Call it the “WOW factor.”
For two years, the Church of the Redeemer in Meadville, PA, has been holding a Worship on Wednesday (or WOW) service that ministers to people in the area with developmental disabilities. The mid-week service began with less than 20 people coming through the doors and has blossomed into a weekly gathering that now numbers 70-plus.
“It’s hard to describe what it feels like,” said the Rev. Rachel Johns. “It’s a great joy to be in amongst that group and all of us encountering God in that way. It’s just special.”
The idea to start such a service arose in 2012 when the PCUSA held its General Assembly meeting in Pittsburgh. At the start of the meeting, those in attendance were challenged to help contribute to the Assembly’s 1001 new worship ideas initiative and it got Johns thinking. She lives with two women who have special needs, part of the domiciliary care program in Crawford County that places people with special needs into homes to assist them with meals and medication. Through this service, Johns has also been associated with organizations in the Meadville area that provide services for the mentally disabled.
“There are all kinds of programs offered in the county,” she said. “As I took them to the programs, I got to know more and more people, and then saw a kind of need.”
Johns, who also preaches at Linesville Presbyterian Church, has been asked to preside over funerals and weddings and felt a church service would be a good thing to start.
“I thought to myself, ‘If I’m going to be their pastor, I really need to make sure they have a place to worship as well as doing those weddings, funerals, etc.,’” she said.
The service includes many of the same elements as the Sunday morning worship, like singing but with the accompaniment of rhythm sticks, a combined choir, the message and prayer plus a weekly communion that involves bread and grapes.
“It doesn’t look very Presbyterian some days, and to me that’s a good thing,” Johns said as she chuckled, adding that there can be dancing and clapping in the pews during the singing. “I always make it interactive. They always have something they need to do.”
The service lasts just 30 minutes, but the men and women normally arrive early and stay late in order to fellowship with the others in attendance. It’s a service built specifically for the men and women with developmental disabilities, and according to Johns, it’s best to not have it part of a regular Sunday morning worship.
“On a Sunday morning, some of them would not be real comfortable in the regular Presbyterian service because you have to be too quiet, you have to be too still, you have to be too whatever, and some of them would have a problem with that,” she said. “And some in the congregation would have a problem with that.”
Aside from the near-by Nickleville Presbyterian Church’s Tuesday morning service, Johns is not aware of any other church in the area that does a service geared toward men and women with developmental disabilities.
“It’s too bad that churches don’t embrace this sort of thing,” Johns said. “Everybody thinks you have to deal with the youth if you’re going to grow a church and so maybe they put the emphasis on youth things, and that’s fine. I worked with youth all of my life, so I understand that. Some people are much more into taking short-term mission trips and doing things like that. Each congregation finds their little niche, and I just think it’s not something many churches would have thought of.”
Because the men and women with disabilities have to rely on staff from their homes to get them to Meadville, and since staff is generally reduced on the weekends, getting them to a Sunday morning worship would be very difficult. It means Johns has to preside over three services in a week’s time, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“By having two services on Sunday with my two regular congregations and then having this congregation on Wednesday, to me it’s the best of everything,” Johns said.
Conflicting schedules with the homes – sometimes there are things like staff training sessions at the same time as the Wednesday morning service that prevent the special needs worshippers to attend – and the winter weather can play havoc with attendance numbers.
Of the 70-plus who attend Worship on Wednesday, only about half are the residents of the homes. The other 35-40 are the staff who bring them, a group that is also now being fed on a weekly basis through the WOW service. Johns tells of a Catholic woman who was not permitted to take communion at her church because of her divorce and remarriage but is now able to participate in that practice again at Meadville.
“She said, ‘I’m just so happy I get to do communion again,’” Johns recalled. “Just hearing those kinds of comments just makes all the difference. Every week somebody will take me aside and say, ‘This is the highlight of my day. This is the highlight of my week. I so look forward to this.’ And they talk about how the clients look forward to it. ‘Is it Wednesday today? Can we go to church?’”
By touching the staff, it indirectly helps create a bond that can be beneficial to the residents as well.
“We have a psychiatrist who works with a number of the clients … and she is not a believer,” Johns said. “She comes out occasionally to this service for a young man that she works with by the name of Sam. The first time she came she was just amazed at the whole situation. And she went back to her office and she wrote out a directive for all of the staff that no matter what they wanted to do with Sam on Wednesday morning, they were not to do anything with Sam on Wednesday morning except take him to worship and make sure he got to worship because it was so important to him and his program. That just amazed me because I would have thought she would try anything she could think of to keep him away from the service.”
In all, everyone is feeling the impact from the Worship on Wednesday service at the Church of the Redeemer in Meadville. And that impact isn’t being lost on Johns, either.
“It’s a feel-good service from beginning to end,” she said. “They come with a smile and they leave with a smile. I get lots of hugs, and that’s a wonderful thing.”