Rejoicing Spirits Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary
That’s the sound sometimes heard during quiet, traditional faith services when someone is admonished for being a bit too loud.
It’s also a sound the Rejoicing Spirits ministry seeks to eliminate.
Founded 20 years ago, Rejoicing Spirits is an innovative ministry to enrich the faith lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), their families, friends and other supportive members of the community where expressing love for God joyously outloud is encouraged. A worship service for people of all abilities, it furthers one of Mosaic’s four Values—Faithfulness.
Although now a part of Mosaic, Rejoicing Spirits was an idea born elsewhere out of love.
Founder Susan Crawford’s great-uncle Joe had a disability. “My great-grandmother cared for him and dedicated her life to him to keep him home and out of an institution. When she became too old, my grandmother—my “Nana”—took care of him. I always was around him, so he was just “Uncle Joe” to me,” she said.
Susan added, “Because of Uncle Joe, I’ve always had a heart for people with disabilities. While I was still in high school, I volunteered to help people with IDD and those with autism. I earned my college degree in social work. I was in the field for three years, and spirituality never came up in any discussions. I was never asked to take someone to church.”
Years later when Susan joined St. Paul’s Lutheran church in Exton, Pennsylvania, a series of “God incidents”—as Susan calls them—occured. “I took a class on Your Spiritual Gifts and had been praying about what volunteer role I could take on at St. Paul’s.
“One day soon afterward, while I was driving to a rehabilitation day service facility, and an idea of having a worship service that would be more conducive to people with IDD—where all gifts would be celebrated, and everyone could participate—popped into my head,” said Susan. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“During the time I was at the day rehabilitation facility, I came across two people with IDD I had known from my former church. I was so happily surprised they remembered me, and that made me think about the idea even more,” Susan said. “Then, while driving back, I went to the notecard section in a dollar store and picked up one that had a picture of a little girl on the telephone. It read, ‘Dear God, guess what? I’m ready to listen now.’”
According to Susan, “That is when I realized I had to pursue the Rejoicing Spirits idea. I thought this had to be my calling, my purpose. I was very excited.
“I took the idea to our interim pastor at St. Paul’s, and she said, ‘oh my goodness, we must do this,’” said Susan. “She helped me get a team together, and everyone was great.”
Susan and her team asked the church if they would support Rejoicing Spirits for a six-month trial. “If we made a difference in the community, we’d continue. If we had no impact, then we would move on. But everything fell into place; it was like God had a plan.”
That six-month trial has turned into 20 years—and Rejoicing Spirits is now in 17 states. Through Mosaic’s Church Relations, Rejoicing Spirits continues to seek ministry partners and congregations who will help ensure people with disabilities have the opportunity to explore and express their faith in an inclusive worship community.
Kathy Bucher’s daughter Samantha, 34, who has Down syndrome and autism, has participated in Rejoicing Spirits since its inception at St. Paul’s. When the ministry began at Calvary Lutheran in nearby West Chester a year later, she began participating there as well. “We attend two Rejoicing Spirits services a month by going to the one at St. Paul’s and the other at Calvary Lutheran. They have the same basic services, but each church brings its own personality to it as do their leaders,” said Kathy.
Samantha participates in Rejoicing Spirits in a variety of ways—such as reading from scripture, leading the congregation in The Lord’s Prayer, carrying in a Rejoicing Spirits banner when worship is to begin, and, “because she’s a good reader,” said Kathy, “Samantha often participates in short skits associated with the sermon at St. Paul’s.” Samantha is also the acolyte at Calvary’s Rejoicing Spirits worship service; she lights the altar candles before worship and puts them out afterward.
“By being a part of Rejoicing Spirits, Samantha feels very joyful and peaceful—and she loves to worship. She will do everything in her power not to miss a service,” Kathy said. “It’s my personal opinion it’s God’s way of saying it doesn’t matter who you are and what you can and can’t do—everyone is the same in the eyes of God. Everybody needs to be included and accepted, and Rejoicing Spirits is a shining example of that.”