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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker


While the pandemic raged, houses of faith reached out to their most vulnerable members

Father Jim, the parish priest at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, with lifelong member Ben Hack, who is autistic.

In the months before the pandemic, Ben Hack, who is 22 and a lifelong member and regular at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Maplewood, became an unofficial greeter on Sunday mornings. Hack is autistic and doesn’t speak much, and social interactions can be difficult for him; nonetheless James Worth – Father Jim, the parish priest – remembers that he took to welcoming fellow parishioners with a big hug and a “What’s up?”

“Everybody was delighted,” Father Jim recalls.

The church is a second home to Hack, and its congregation has long embraced the young man.

All of that ended abruptly when COVID shuttered not only the church, but also Hack’s school, where he was in his last year and looking forward to graduation; in a moment, all the routines of his life were gone, and for a reason he could not fully comprehend.

It was a difficult moment for him, as it was for all children and young adults, especially for those with special needs, many of whom thrive on habits and schedules and were befuddled as to why those schedules came crashing down.

Father Jim, wearing orange glasses (Ben's favorite color), recorded a concert for Hack to ease his difficulties during the upheaval COVID wrought.

Father Jim, a musician who spent many years in music ministry before becoming a priest and who regularly held concerts for his parishioners before the pandemic, heard of Hack’s difficulties and reacted in a way only a pastor might: he planned, performed, and recorded a concert of Hack’s favorite music. Twice.

Hack reacted with glee. The concerts were scheduled for the same day he and his family normally go grocery shopping, an event that is sacrosanct: “You’re not allowed to violate the shopping schedule,” says his mother, Mary Beth Walsh, with a laugh. But as soon as Hack heard about the concert, shopping went out the window.

Hack was not the only young person with special needs who found solace in the church over the course of the shutdown.

Reverend Brenda Ehlers, the youth minister at Morrow Methodist Church on Baker Street, quickly switched the church’s popular youth groups, which attract middle and high schoolers from a variety of faith traditions, to Zoom; when Zoom fatigue set in, she worked to hold outdoor meetings – masked and socially distanced – as often as possible, even when the weather was not fully cooperative.

That extra effort was meaningful to Doreen Oliver, whose 15-year-old son is autistic and regularly attends the Junior Youth Fellowship (JYF) meeting. “Brenda Ehlers does a wonderful job,” Oliver says, noting how this consistency through the course of the inconsistent year has been meaningful to her son.

During the pandemic, Morrow Methodist Church continued to hold youth choir rehearsals and Sunday School online. Being able to continue participating in the life of the church has meant the world to 7-year-old Charlotte.

The church also worked to continue holding youth choir rehearsals online. That enabled Caryn Gehrke’s four children, one of whom, 7-year-old Charlotte, has Down Syndrome and is therefore at high risk for complications from COVID, to continue participating in the life of the church.

Charlotte also has done weekly Zoom Sunday School. Hers is a class of just three, including her brother. And the connection to that class’s teacher, Maggie Tuohy, has contributed to Charlotte's well-being.

“Maggie knows how to reach through that computer screen,” Gehrke says. “And she’s so kind and compassionate.”

Having these other adults in her children’s lives is important, says Gehrke. “They talk to and are around adults, other than their parents, who love them.”

Hack’s mother makes a similar point. “Individuals with significant disabilities (ordinarily) don’t have relationships with people who are not paid to be with them,” Walsh says. But in church, Hack, and others like him, are surrounded by people who are compassionate and protective.

When Reverend Brenda Ehlers (center), the youth minister at Morrow Methodist Church, switched their youth group meetings from Zoom to outdoors, it made a difference to Doreen Oliver's son who craves consistency.

While Hack adores Father Jim – who Walsh believes is “more comfortable around children than any person I have ever known" – and laughs at his jokes (even when others might groan); and mimics his mannerisms, it was the parish itself that embraced Hack long before Father Jim arrived.

“We try to make him feel special without feeling odd,” Father Jim says. “I can’t take the credit for it. The parish had been doing it before I got here.”

Several years ago, in fact, members of the parish learned that Hack and his mother wanted to travel to Rome for a conference on the church and its special needs parishioners. (Walsh has a Ph.D. in religion and has made inclusion her specialty.) Through personal, small donations from many in the congregation, St. Joseph’s was able to cover the cost of going.

“I think we were the only people there whose parish had entirely funded the trip,” Walsh says.

Because she knew how important the faith community would be in her son’s life, Walsh deliberately set out to make parishioners comfortable with him, even at a very young age. Although the parish routinely did christenings during special services, Walsh insisted that he be baptized in front of the congregation. She wanted the connection to be there as soon as possible. And she has not been disappointed.

“I am amazed at how the whole of the Parish has been for Ben,” she says; as he ages, and as she and her husband do as well, she is comforted by the knowledge that he will have a place to go and feel at home, even when they are no longer able to take him.

Doreen Oliver’s son is younger, and yet she knows this feeling, too.

“My son has, at the most random of moments, gotten up (during a church service),” she says. “He has run off and gone down the hall or made odd noises during the song.” No one has ever batted an eyelash.

“Acceptance is so important,” she adds, noting that church is “a place to practice so they can learn what is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate.... They can sense an environment where they will be OK or they are OK; so I give credit to Morrow for teaching him how to be in the world.”

Hack himself might have said it best – without ever saying a word.

When Father Jim asked for a list of songs he would like to hear at his video concert, Hack responded with his favorite patriotic tunes, and his favorite hymn. Its title? “All Are Welcome,” by Marty Haugen. Its refrain is: "All are welcome, all are welcome. All are welcome in this place."

Tia Swanson is a member of Morrow Memorial Church and always will be grateful that her kids have a second home there.

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