Before studying to become a diaconal minster, Susan Lindberg had worked for nearly 15 years supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“As a diaconal minister, I’m called to serve between the church and the world, and to bring the needs of the world back to the church,” she says. So given her experiences with people who have disabilities and her ministerial training, her path seemed clear.
“For some people with disabilities, they have not had that opportunity for even the little things at church,” says Susan. “We talk a lot about loving God and loving our neighbors, but people with disabilities are all too frequently overlooked.”
It was with this in mind that Susan founded All Right Ministry, a worshiping community in Wayland, Mass. supported in part by a grant from the ELCA churchwide organization.
All Right Ministry strives to create spaces where people with and without disabilities can come together for worship experiences where all can participate. To do this, Susan spends much of her time traveling throughout the church coaching congregations and individuals to create more inclusive environments for people with a variety of disabilities.
Then, once a month, she leads a service at Peace Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Wayland, where anyone who wants to can participate.
“It’s a very diaconal kind of thing because I’m connecting people who want to be a part of the church and reminding the church that there are people who want to be a part of the body of Christ who are many times overlooked.”
Susan says many of the people who attend the service are excited to get a chance to participate. For instance, she says, there’s a teenager with autism whose role it is to say, “Go in peace; serve the Lord” at the end of each service. Another woman loves to extinguish the candles after worship.
“She can tell me exactly how many times she’s put out the candles, and that’s a big deal to her,” says Susan. “We do the thanksgiving for baptism, and I asked her once before the service if she would pour the water into the font, but she still wanted to make sure she would get to put out the candles. Throughout the service she kept asking me, ‘Is it time to put out the candles yet? I’m going to put out the candles right?’”
Other members enjoy the opportunity to play maracas, sing and dance.
After the group worships together, everyone sits down for a meal. “We get to know each other, and we find out about each other and see what people’s concerns are and what their joys are,” Susan shares.
And the relationships they are building are making a difference in the lives of people who often feel disconnected. Recently Susan heard about two women from the ministry who ran into each other at a supermarket.
“There’s this one woman with an intellectual disability, and this other woman has seen her a couple of times around the city,” Susan remembers. “She saw her at the grocery store and she yelled, ‘I love the Mass!’”
“People feel free to be who they are,” Susan continues. “That’s kind of a huge beautiful moment to think that they’re connected with their faith.”
“If someone calls out during a service, yeah it might be a little noisy, but what the heck? It’s more joy, more worship in the church. Sometimes somebody might want to get up and walk around during the service. People hear and learn and listen differently. It’s kind of getting to know people.”
It’s this kind of warm, inviting environment Susan hopes more congregations will create for people with disabilities.