Anyone who knows Mary Alice Jones will tell you she is a one-of-a-kind person. So it’s only natural that she’s in charge of a ministry that connects with people who are special in their own way.
Jones has been leading a service at Church of the Covenant for about 15 years, a worship that is designed for developmentally disabled people who live in the Washington, PA, area. It started when two men with disabilities walked in the church’s doors on a Sunday morning and has turned into a Thursday evening service that has grown to as many as 60.
“One of my gifts is a loving heart,” Jones said. “If I see anything broken, I want to fix it. I never said that special needs was something that I always wanted to work with. But God is saying: ‘Here.’”
What was “broken” was that the Washington area had nothing spiritually to offer men and women with developmental disabilities. So when the two men wondered into that Sunday morning worship, the congregation wasn’t quite prepared for them. But Jones quickly changed that.
“Tom Hamilton was preaching,” Jones recalled. “They walked in in the middle of the service and looked up at him and said, ‘Are we too late?’ And he said, ‘You’re just in time.’ And they came and they were faithful.
“I said to somebody, ‘We need to have material appropriate for them. If they can make the effort, we need to do something.’”
Jones, who is not ordained but has filled the roles of deacon and elder at Church of the Covenant, took it upon herself to start a Sunday School class with just the three of them. Word quickly spread around the group home about the ministry, so more people came on Sundays. “It was more God than me,” Jones will quickly say.
As the numbers grew, the group joined the church’s Faith Night on Wednesdays, which included a meal and worship. That’s when attendance really picked up and actually overtook the congregation’s activities on that evening. When Faith Night was discontinued, Jones had to find a way to keep things going for the developmentally disabled.
With Peggy Hays Nelson and Carol Hissom, among others, stepping up to do the cooking for the meal, Jones was able to provide the same ministry. The service now has its own name – Friends of Jesus – and beginning this fall it was moved to its own night on Thursdays. Friends of Jesus, which runs from 5-7 p.m., now averages between 45-50 residents and care-givers, a sizable jump from its humble beginnings.
“It’s something that I never planned. It just sort of happened,” Jones said. “It was one of those God things.”
After the meal, once a month there is a birthday cake provided to help celebrate those in attendance. The service, which lasts close to an hour, follows and includes the usual elements of a service, just presented in a slightly different way. Jones leans on a curriculum titled “Children and Worship” for the style and tools used during the service. For instance, she uses wooden figures on a table in front of the sanctuary to help give the message.
“They get hurt and broken,” Jones said of the men and women with disabilities,” and they get amazing grace.”
“God is so present in this room,” Jones added. “I tell everybody, ‘You can palpably feel him in these people. They know God differently than we do. It is just my gift to be able to be a part of it.’”
Not only is Jones appreciative of the residents who turn out on Thursdays but she is also very grateful to the staff from the homes who bring them out weekly.
“These care-givers go the extra mile to get these people into worship,” Jones said. “They come in wheelchairs, they come with walkers, they come any way. … When we worship, you can hear a pin drop. It’s unreal.”
Jones is the mother of five children, two of which she adopted with developmental disabilities. The adoption came after she started ministering to those with special needs at Church of the Covenant.
“This is just a little thing that God put a blessing in my heart,” she said. “It’s the only place in the world where I’m a rock star. When they start coming in, I get hugs.”
Jones tells of a man in his 50s who is autistic and wants to embrace her on a weekly basis, but because of his disability, he doesn’t feel comfortable to do so.
“He wants to so badly touch me, but because he’s autistic, that’s a big step for him,” she said. “So I walk up to him and he sticks one finger in his ear, cocks his head and reaches out with his other hand and touches me. It’s amazing. I didn’t do anything to deserve that. And yet hearing the word of God from me has made this autistic man step out of his comfort zone.”
Prayer is also a special time during the Friends of Jesus service. It can last for 10 minutes or more, but the connections that are being made during that time are worth the wait.
“I always say that when my Friends of Jesus pray for something, I think they have a shorter distance between Christ and them than I usually do,” she said. “When they pray, they pray with expectation, but whatever happens between God and them is never a letdown. We pray for Fred every week. I have no idea who Fred is, but he has to be the most blessed man in the world.”
Yes, Fred is blessed, along with the 40-some special needs people and care-givers that Mary Alice Jones and those at the Church of the Covenant reach out to every Thursday evening.