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.