The United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries

Getting Started: Friendship Disability Ministry at Trinity United Methodist Church

In August of 2001, Dan Johnson, Senior Minister of Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, Florida, got a call that would change his life. His 23 year old daughter Shevon was badly injured in a car accident and her future was uncertain. Shevon and her husband Eric were newlyweds, and had only been married for little more than a year. Shevon did survive, but the recovery process was so intense that Shevon remembers telling Eric he could leave the marriage, since their lives would never be the same as before. But Eric stayed, and family and friends rallied around the couple. Together, the family and the Trinity congregation watched God's hand bless their lives in countless ways. An entire community celebrated the birth of the couple's two beautiful children after Shevon's first pregnancy was announced on local television!

Reverend Johnson has always had a heart for people with disabilities. Prior to his daughter's accident, he and a group of Trinity members were meeting regularly to find ways to make the congregation more accessible to everyone. But after the accident, Johnson says he gained a new perspective and his desire to make Trinity a welcoming place for people with disabilities has intensified.

In 2008, Trinity's disability committee added a few more members, began meeting monthly, and launched the "Friendship Disability Ministry." In a short time, the group has done a full assessment on the church's accessibility, added playground equipment for children with special needs, helped finance an accessible bus and hosted an Accessible Sunday Worship service. The group has also hosted several events for children with disabilities, including an Easter Egg Hunt, VBS and a Christmas Hay Ride.

There were many discussions about how to get started and it made sense to simply start working with resources the church already has, such as offering pagers to parents of children with special needs and making youth buddies available to children with special needs during Sunday School. The Friendship Disability Team visited a local school for children with disabilities and came away with lots of ideas to put into practice at the church, including accessible picnic benches. During new construction at the church, the team played a vital role in making sure the new building would be accessible.

The Friendship Disability Ministry team is a diverse group that includes people who work with people with disabilities and people who either have disabilities or who are parents of children with disabilities. They provide valuable, firsthand insight into the world of special needs. There are also many other caring members who participate because they believe church is a place that should be accessible to all.

photograph: Santa Claus in wheelchair exchanges high five with Down syndrome childThat personal insight was helpful when member Michelle Belanger organized the Christmas Hay Ride for children with special needs. As the mother of a daughter with special needs, Belanger knew just where to go to put up fliers and invite children in the community. Belanger reached out to many organizations in the community, including therapy offices and local schools. She also invited a local playgroup of children with Down syndrome. In all, about 30 children attended the event and were greeted by Santa in a wheelchair. Belanger believes it's important to have someone at the event ready to answer questions about the church and how it can meet a special needs request. "That way, the person will feel welcome to attend church on Sunday morning," she says.

Trinity has relied on a couple of creative fundraisers to raise money to buy equipment and to raise money for special events. One of the biggest fundraisers is the annual Talent/No Talent show and pie auction. Trinity members are invited to perform in the show. During breaks, homemade pies are auctioned off. One year, a local news anchor donated a pie and it brought in a hundred dollar donation! The event raised enough money to help fund an accessible bus for the church. Currently, the youth are helping raise even more money by holding a pizza dinner beforehand. The Friendship Disability Ministry team also held a bake sale at the church pumpkin patch to raise several hundred dollars for programs.

Santa Claus in wheelchair with service dogGetting started may seem challenging at first, but Belanger says it's really as easy as getting a group together and holding your first event. Belanger also believes support from the top is critical to your ministry. "Pastoral leadership is so important. Dan's (Rev. Johnson) involved in our committee and really believes in what we're doing. That makes such a difference," Belanger said. She also believes it's important to branch out to every aspect of the church. "Another reason we're growing so quickly is because everyone's involved, from children's ministry to youth and adult, this is everyone's ministry at Trinity," Belanger said.

Reverend Johnson remembers the first Sunday he preached after his daughter's accident: it was the Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He remembers feeling the need to do for the congregation what the congregation had done for him during his family's ordeal: to "put our arms around them and speak words of hope and love." Looking back on the crash that changed his family forever, Johnson believes those words of hope and love now come from personal experience: "As hard as it has been for all of us, as difficult as it continues to be for Shevon, as 'unfair' and 'not right' as it often feels with such striking force, it has also changed me for the better, to be a pastor, a loving, caring, want-to-be-there-for-you pastor, in ways I had never before imagined."

Each Sunday, Reverend Johnson greets the Trinity congregation with two familiar and loving words: "Welcome Home." Then, the large crowd bellows back its familiar reply: "It's great to be home!" It is great to be home at a church where everyone is welcome!

— Myra Monroe, December 2009