By Ariel Gilreath
As parents of two boys with special needs, John and Katie Doudoukjian remember all too well a time when they were unable to attend church as a couple. For years, one of them had to stay with their autistic sons while the other went to worship.
That all changed when they joined Chapin United Methodist Church, Chapin. Chapin started a Sunday school for people with special needs, including John and Katie’s boys, John and Jackson, called the SonFlower Ministry after John and Katie requested it.
Today, they can all enjoy worship—just like other families.
Chapin is one of dozens of United Methodist churches across South Carolina that are reaching out to intellectually disabled people in their community—people with Down syndrome, autism and other special needs issues. Many times, people with special needs often find attending church to be difficult, as the Doudoukjians did, because those with special needs are on a different learning level than their peers, and often need lessons explained to them in-depth—as well as hands-on care. But more and more UMCs are stepping up and reaching out to these families in Christian fellowship, and many say the outreach is a blessing to all involved.
From one family’s struggle to a newfound ministry
Before they joined Chapin, the Doudoukjians attended a church in a different denomination that refused to offer a special needs childcare. Elders told them it was “unfair for the other kids to be expected to deal with their disabilities,” Katie said.
Instead of John and Jackson attending services with other children, they were told they could have an empty room to “hold them in.” Katie said the elders told her if they didn’t like it, they could leave.
Less than a month later, they did.
The Doudoukjians tried out Chapin UMC one Sunday, and made the decision to leave John Doudoukjian’s childhood church in less than a month.
“We decided we would break clean,” Katie said.
Katie said the best thing about moving to Chapin UMC were the simple ways they welcomed her and her family, and how no one fussed at her for her sons’ disabilities. Before, she’d experienced problems with people fussing at her and judging her parenting style, both in and out of church. She said people would always tell her that if she spanked her children they would behave better.
“People believe spanking can fix everything. Spanking doesn’t cure autism,” Katie said. “There’s nothing I did to make them disabled; there’s no way I can un-disable them.”
Requiring constant attention and care, the boys needed a chaperone at all times of the day. Either Katie or her husband used to stay home on Sundays in order to look after them. This was when Chapin decided to start a special needs program that provides the constant care needed to look after special needs students.
After hearing the Doudoukjians’ plight, Chapin member Carson Chitty said she felt it in her heart to start the special needs program for them and other families. She looked through the church directory and called everyone that had special needs experience. She asked them if they would donate one Sunday a month to teaching Sunday school, which is how the SonFlower Ministry for special needs children began.
Chapin UMC now has 10 special needs children they teach by peer tutoring, shadowing and special placement, with 25 servant ministers who donate one hour per month of their time to help the special needs Sunday school.
Ministries blooming around the state
Other UMCs across the state have similar classes and programs.
At Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, they have a weekly Sunday school class for those with special needs, and this summer they had a vacation Bible school where 50 students with special needs participated in music, games and crafts. They worshiped and played alongside more than 2,000 other students with volunteers throughout the week.
At Bethel UMC, Spartanburg, there has been a Department of Special Needs since September 1967. This 47-year-ministry was started by Jack and Betty Cannon, whose daughter, Suzanne, was mentally disabled. Betty had not been able to participate at Bethel because there wasn’t a Sunday school program for Suzanne. That was when she and Jack decided to start one with only a handful of staff and students.
The program now has more than 40 students on roll, and it is run by Steve Cannon, Jack and Betty’s son. Cannon has been certified in teaching those with mental disabilities and is teaching a course this summer on church and disabilities at Spartanburg Methodist College.
Other churches across South Carolina have a range of special needs ministries; see sidebar this page.
A mutual blessing
Many of those involved with special needs ministries say they are blessed as much as those they help; those with special needs have many God-given gifts that enrich the congregation and renew their spirit.
The United Methodist Women of Mount Zion UMC, Bishopville visit the McCoy Memorial Nursing Center twice a month on Wednesdays led by president Minnie Harris. McCoy houses people with physical, behavioral and mental challenges. Mount Zion UMW bring the residents gifts and spend time reading Scripture, singing, playing games and praying with the residents.
Once a month on Sunday afternoons, the Rev. Angela Ford Nelson preaches at McCoy, and residents are encouraged to share testimonies and make song requests.
“When ministering in this setting, one must be aware of the challenges and be prepared for different situations,” Nelson said. “The worship experience must be flexible and interactive, but not so much so that the message cannot be conveyed.”
Nelson said their special needs ministry has been as much a blessing to her and her church members as it is to the residents.
“I sure feel special when I’m there, and there are a whole lot of needs,” she said.
At Mount Pleasant UMC, Columbia, there is only one member with special needs, but every third Sunday she plays her “chimes,” or xylophone, for prelude. She also knits hats for the homeless and makes cards for special occasions, as well as brought in books for the Million Book Effort. The Rev. John Jordan said she does what she can for other ministries, also.
“I feel that all should be involved in worship and ministry, in whatever capacity, according to the gifts that God has given [them], not according to the limitations that we humans see,” Jordan said.
Rewards beyond church
Not only does a special needs ministry enable people to more fully experience church, but it can bring rewards in all aspects of life.
Katie Doudoukjian said Chapin UMC’s SonFlower Ministry has been a blessing to her sons, who have blossomed there.
“They’re not just spectators who sit in the service and don’t understand anything. They’re participators,” she said.
Katie said when she first started attending Chapin, John and Jackson had problems with profound sleep disorder, an issue many people with special needs experience. The children were not old enough to take medication for it.
“I would get up for church after having been dealing with the sleep disorder all week, and I knew I could take the kids and they would be taken care of by someone for two hours. I would go and sleep in an empty room in my Sunday clothes just to get some rest,” Katie said.
Today John is 16 and Jackson is 14, and Katie said they love going to their Sunday school. Jackson now plays the violin in the orchestra and John is the youngest member of the choir at Chapin.
“They believe they’re all their friends there,” she said. “They’re growing up with these young people.”
Special needs outreach in other UMCs
UMCs across the state do a variety of things to welcome individuals and families with special needs.
• Central UMC, Spartanburg, hosts a ministry called Aftercare that provides activities for adults with special needs. Once a month about 40 mentally disabled adults from Spartanburg gather for lunch, music, games and fellowship.
• Lexington UMC, Lexington, has a Sunday school called Circle of Friends for adults with special needs, led by teachers who show students love and compassion and allow them to have a flexible church service.
• Mount Hebron, UMC, West Columbia, has a special needs adult Sunday school class led by Horace and Christine Porter called The Master’s Class, which was founded by Davis Hook Sr. in 1976. Mount Hebron also provides a shadow to follow and assist children with disabilities in Sunday school.
• Twitty UMC, Hartsville, has a Sewing/Sowing in Prayer group that meets weekly to craft items such as blankets, scarves and adult bibs for those in need. The adult bibs are sent to Darlington County Special Needs. Twitty UMC also provides food and basic supplies to a family in need with two special needs daughters.
• Rehoboth UMC, Leesville, includes those with special needs in Sunday school and donates aluminum to Harold Wayne “Butch” Derrick, who has special needs and earns money picking up aluminum off the highway.
• Landrum UMC, Landrum, takes turns picking up their special needs friend, Becky, who had to move to a group home out of town. In order to keep her involved in her home church, members have created a weekly driving schedule so Becky can still attend church services and events.
• Grace UMC, Columbia, welcomes special needs people through their accessible entryways, American Sign Language interpreter and wheelchair availability for those who need it.