Monday, December 12, 2011

Moving with the Spirit

Cynthia has brought her autoharp to our St Giles Gate sessions in recent weeks, and it has been a great adjunct to our work. The students strum it using a rubber spatula as we sing songs. Even the more reserved of our children has tried it a bit. The children are making the worship as much as any of us big people are.

Speaking of worship, I has now begun eating the communion bread, a big change for him. We use the Trappist bread recipe I learned in seminary. It is slightly sweet with honey, isn't crumbly, is made with whole grain, and takes no time to make. In lieu of wine, we are now using apple-grape juice. The regular grape juice was too intense for the kids, and this tastes more like the familiar apple juice. I still won't take a sip, but that's okay, since we believe that taking one of the elements is sufficient to fully participate in the sacrament.

We are still looking for more kids to participate, but we are grateful to serve the ones who currently attend.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Yes, we're back

We restarted the program at the beginning of October. It has been a time full of small but meaningful victories.

We had indications of interest from some other churches in the area, but no new children yet. Tonight I met with our regional churches and it looks like two new children will come try things out this Saturday or at the next session.

We did a presentation about our program as an Adult Forum, and those who attended were deeply moved by what we are doing. It continues to be important to get other parishioners who are not directly involved to support the ministry.

The regional meeting also voted to make a $200 donation to the ministry to purchase some needed supplies.

One of our children began to participate in our liturgy of the table by eating some of the bread. For him, this is a big step. And another of the children was asking beautiful questions about what our eucharistic prayer meant. What a beautiful thing it was!

We continue to pray that more children will become a part of this program, and that we continue to carry God's love to them in fresh ways.

As always, we are more blessed by these children than we bless them by this work. It is all gift.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Our Region XI Council gave us a fine "you go, folks" this evening - they voted to give us some financial support for our ministry. Another church offered us some additional Godly Play gear and yet another offered us some trained Godly Play teachers. Wow...we are so blessed!

A couple of the other clergy in the area are going to be sending some families to us. We begin again on October 1st. God is good.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why we do this....

A message from N's mom:

"It was amazing to say "time to go to church, N" and hear "ok, I'm ready" instead of protests!!"

and from I's mom:

"My favorite thing was when N wanted to show I the cats [I's favorites animal] in the Noah's Ark stained glass window. We're off to a great start, and I'm looking forward to more!"

When you shape the worship and learning experience to fit the child, rather than the other way around, you hear some surprising things.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Another great Saturday morning...

The St Giles' Gate space is continuing to shape up. Chuck and Pete laid the indoor-outdoor carpet this week, giving us a good-looking and safe space to sit on. Clara brought some more beanbags. The cabinetry work continues, and the room is looking better each week.

So the space in which we work became even more welcoming as the children came today for our session. Since N was away last week, Ms. Cynthia repeated the story of Noah and the Flood. I enjoyed the story as much this time as he did last week, especially the cats on the ark.

It is a fascinating thing seeing how the same story, with the same script, plays out differently with two different and gifted teachers. Each somehow shone a light on different elements of the story in beautiful ways. For Ms. Diane last week, it was all about the animals. For Ms. Cynthia this week, it was about the rainbow. The care that both teachers took to involve the children in the story, one of the keynotes of Godly Play, was a lovely thing.

At work time, once again we made clay animals and an ark. I also made a picture, his favorite medium.

Our worship time together was precious - N shared the bread and juice, and I received a blessing - he's not ready to consume the bread and juice yet, and that's just fine.

Since this was our last session before the summer hiatus, the boys and their moms gave Ms Cynthia a little gift (some Crystal Lite!). Then we went to look at the Noah's Ark that is one of our stained glass windows in the church. They enjoyed finding all the animals in the window, and remembered the promise that came with the rainbow.

We have come to the conclusion that this is a viable ministry for us, and we will be meeting in the coming weeks to plan our invitation to other parishes/congregations in the area to send children whom they think might benefit from our program to participate.

We are also looking at ways to incorporate some of what we've learned thus far into our Vacation Bible School (Lakeside Summer Nights - August 8-12 from 6-8 pm each night). The delightful chaos of the program is sometimes overwhelming for children like N & I, and if we can find a way to build quiet activities in for them, that might be a blessing.

One last thought: I've been intrigued by this , a project that my friend and fellow pastor MaryAnn has done. Has any else done anything like this?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Second Session

We had our second session of St Giles' Gate today. It was a wee bit quieter, since N was away. Our only student was I, who did wonderfully. Ms. Diane told the story of Noah's Ark. I was particularly interested in the cats on the ark, but was surprised to learn that camels have their own special noise that they make. We used modeling clay to make our own animals, and I also drew a picture. We sang "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands" and the chorus (again) of "All Things Bright and Beautiful."

Worship went well. I crafted a child-friendly version of the Lord's Prayer that seemed to work well. I was intrigued by the Jesus Doll but wasn't ready to hold him. That's is all about welcoming and offering, not expecting.

Our third session will be next week, when N will be back. It will be interesting to contrast the dynamic with our second student back in the mix. I enjoyed himself and stayed very focused and quiet through the whole session, and it seemed like the story was understandable for him. Thank the Lord for the way this is unfolding!

Here's that version of the Lord's Prayer, if you are curious:

Our Father in heaven, your name is holy.

We pray that here on earth today, we will do what you want, just as it is done in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us when we do something bad, and help us to forgive others who do bad things to us. Give us the strength to stay good.

You are the one with the power to make everything wonderful. Amen.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Amazing First Session

We washed the floors and the windows of the new classroom, put in the little table and chairs for work time, laid down our beach blanket and the bean bag chairs. took a deep breath, and welcomed our students I & N to the first St Giles' Gate session this morning.

Ms. Cynthia taught the lesson on the Creation, using the wonderful Godly Play materials. Both I&N participated in delightful ways, and each got something from the story that really seemed to resonate for them. It was great seeing N help I sometimes, and seeing I participate in his own beautiful way.

We transitioned to work time, singing the chorus part from "All Things Bright and Beautiful." The boys had fun drawing and writing their response to the story they had heard.

After that, we transitioned to worship time, singing the Celtic Alleluia. We had white grape juice and Trappist bread and had a wonderful simple Eucharistic Prayer from "Rhythms of Grace." Everyone served each other at the holy picnic! We closed with the best possible post-communion prayer: "God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for our food."

The Jesus Doll, beautifully made by Carole Y, watched calmly as we celebrated the meal as He had taught us. This doll will figure more prominently as we continue with this ministry.

Some learnings: we will be using a simpler, more understandable version of the Lord's Prayer the next time. We'll also make the Eucharistic Prayer in larger print, so that children who can read aren't confused by it. I expect we will be laminating those sheets. We may end up using a grape-apple juice mixture since the white grape juice wasn't so much of a hit.

As you can see from the pictures, our flooring isn't in place yet. There had been talk of putting in carpet, but the consensus is that linoleum or vinyl tile will probably be a better choice.

For the next session, I may be unable to serve as celebrant, so we will have a lay minister-friendly version of the service, consistent with our rubrics for "Communion Under Special Circumstances." We are, after all, about the ministry of all believers, and we were so glad to welcome our young believers to God's special place for them this morning.

Please keep this ministry in your prayers as we continue taking it for a "test drive" this summer. We will meet again on July 9th, when Ms. Diane will be telling the story of Noah's Ark.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Space Travel

One of the big questions we tackled as we started to plan for this new ministry was where to put it.

We have a beautiful Sunday School wing, with a number of great classrooms. A few years back, we refurbished those rooms by asking families to adopt them and decorate them in a fun and colorful way. They responded in spades! We have rooms with a horse barn painted on the walls, with horses, we have rooms with lots of fun little birds and bugs, and we even have a room that makes you feel like you're swimming in the ocean with the fishes. There's a wonderful children's library, a project full of love by one of our parishioners who is now off to college.

Lots of rooms. Might one of them work?

We knew that one challenge for some of the youngsters who would come to St Giles' Gate was that a room that was full of color and lots of stimulating pictures was a little too much for our kids to process. It would be over-stimulating and distracting. That caused us to look at the children's library, which is quite simple - white walls with dark blue trim, and shelving with all the books in place. It might work, but the books would need to be moved, which was not ideal. Further, the Sunday School classrooms were on the lower level, and this would make it difficult if not impossible for some children to participate if they had any physical disabilities.

Hmmmm. Then one of the team said, "How about the old kitchen?"

The old kitchen was once the heart and hearth of the parish, when it was a single multipurpose building (built in 1955 when the parish moved up to Henrico from downtown Richmond). Since the building of the sanctuary and the connecting wing between the two buildings, and the creation of a modern, larger kitchen in that wing, the kitchen had become a storage room. The old cabinets were still in place, but everything else was gone. The floor was patchy, uneven linoleum. The room held chairs and folding tables and assorted other gear, and was pretty sad looking.

It had several things going for it, though. It was a reasonable size for what we were imagining. It was on the main level, which is accessible for those with physical disabilities and which is close to bathrooms that are also accessible. There was a door to keep it and its occupants safe. It was in a quiet part of the church complex, and it would not take much to make it a fresh and suitable place for the class/worship activities.

We proposed the use of this space to our Vestry, who shared our vision with enthusiasm and approved a modest budget for the transformation. We asked our Building and Grounds team to plan and execute the rehab, and they took on the project with great joy. Cabinets were removed from the side walls, drywall was patched, a wooden underfloor was laid down in preparation for carpeting that will come in the next couple of weeks, and the cabinets that were on the side walls are being cut to a shorter size to fit under the windows on our cabinet wall where we will store our Godly Play equipment.

This afternoon, some of our parishioners finished up the painting. There will be bean bag chairs on the floor for the children, a low table and chairs for the work project (think a craft project that reinforces the story the children will hear), and a small low table for our worship service (a super-simple Eucharistic celebration).

We've traveled a long way to make our space God's place!You can see some of our rehab in these pictures. No pictures of how the kitchen looked before it was cleaned out...just imagine 90% of the available space stuffed with stuff. You can see the upper cabinets on the side walls. The cabinets flanking the window were left in place but the others were taken down. The walls were patched and painted. The cabinets which were taken down are being cut down and will be installed under the window, so we have some storage space. Soon there will be carpeting as well!

When there is work to be done...

...the good Lord provides the tools.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, we had determined that we would build our program around Godly Play.

This Montessori-based curriculum is kinesthetic; the story-teller and the children use simple figures on a green felt or sandy ground. The figures and other materials used are wonderful, but they are expensive. We could choose to make them ourselves, or we could swallow hard and find the money to invest in this without knowing for sure if it was going to work in this application, or...

...we could pray for Plan C. Plan C was delivered into our hands by our neighbor church, Emmanuel Brook Hill, which had switched to another children's curriculum. They graciously lent us their entire set of Godly Play gear, for nothing.

Many thanks to our brothers and sisters in Christ for the loan!

How we began.

As all good things do, it began with a conversation that took a left-hand turn.

A mother was sitting in my office, shortly after I was called to serve in this place. She was talking about some church business. I knew she had a child who had some sort of intellectual or social challenge, and I also knew that I rarely saw him at church. As we wrapped up the issue she had brought that morning, I said, "How come NNN doesn't come to church?"

Yes, not really delicate. I'm clumsy about stuff sometimes.

She smiled one of those grit-your-teeth smiles and said, "Well, I used to bring him, and everyone was great, especially the Sunday School teachers. But he has Fragile X Syndrome [elements of intellectual disability paired with autism] and he just couldn't get it. And with the other kids in the room, and so much going on, he'd get overwhelmed, and just go sit in the corner under a table. I just couldn't do that to him or to the teachers."

Well, if I was clumsy once, I could be clumsy again: "How about church? Does he like church?"

She sighed. Thank goodness for moms who are patient with their priests. "It's a long time for him to sit still, and sometimes the music overexcites him, and sometimes he makes noise, and then some folks look at him, and at me, as if I'm not able to keep him under control. They don't understand him, and I hate to ruin their worship because my boy can't stay quiet for the whole thing."

By this time, unshed tears were glistening in her eyes.

I couldn't imagine how hard it was for this faithful member of our parish to feel like her child, her precious gift from God, was not fully welcomed. I couldn't imagine how the child felt, put in a place where he wasn't understood. ..

...and I couldn't imagine that we couldn't do SOMETHING about this for this child, and for others like him. I told this mom that we would try to figure something out, if she was willing to help us with it. I asked around, and it turned out that there were other children with different challenges, and that our Christian Ed program, and our worship, wasn't addressing their unique concerns.

So I started researching. My first go-to was a friend who had been in seminary with me. She had a brother with Fragile X, and was very attuned to the problems that folks who are different have when they try to participate in the life of the church. She had written a thesis on the subject, which she generously shared with me.

I also started asking around the parish, doing a little informal asset-mapping, to see who we had who might have some expertise in this area.

God provides.

Several teachers of kids with special needs, including one who tutors kids with dyslexia and ADD/ADHD, were identified. They were willing to serve on a start-up committee to start to figure out what we could do and what we could provide.

A colleague who had particular expertise in Godly Play, a Montessori-based CE curriculum for children that was particularly adaptable to the needs of kids with special needs, helped us connect with a trainer and with an online community of Godly Play experts who were helpful.

We had a starting point. What next?


This blog will follow the creation of a new ministry at our parish, The Church of the Epiphany. We are an Episcopal Church on the north side of Richmond, in the neighborhood of Lakeside. St. Giles' Gate is a Christian Education and Worship program for children with special needs. Walk with us as we prepare to offer this ministry, and learn as we learn what works and what does not.