck the next. There is a quarterly respite event, a handbell choir and work experience opportunities. The Special Needs Ministry also has a prayer team and they do hospital visitations, organize picnics and hikes. This summer, there is a week-long family camp. For 2019, they’re planning a conference. For 2020, they’re considering a missions trip.

Building for the future

“There was a lot of work done to ensure that people are growing and making commitments, growing in their relationship with God,” Thomas says. “People knew basic Biblical principles, and many were baptized.”

Thomas challenges them to continue growing. That requires writing curriculum, training volunteers, and helping people understand that persons with disabilities also deserve a relationship with God.

“We don’t know what their heart is, but God does,” Thomas says. “We’ve been called to follow the Great Commission, so that’s what we need to do. And God can do the rest.”

She refers to 1 Peter 4:10, saying everyone should use their gifts. “It’s not our job to figure out where God’s going to use them, or what God’s going to do.”

She wants to develop resources that equip other CSC ministries and other churches to include people with disabilities. “One family got kicked out of a church, because their son (has) special needs,” Thomas says. Then he had an upsetting episode at CSC.

“I called the mom and I said, ‘Okay, well, what can we do differently for next week?’” Thomas says. “’And she was like, ‘You’re not calling to say we can’t come back?’”

Kristina deBruyn and her family also attend CSC because their former congregation didn’t fully include her son, who has Down syndrome.

“He was sharpening pencil crayons instead of being part of the group,” deBruyn writes. But at CSC, “Corinne (Thomas) set up buddies who help Cameron get involved with the Grade One class.”

“When we learn about caring for one another, it impacts the whole church,” Graff says. “When we create an awareness that we need to be there for one another, it just strengthens the whole body.”

She remembers an older couple after the wife had a stroke and needed a wheelchair.

“They said, years ago, they probably wouldn’t have even been able to come into the church, because of inaccessibility,” Graff says. “Besides that, there would have been almost this sense of loss of dignity. But because of the openness (in Special Needs Ministry) … they knew that they would be seen and accepted and loved.”

Special Needs Ministry also reaches the community, Graff says.

Adult clients and support workers come to CSC’s work experience program. Clients might see posters for a church service and want to attend. The support worker attends too, and they both learn about God’s love. “They heard the Word of God and then their hearts were transformed,” Graff says.

CSC celebrated its 60th anniversary in April, and Special Needs Ministry continues to reach individuals, family members, communities, and the entire church.

“Every month, at the Outpouring, I just hear story after story about how God touched them and they just can’t believe there’s such a ministry,” Thomas says. “It’s so encouraging to know that we’re doing God’s work, and that people are blessed by it.”

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