By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published August 23, 2007
Dressed in sparkling costumes, the Chattooga Special Olympics gymnastics team lit up St. Ann’s Church. With a routine set to the words of “Elissa’s Song,” they sang, “We all have special needs.” It was part of an ecumenical prayer service held at St. Ann’s July 31, celebrating people with disabilities. At “The Colors of Love” service, the words of the song were especially meaningful for many of those who attended.
Jean Wollam, who came with her son, Marc, 30, said that the prayer service was a reminder that no one is alone.
“There is such a great feeling of inclusion for everyone with challenges,” she said. “It makes you realize that we all have challenges, each one of us in our own way.”
The Wollams are active members of Faith and Light, a ministry for persons with disabilities that has sponsored the event for the past three years.
“This was spectacular. It was the best service I’ve seen in years,” Jean Wollam said. “I think every year it just gets better and better.”
The church was filled with people from all denominations, and in addition to the performance by the Special Olympians and their mothers and grandmothers, the service included Scripture readings, music and witness talks.
At a dinner before the prayer service, participants helped to create banners for the opening procession. As the choir led the congregation in singing “We Are Marching,” core members from the Faith and Light community, some in wheelchairs, carried the banners.
LaSalette Father John Gabriel, parochial vicar at St. Ann’s, offered a warm welcome and encouraged the enthusiastic applause that followed the end of the opening song.
“The Lord loves to hear the sound of our joy. He loves to hear the sound of our clapping. Let’s just celebrate ourselves tonight. Let’s celebrate who we are,” he said.
Mark Crenshaw, director of the Interfaith Disability Connection of the Bobby Dodd Institute, gave a witness talk and encouraged the group to reach out to others who might be lonely.
“Peace is not beyond us,” he said. “We can do things to bring about peace in our families and in our world by simply welcoming each other.”
“We have known what it is like to not fit in,” he said. “We know how important it is to show other folks that they are welcome. It’s important to remember, regardless of what faith tradition we come from, that we are all created in God’s image. We need to think about our own lives, our own families, our jobs, communities and churches and ways that we can offer welcome. It might be a hug or a handshake or even a kind word. But by doing that we will all be helping to bring about peace.”
After the Gospel reading from St. Mark in which Jesus asks that the children be brought to him, LaSalette Father Ray Cadran, parochial vicar at St. Ann’s, gave a reflection.
“Jesus has time for all of us. There is a child in every one of us, and he knows that and wants to be close to us,” he said.
Building on the theme of inclusion, Father Cadran reminded the congregation that Jesus knew what it meant to be ridiculed.
“Jesus knew what it was like when others talked bad about you. He knew what it was like to not fit in,” he said. “He wants you to know that he knows how you feel when you feel left out. He knows what you need. He will always be there for you, and he will always make time for you.”
The prayer service concluded with a video presentation showcasing Faith and Light memories.
Checking In To Learn About Struggles And Triumphs
Faith and Light is an international, ecumenical Christian affiliation of non-residential communities, which serve the spiritual and social needs of people with disabilities—developmental and other mental and physical disabilities—their family members, caregivers and friends. There are currently 1,500 Faith and Light communities in 75 countries.
Faith and Light of Greater Atlanta began in 1998 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna, and relocated to St. Ann’s in 2001. The group has continued to grow in numbers and in outreach to members of other denominations and other areas of metro Atlanta.
Their core members currently include persons with cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. Some core members have multiple disabilities.
The community meets monthly, usually on the third Saturday of the month.
Terry Stretch, whose son, Dan, 29, is a core member of Faith and Light, has been attending with his son and his wife, Cecile, for about seven years. The meetings, he said, consist of checking in with each of the core members to find out about his or her struggles or triumphs.
“Then there is someone who takes notes and incorporates everything that is said into a sort of wrap-up prayer,” Stretch said.
The group then chooses a Scripture reading that they act out or read, “sometimes with talent, but always with love,” he said.
With the Scripture reading, to bring it to the core members’ level, they have a question and answer session, Stretch said.
“The real challenge is to make it level-appropriate for our core members, most of whom are mild to moderately retarded, to use the old terms, while still conveying the core truths of the Scripture,” he said. “Then we have either small groups or a craft—something that makes concrete what we heard in the Scripture.”
Stretch said that 12 to 25 people attend the meetings. Other Faith and Light gatherings include a Christmas get-together, a summer picnic, “The Colors of Love” prayer service, and the Mass of Inclusion, held in the winter.
Marc Wollam said he has been coming to Faith and Light activities for five years and has encouraged many of his friends to join.
“I like to sing songs about the Lord, and I like to talk about the joys and concerns in my life with my friends,” he said.
Stretch said his son Dan is able be himself in the Faith and Light community.
“This is one of the things he does that really allows him to relax,” he said. “He can work through things, given his disability, in a non-threatening environment. These are young people who know each other and so they are relaxed in each other’s company.”
As for the parents, he said, there is the knowledge that they are helping their children, but also each other.
“We have core members from age 5 to age 60. We have new parents who are just starting to encounter this strange world of disabilities and don’t know what to expect,” he said. “All of us, at one time or another, have been through what they are going through, whether it’s a battle with the school system or first Communion. We can share what we’ve learned and we can learn new things as well.”