“Rhythms of Grace”: A Worship Service for Special Needs Kids and Their Families at Irvington’s Church of St. Barnabas

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by Maria Ann Roglieri

“Rhythms of Grace,” a special monthly worship service offered at The Church of St. Barnabas in Irvington, is bringing together kids with special needs and their families from across the Rivertowns. While St. Barnabas is an Episcopalian church, “all faiths are welcome” and participants include worshippers from a number of different faith communities, drawn together by the opportunity to worship in a safe and welcoming space. The energy is palpable, and the enthusiasm is intense.

Santa Claus paid an early visit in November. — Photos by Maria Ann Roglieri

“Rhythms of Grace” is specifically designed for families with special needs, offering the ultimate ‘safe space’ for the whole family to have a spiritual experience together. It is perfect for anyone who may not be comfortable in a solemn (and quiet) regular church setting. The service begins in the parish hall with a story from the Bible. The life of Jesus is celebrated through listening, praying, singing, crafts, and play, with everyone participating according to their own preferences and abilities. After lessons and crafts, the worshippers share communion (grape juice and rice crackers) in the sanctuary in a church service specially-adjusted to suit their special needs.

“Rhythms of Grace” was proposed by then-assistant rector, the Reverend Lindsay Lunnum after she had met with families who have children with special needs but did not feel comfortable in regular church. The proposed program was met with an enthusiastic response and 25 members of The Church of St. Barnabas volunteered to help run it, getting training from a congregation in Connecticut that had created the original “Rhythms of Grace” program. It has been running for several years now and is still growing.

Each service follows a specific structure built around a theme. First, there is a ‘gathering activity’ which allows attendees to get comfortable and settled. Then a volunteer tells a 10- minute story, built around a story from either the Old or New Testament, with the kids sitting on the floor, on the couches, or in the quiet tent, wherever they can be comfortable. After the storytelling, children go to different activity stations to explore the story and theme through different craft projects. The activities are varied to entertain kids with different needs: One activity may involve gross motor skills or a multi-sensory experience, such as having the kids put their hands in the sand and touch the camels (see picture), while other kids may be making masks or making posters to hang from the altar. During these activities, the Rev. Nora Smith walks around soliciting “Prayers for God” that tie in with the service’s theme and that get shared with all in the group sing that follows. Many of the prayers are familiar, and there is even one little girl who always prays for her dog. After reflection, the families head into the sanctuary singing a rousing song. Those who traditionally partake of the Eucharist can do so with grape juice and rice crackers, while other can sit and reflect during the brief service. Finally, the worshipers sing a song for peace and the service is ended. The entire service lasts exactly an hour.

Crafts were part of activities at church.    — Photos by Maria Ann Roglieri
Crafts were part of activities at church.
— Photos by Maria Ann Roglieri

Parishioners and church leaders alike are thrilled with the success of the “Rhythms of Grace” program. Parishioners Vicki Kroviak and Steve Grieder said the program has been a blessing for the entire family. “We do it for all of us, not just Sophia, our daughter with special needs. It’s a way to share the experience of God with her and her sisters in a safe space where everyone is celebrated.”

The Rev. Nora Smith, the rector of St. Barnabas, loves the service, calling it “a wonderful and heartwarming experience for all.” She said it has enhanced and even expanded the church community.

It has helped families of children with special needs get to know each other and to lend each other support; and it has offered parishioners the opportunity to especially help those families who may need some extra support. It has also brought in new worshipers who were introduced to St. Barnabas through the “Rhythms of Grace” service but now also attend the regular services. It has also made the regular church services “more relaxed about kids’ behavior” as parishioners have gotten to know their “Rhythms of Grace” families.

A special service like this requires a great deal of effort on the part of the church parishioners. Six to seven people meet as a team once a month to design the activities. The volunteers are enthusiastic, with, according to the Rev. Smith, “everyone talking at once,” and people are tremendously collaborative and creative. The liturgy ministers create the service, the storyteller crafts the story, the craftsperson designs the activities, etc. Typical attendance at the service includes seven to 10 families, (approximately 25 to 30 people) and 12 to 15 volunteers who assist in the service.

The “Rhythms of Grace” worship service is offered once a month on Sunday at 4 p.m. The December service will be offered on December 18. For more information, contact Steve Grieder at the church office (914) 591-8194 or go to http://www.stbarnabaschurch.org/worship/rhythmsofgrace

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