On May 12 in Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Mich., seven students from the church’s first Inclusive Profession of Faith class used sign language to publicly profess their faith through an adapted Apostles’ Creed. Meaningful to families and the Christian Reformed congregation as a whole, the milestone was reached by a long pattern of intentional inclusion.
“I never thought that I would see this day; not to the depth of challenge and teaching that Elizabeth received (in preparation),” said parent DJ Hornik, in a post on Facebook.
Covenant Life’s intentional involvement of families with special needs includes a Special Treasures ministry on Sundays and a Regatta group through the week. Special Treasures partners with families to welcome children with special needs to church, meeting each one in their ability, and encouraging them to grow in faith. Regatta provides a social space for youth with various abilities to mingle with their peers after school.
Hornik's daughter, Elizabeth, started attending Special Treasures three years ago. “I was blown away. This was a first. Never had I found or been members of a church that actually had an organized plan for special needs," Hornik said. "Elizabeth ... LOVED it.”
Nancy Ferrarini said her family also found this to be a place of belonging. They moved from Illinois to Grand Haven to find a community more inclusive of people with Down Syndrome. Isabella Ferrarini’s spiritual growth has been evident at Covenant Life, and now she has become a member, publicly claiming this faith as her own.
Shannon Mulder, a professional speech therapist who serves as special needs coordinator at Covenant Life, was behind creating the inclusive class. Noticing that few students, as they reached high school or beyond, in the Treasures program had professed their faith, she wondered if an adapted preparation might be needed.
“I wanted to be intentional about making sure students and parents knew that their students, regardless of academic or verbal ability, could share in this journey and express their faith in a way that was appropriate for them,” Mulder said.
For the Inclusive Profession of Faith class, Mulder started with the book resource currently used by Special Treasures for middle and high school grades (I Believe student and mentor guides by Jessie Schut) and incorporated additional activities and videos that prompted taking the next step in faith. The six-week class included memorizing scripture and the adapted Apostles' Creed in sign language.
Many church members walked alongside the students as they prepared. A mentor was paired with each one. One church worship leader, Jill Warners, led the students in a worship dance that was shared as part of the celebration of profession of faith. “It was really very powerful and a big part of our … worship on the day of public profession,” said Mulder.
Mulder said the established relationships that mentors and others had made with the students laid a strong foundation for inclusion. “This led the way for the success of a class like the Inclusive Profession of Faith class,” she said.
The students and their mentors met with church elders to profess their faith. The questions were scripted and modified for each individual. Mulder provided the elders with short biographies on each student.
Michele Staal, mother of another student in the inclusive class, said, “It was so touching to me how excited the elders and church leaders were to welcome our kids and include them in this process.”
That’s just part of the Covenant Life journey.
“Our intent is to worship and do ministry with families of all abilities,” Mulder said.