Reflections on The Feast, a worship service with and by the special needs community
by Rev. Ramsey Patton
I currently serve as an associate pastor at Highland Park United Methodist Church (“Highland Park UMC”) in Dallas, Texas and have the great privilege of pastoring The Feast, a worship service with and by the special needs community (not for the special needs community). The service seeks to include and empower in worship those who are often excluded and marginalized. I thought it may be helpful for me to share my experience and some thoughts as an encouragement to other churches and faith communities which may be striving to create more intentionally inclusive worship.
In the Spring of 2014, I felt deeply convicted by the Holy Spirit to start a worship service with the special needs community. Highland Park UMC had (and continues to have) a vibrant special needs ministry but did not have any sort of worship component in conjunction with the programmatic ministry. I partnered with a music associate on staff at Highland Park UMC, Terrie Preskitt-Brown, to lead music at The Feast. She created the Kingdom Singers, an all-inclusive special needs choir, that leads the music every Sunday at The Feast.
We started the service in June 2014 as a monthly worship service and transitioned to a weekly worship service in January 2015. The roughly forty-minute service largely follows the same format every week with little variation in song choice. The spirit of the service is captured in our opening affirmation: “Here at The Feast, we rejoice in the Lord. We are all God’s children, loved and precious in God’s sight.” I offer a five-minute reflection, which is usually part of a larger reflection series. Past reflection series include, “Journey with Mark,” “Lessons from John Wesley,” and “The Armor of God.” We celebrate Holy Communion every Sunday which helps demonstrate God’s love and grace for all.
From its inception, I have strived to empower and equip any individual from our community who would like to help lead the service. Members with special needs greet before the service and pass out bulletins, help lead the music, read scripture, pray, serve communion, and pass the offering. One congregant, Constance, helps lead the communion liturgy with me each week. Other members of the congregation without special needs also help pass communion and the offering.
Thirty minutes prior to the service, the worship participants (primarily, the Kingdom Singers) gather in our worship space for a rehearsal during which we talk through the service together. Those who are reading scripture or offering a prayer have an opportunity to practice during this time. Offering and communion servers are also assigned. The rehearsal ends with a time of sharing prayer requests and prayer.
Through God’s grace, the fruitfulness of The Feast is abundant. We average about fifty individuals in worship each Sunday. Since June 2014, we have had one adult baptism and have joined fourteen new members. We have a core group of congregants who attend faithfully every Sunday. We consistently have new people visit and return who have heard about the service through word of mouth. The level of ownership of the service by those with special needs demonstrates growth in discipleship. Constance has memorized her part of the communion liturgy. Max, who is non-verbal and wheelchair-bound with very little upper-body mobility, motions enthusiastically each week to serve communion. John offers a homily at the service four times a year. Austin prays for the choir and service leaders before each service. Pastors throughout the nation (and as far away as Tajikistan) have visited The Feast to learn more about inclusive worship and starting a service in their local churches.
Moreover, a strong sense of community among the congregation has formed. Congregants regularly interact before the service and stay after the service to visit one another. Friendships have developed. We celebrate birthdays each month with a special birthday blessing during the service and birthday treats brought by congregants following the service. We also have potluck dinners three times a year which most of our community attend.
The father of one of the Kingdom Singers, Margaret, captures his family’s experience at The Feast in this way:
“We’ve been back [to Highland Park UMC] about a year and a half after not being able to attend church much at all for many years due to Margaret’s inability to sit still and act right in church. At The Feast, where there aren’t really any rules about how you dress or that you have to sit perfect still and not say anything, Margaret can be herself and my wife Jeanne and I can just be there and enjoy the worship and fellowship without worrying. The Feast makes it possible for us to come to worship, and it gives us access to a great community we wouldn’t otherwise be a part of.”
The Feast community is a community of inclusion, empowerment, love, and JOY! If you sense the Holy Spirit prompting you to start an inclusive worship service in your church context, I pray that you obey! God is faithful. God will provide. And may God’s Kingdom reign here on earth as it does in heaven.