On a recent Tuesday at Sunshine Communities in Maumee, men, women and children packed the Spiritual Life Center, maintaining a buzz of activity even after a praise song began to rise out of the sound system, suggesting that the service was about to begin.
Some had intellectual or developmental disabilities; many arrived in wheelchairs and lined up into makeshift rows. Others took up seats beside the wheelchairs or drifted between the rows, all the while offering their companions smiles, kind words, and, in many cases, friendly squeezes on hands, shoulders, or knees.
It was a typical evening at Faith and Light, a monthly service at Sunshine Communities that’s geared toward individuals with disabilities.
Parishioners of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Maumee organize and lead the service, which began to take shape eight or nine years ago with the encouragement of the Diocese of Toledo. The service welcomes individuals of all denominations and faiths and, in some ways, sees interaction among attendees — the hands held, the joyful greetings — as important as it does the spiritual message that’s shared in sermons and songs.
“It’s been such a blessing to so many people,” said Sue Hess, a longtime attendee who was one of several parishioners to sing-along to the worship songs in February.
Marcia Malenfant spoke similarly.
“The residents give us so much,” said Ms. Malenfant, an early and still-active coordinator. “We’re reaching out to them, but I’ll tell you, we’re getting a lot more back.”
Sunshine Communities is a nonprofit based in Maumee that serves adults and children with developmental disabilities. These services include residential care, both in homes in the community and at its main campus, where Faith and Light was held in February.
While Sunshine Communities is affiliated with Mennonite Health Services, its spiritual life coordinator, the Rev. Mary Jo Bray, said the community supports the wide variety of religious traditions that its members represent. St. Joseph Catholic Church is one of several religious groups to connect with the community for faith-specific activities.
Although Faith and Light shares the name of a global movement of Christian communities that likewise reach out to those with disabilities, local coordinators said there are no formal ties between the two. The local service developed more organically, when Marsha Rivas, of Diocese of Toledo Office for Persons with Disabilities, approached Ms. Malenfant and her husband about starting a ministry at Sunshine Communities.
The couple quickly agreed and, today, Ms. Malenfant and her family, including her 9 and 12-year-old sons, are among several families from their nearby parish who spend an evening each month at Faith and Light.
Music accounted for a significant part of the most recent iteration, something Ms. Malenfant and Deacon Steven DeLisle said is fairly typical; Deacon DeLisle also read briefly from the Bible and shared a sermon. While they occasionally incorporate other elements into the approximately 45-minute service, including a Christmas pageant that Deacon DeLisle said was particularly memorable, organizers said music tends to be a popular way to connect with the attendees.
Of course, the way that attendees connect with the service tends to be quite different from the bowed heads, monotone recitations or enthusiastic singing that, in other spiritual contexts, might be taken as signs of engagement.
When Deacon DeLisle began leading Faith and Light about five years ago, he admits that he couldn’t always tell if he was reaching the community.
“You’re not accustomed to how the residents communicate, necessarily,” he said. “You don’t know whether you’re irritating them or inspiring them.”
As he’s since gotten to know many of the attendees, whom he and others now know and greet by name, he said he’s come to appreciate that engagement can take many forms.
“As you get to know them, and you get to see month after month, how they respond to other people, how they respond to the music, how they respond to prayers, you start to recognize that they are engaged in the event,” he said. “Some of those residents so look forward to this once a month evening.”
“I’m certain that all of them don’t connect with the spiritual aspect of it,” he continued later, “but I’m also certain that others do.”