A Divine Liturgy for Physically and Mentally Challenged Orthodox Christians
A few years ago, a new sign was installed in front of the Archangel Michael Church in Roslyn Heights , New York – a sign that is big enough to be seen by all who pass by. And although it has no words, the sign says, in no uncertain terms, that all are welcome here. This sign is the large ramp, which makes the church building accessible to all those unable to walk.
Since May of 1990, on the third Saturday of each month, the Challenge Liturgy is celebrated at Archangel Michael Church. It is a special Divine Liturgy for physically and mentally challenged Orthodox Christians, their families, friends and members of the church community. Participants are of all ages and face a wide range of challenges, including Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism or blindness. Some have suffered serious injuries. Fr. Dennis Strouzas, Pastor of Archangel Michael Church since 1984, refers to those challenged as specially “gifted,” with a pure and honest approach to life.
The intent of the Challenge Liturgy is not to isolate individuals, but to offer a worship environment that understands their special needs, and is patient and supportive as they approach the Chalice – often with great difficulty. In past generations families often hid away their challenged family members. The Challenge Liturgy welcomes these individuals and their families to worship, fellowship and mutual support. In fourteen years, the Challenge Liturgy has grown from four families to over forty families from eight nearby Orthodox parishes.
Getting the Word Out
Area parishes are notified of the Challenge Liturgy and invited to attend. An open invitation has been extended to area clergy to come and celebrate the Challenge Liturgy on any 3rd Saturday of the month. Participants are invited to bring their friends. Area social service agencies, group homes, and others are informed about the Challenge program. Volunteers are invited to participate.
A school bus with a driver is made available to pick up challenged Orthodox Christians and their families from nearby communities. The cost of the service is covered by a generous donation. A network of drivers coordinates transportation for others not picked up by the bus.
If your church is not handicap accessible, portable temporary ramps may be rented or purchased. The parish council could consider a permanent ramp as a matter of policy. It is important to note that the Clergy-Laity Congress of 1982 in San Francisco accepted a recommendation in its General Assembly that parishes make every effort to become more accessible to people with disabilities.
Challenged individuals are generally accompanied by families and/or professional caregivers. Additional volunteers are needed to welcome and assist worshipers as they enter the church building and sanctuary. Volunteers should stand by to assist with Holy Communion. Challenged individuals often have difficulty approaching the chalice, may have irregular or uncontrollable movements, and may need to be physically supported.
Fellowship is particularly important for Challenge worshippers, offering the opportunity to socialize and find easy acceptance. During the fellowship hour, families gather for food and refreshments. The parish may provide simple fare such as bagels, coffee and juice. Participating families and volunteers may be encouraged to bring lunch items or dessert for the group. Namedays and birthdays are remembered with cakes or special desserts. Families find comfort and mutual support in fellowship.
The Challenge Picnic
The group's annual picnic at Hempstead Harbor Beach Park started as an Eagle Scout project, and has grown to an Archangel Michael community event. Volunteers offer what they are able – food, drink, games, cooking skills, desserts and more.
The Challenge Christmas Party
The Annual Challenge Christmas Party has become such a large event that it has moved from the Church to a nearby private school. The Archangel Michael Junior Choir sings carols, the Greek dance troupe entertains and gets the group started in dancing. Members of the parish prepare food and serve in the buffet line. And Santa has found time in his busy schedule to visit the Challenge Christmas Party every year.
Certain professionals from within the parish have offered their services to the families of challenged individuals. One attorney assists with guardianship issues. There are many other possibilities for assistance.
The Body of Christ: A Place of Welcome for People With Disabilities, by Fr. John Chryssavgis (Light & Life Publishing)
In the Gospel we read of four friends who brought their friend, a paralyzed man, and laid him at Jesus' feet. These people not only wanted to see Jesus themselves, but they also brought their paralyzed friend. The greatest gift we can give to another person is Christ. And like the Archangel Michael Community, your community could offer this gift with your own Challenge Liturgy.