In 1984, Joan Wittwer was the Sunday school superintendent and committee member for the Stillwater First United Methodist Church which was presented with a unique challenge.
A congregation member, Dorothy Lowery, wanted her developmentally disabled son, John, to attend Sunday school.
At the time, “inclusion” of children with developmentally disabilities was a foreign concept to many.
Efforts to accommodate John in a “regular” Sunday school were viewed as unsuccessful and his parents were asked not to bring him back to the class.
Charles Lowery, John’s father, was disappointed, but said, “In their defense, I don’t know if I would have been as understanding without my experience.”
Lowery said parents with developmentally disabled children at that time often experienced rejection by church members.
“It had a great impact on us. I told myself, ‘Remember, you joined the church – not the people,’” Lowery said.
The acceptance level at First Methodist has increased.
“The beauty of the situation is not just the fact that we’ve been able to provide the Sunday school class,” Wittwer said. “The acceptance level of the congregation has gone from a very small percentage to a very large one. The faith class members are an instrument of ministry to others.”
Wittwer said that class participants aren’t “developmentally disabled,” they’re “differently abled.”
“They provide an opportunity to enhance the spiritual life of individuals who attend the church and for the church as a whole to grow spiritually,” Wittwer said.
Class participants are asked to make a covenant to express their faith in a 1-year commitment in their daily life.
With the help of Suzanne Carpenter, who plays the ukulele, the faith class has “Singing Sunday” once a month. She said, “Music is a universal language, and they sing with their hearts.”
Participants have said it helps them get through the week. Lela Wright said “Faith class is what helps me have faith. I learn about God in a way that I can understand.”
Each week, a different participant is asked to lead the group in prayer.
A banner reading“God Has Made Me Extra Special” hangs in the classroom, which has grown from one participant in 1984 to 17.
Today, there is a waiting list for the class.