TAMPA PALMS — St. James United Methodist Church sits just off Tampa’s busy Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, shielded by a stand of trees. It could easily blend into the background, offer the traditional mix of programs, and live as a place of sanctuary from the struggles of life in the world.
Instead, its members are committed to the practice of radical hospitality, according to the Rev. Steven Ezra, the church’s senior pastor. “We want to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world,” he said.
And they’re achieving that goal in part through Special Connections, a ministry designed to address the unique needs of both children and adults with disabilities and their families. The ministry’s credo is based on 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it.”
Amaya Thoby is joined by friends Brian Moure and Nancy Hayden at Saint James United Methodist Church. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #11-
Like many creative church programs, Special Connections emerged from the particular needs of one family that was unwilling to settle for second best.
“My 12-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with autism when she was 3,” said Sally DePalma, director of the ministry.
The church the family attended at the time was unable to welcome Leah. Consequently, DePalma was forced to miss worship or leave her child at home. The message — though unintentional — was clear. “If you’re not just like us, then we really don’t have a place for you at this church,” DePalma said.
When DePalma and her family first began attending at St. James, she said she asked if there was a program for families with special needs. “They said ‘yes,’ but they really didn’t,” she said. “However, what I did find here was a genuine openness and a welcoming spirit.”
That was 2003. Today, one year after DePalma’s role shifted from full-time volunteer to part-time church staff member, Special Connections has evolved into a mature ministry with a three-tiered mission: to make church fully accessible, warm and welcoming to everyone in the disabled community and ensure their families experience the love of Christ in worship and fellowship; educate the congregation and community at large that all are part of the body of Christ, deserving of edification, acceptance and respect; and create awareness and help educate and equip fellow churches in reaching out to this underserved community.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 54 million Americans, or 19 percent of the population, live with a disability. Of that number, 5 percent are children and 38 percent are adults 65 and older.
“The question for the church,” DePalma said, “is not only, ‘Does our congregation represent the demographics of the community?’ but also, ‘How are we called to be the presence of Christ to all of God’s children?’ ”
“As human beings, everyone needs the encouragement to grow in their relationship with God, and be given the opportunity to serve,” Ezra said. “It’s why we were created, and it’s why we have been called together as a community of faith.”
FriendZone offers three hours of Saturday morning activities for participants, allowing their caregivers time to themselves for running errands or just relaxing.
“We have as many as 50 children,” DePalma said. “We thoroughly train our volunteers, and it’s a powerful outreach into the community.”
FriendZone was the first special needs ministry launched at St. James, and DePalma says she was awestruck at the response. “When we asked for volunteers, I stood at the front of the sanctuary with four or five application forms ready,” DePalma said. “We had 70 people sign up that first Sunday.”
Parent orientation is a requirement, and the SuperSibs arm of the program allows brothers and sisters to stay on the church campus to enjoy FriendZone with their special sibling or be part of off-site fun.
The second Special Connections program is God’s Party, a special needs Sunday school class held during the 11 a.m. worship service that fosters a learning environment focused on the love of Christ.
And the latest and third arm of the ministry, called Joys of Jesus, is an adult special needs worship experience that meets the first Monday evening of each month. It features songs, Bible lessons, social time, games and crafts.
Ezra is also spending time with three Special Connections youth to help them prepare for confirmation.
“It’s important that these young people have the opportunity to stand up in front of the body and say ‘I choose to follow Jesus,’ ” he said. “We firmly believe that all persons are complete children of God and that growth as a disciple is the focus of ministry at St. James, no matter who you are.”
Any church, anywhere, any time
Ezra is passionate in his belief that any church, of any size, can practice radical hospitality to the extent that it is a welcoming and accommodating environment.
“It’s about being the kind of church Jesus imagined as the body of Christ,” he said. “That’s not something reserved for large churches with dedicated professional staffing.”
And, DePalma says, there is a huge potential for growth through special needs ministries.
“Here’s a little factoid that I just heard from a disability ministry leader,” she said. “Nick Palermo leads the disability aspect of Young Life. He spoke at a youth leader convention in Nashville recently. He said the estimated 600 million people living with disabilities worldwide would form the world’s third largest country. I thought that was a fascinating illustration.”
More information about Special Connections is available at http://www.stjamestampa.org through the “Special Needs” link. DePalma can be reached at 813-971-4790, extension 234.
News media contact: Gretchen Hastings, 800-282-8011, firstname.lastname@example.org, Lakeland
*Hastings is executive editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Maul is an author and freelance writer based in Valrico, Fla.