Today’s service truly spoke to me. Everywhere we went before, my son’s intellectual disability was perceived, even by church leaders, as something they had to put up with. We thank God we have found Wave where everyone is so accepting. Thank you, Lord.
When I had my daughter with Downs Syndrome thirty years ago, one of the most painful challenges we faced as a family was that of being excluded or feeling left out from community activities and social gatherings. This disconnection increased as our daughter grew into adulthood and peaked when she left school and the youth work at our church.
Most churches seek to be places of welcome and acceptance for all. But in our experience, there is often anxiety around whether and how to include individuals with learning disabilities and their families in regular services and activities. I know families who have discovered and deepened their faith because of the way their loved one with a learning disability was treated in church. I also know others who have walked away because they found it too hard to ‘fit in’.
When my daughter outgrew the youth work at our church, she struggled to get the most out of the auditory memory focused format of the main services. It was becoming difficult to encourage her participation in church when she could only actively engage with a fraction of the service. I looked for more suitable church options for her across North London but was disappointed to discover none where we could easily worship together.
Two other parents and I felt called to create a such a place and we held our first tentative meeting of Wave Church on Ability Sunday in 2010. Wave Church has been growing steadily for over a decade and we were delighted to be awarded the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Langton Award for Community Service in 2020.
At our monthly ecumenical service we use drama, art, music and Makaton signing to worship God together – tea and homemade cake also form an important part of our meetings! Wave Church is a place where we’re less self-conscious in expressing vulnerability and joy in worship. The Holy Spirit continually helps us, whatever our (dis)abilities, to connect with each other, deepen our experience of God’s love for us all, and pray for each other.
Eleven years on, there are still very few places like this in London – in fact one of our Wave Church members travels from the other side of the city to join us each month. I am saddened that despite progress in inclusive education, training and policies since my daughter was born, the provision of accessible worship meetings for adults with learning disabilities still remains a challenge and significant gap within the Church.
Research shows that the more people mix together, the easier it gets, the better they feel about doing it and the more others are encouraged to join in. This has indeed been our experience at Wave Church, with members saying:
"You start off thinking it’s ‘for’ those with learning difficulties, then feel personally enriched and you form relationships and realise that it’s about being with people."
"It helps me feel like I belong – I feel more accepted here."
My great hope now is to see other churches and communities exploring Wave’s mixed-abilities approach – enjoying doing things with not for each other. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 suggests that our churches are incomplete without the active participation and gifts of individuals with a learning disability:
God wanted the different parts to care the same for each other… All of you together are the body of Christ. (v25-27, NCV)
We had no special experience when we started Wave but we’ve learnt a lot along the way. We want to share that and help others develop mixed abilities teams so they can start accessible church meetings and other genuinely inclusive activities in their own communities.
To save having to reinvent the wheel we’re creating Wave in a Box. This isn’t a static manual or tool-kit, because we know people need to see and experience genuine inclusion in practice to truly understand the benefits that it brings. Wave in a Box will provide personal reflections, practical ideas, resources, activities and a supportive co-creation forum to motivate and help those who may be wondering if, where or how to get started with their own inclusive initiatives.
Wave is a small volunteer run organisation that has been sustained exclusively through the provision of our church and local community fund-raising. We now need to scale up our resources so that we can offer support to other churches and communities across the UK through the creation and roll-out of Wave in a Box.
Can you help us help others to create places where people of all abilities can worship God together, knowing that every single one of us is equally valuable in His sight?