Every person that entered into St. John Lutheran Church for service last Sunday afternoon was handed a noisemaker and told to have fun.
"We have a strict no-shushing policy," said Glen Stewart, a member of the church and the coordinator of its monthly Rejoicing Spirits service, which is tailored to meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
In addition to no-shushing, the Rejoicing Spirits service, which is held at 2 p.m. the second Sunday of each month, also encourages people with disabilities to participate in the program, from leading the Lord's Prayer, to signing a song or handing out the noisemakers.
St. John Lutheran Church in Ocean City is the first church in the state to host the Rejoicing Spirits services, which was started in the fall at the suggestion of Stewart. The service is non-denomination and welcomes all people, including those without disabilities.
"It's an inclusive service that's uplifting to all people," Stewart said. "You are free to do what you want when you are here."
Steward, a resident of the Petersburg section of Upper Township, said he learned about the Rejoicing Spirits model through an article he read in The Lutheran Magazine, a religious publication. He then approached St. John's Pastor Mark Bruesehoff who encouraged him to reach out to the organization and find out how to bring the service to their church.
"My first question was, 'Why isn't there one in New Jersey?' and then, 'Why isn't St. John's doing this?'" Stewart said of the service. "We have all of these ADA-compliant regulations to accommodate people with disabilities, but what about access to faith, what about someone who wants to worship and express their faith, but needs a specialized setting?"
Susan Crawford, the founder of the Rejoicing Spirits, said her initial idea when she started the program 10 years ago was to help people with disabilities build a relationship with God and their community.
"At my church, for example, we have a non-verbal parishioner who makes what we call 'joyful noises' throughout the service," Crawford said. "The more excited he gets during the singing and the more he feels the spirit, the louder he is. That, to us, is a special part of the service. We love it."
Nancy Miller, a resident of Ocean City who attends St. John's Rejoicing Spirits service with her 40-year-old son Daniel, who is intellectually disabled, said the program offers her son and others with disabilities an outlet to serve.
"They're often the ones being served, so be a part of the service, to help others, really raises their confidence and makes them feel like they are an important part of this community," Miller said.
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If you go
What: Rejoicing Spirits, a service tailored to meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Where: St. John Lutheran Church, 1001 Central Avenue, Ocean City
When: The second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. The next service will be held Aug. 11.
For info: visit rejoicingspirits.org.