When Mae Froysland and her fellow community members started Christ Church (Grand Rapids, MI) nearly 50 years ago, they knew it was important for this place of worship to hold true to its name and be a place where all people experienced the love of Jesus Christ. They intentionally created a culture of caring for people, which involved taking the time to talk and listen to fellow members.
Over the years, this manifested into activities designed to create conversation and community. During occasional services, attendees would wear nametags or be broken up into groups based on a random number assignment. Today it involves a very busy coffee hour in the church lobby following the service, among other activities. What began as authentic, deliberate actions to make sure everyone felt welcome has evolved into a culture of inclusion that permeates the congregation and radiates to first-time and long-time attendees alike.
Meet the Harley Family
Jason and Alicia Harley and their family were profoundly impacted by these intentional actions. When Jason first attended Alicia’s home church, he could sense it was a place where people with disabilities would be treated with respect and welcome. Although he initially did not attend Christ Church often, Jason would occasionally bring patients from the local mental health facility where he worked because he knew the church community would not ostracize them.
Over the course of five years, the Harley’s had four children, including their oldest son, Isaac, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Though the Harley’s had not attended Christ Church regularly, members of the church reached out to them to help them care for their young children, particularly Isaac.
Because of the outpouring of love and care for the Harley’s, their family became more involved with Christ Church. Not only did Jason join Alicia in becoming a member, but all four of their children were baptized together.
In her role as the Childhood Director, Mae spent time getting to know Isaac and his family so that she could best surround him with the right supports during his time at church. Equipped with this knowledge, she recruited volunteers to work with him one-on-one in the classroom alongside his peers, which made a significant difference with how comfortable he felt with the group. These volunteers, many of whom continue to work with Isaac today, have a background in special education and understand how he works. They know when to hold him during worship and how to help him during a craft project.
Mae also advocated for additional training and support for their team. Practical ideas provided by an observation from CLC Network church consultant Jacki Sikkema gave Mae and her staff additional ideas to try. Jacki’s suggestions, such as identifying Isaac’s chair with his name, integrating Isaac’s love for flannel by using flannel graph figures in lessons, and providing him with choices have only enhanced the excellent work of Mae and the Christ Church staff.
Gradually, Isaac has made incredible progress:
“Church almost became an extension of therapy”, said Jason.
One of the most significant signs of this is his increased ability to be intimate with people he has recently met, which has helped in relating to other kids. He is more willing to give hugs, be gentle with new friends, and accept help from others.
Because of the expressions of love and care shown by the members of Christ Church, the Harley family has not only grown closer to their church, but also to Christ. And they’re not the only ones who have been shaped by this relationship. It is evident that Isaac’s connection with his leaders and classmates is one that bears the initial fruits of mutuality, a relationship that will continue to grow as he and his peers and leaders live and work together.
Becoming Fully Inclusive
However, it doesn’t stop with Isaac. Mae continues to pursue additional inclusion training for their church members so that Christ Church is even more equipped to welcome and receive the gifts of everyone in their church family. She is excited to walk through the G.L.U.E. Training with a small team this year, so that both children and adults with atypical needs like Isaac are intentionally supported and included at Christ Church.
We praise God for the efforts of Mae and Christ Church to make the Kingdom more complete!
Katie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.