At a recent meeting of the Flames at Centennial United Methodist Church in Roseville, Minnesota, the agenda was about understanding and being inclusive of Deaf people.
“Christian friendships are one of the best gifts the church can offer to people with hearing loss,” the lesson began. “Deaf people and people with hearing loss may feel isolated at worship services. We can communicate in ways besides sound.”
Centennial has made it a priority to be as inclusive as possible.
The Flames are already sympathetic to the church’s goal. They know about striving to fit in when you’re a little different. The group of a dozen or so developmentally disabled adults gathers once a month at Centennial, although COVID-19 has pushed the meetings online for now.
“People with intellectual disabilities take longer, or need different ways to learn things,” says Eve Newman, a charter member of the Flames, which have been meeting since 2010. “It may take us longer, but we're still very, very much capable of learning new things.”
As inclusive as possible
“(The Rev. Brian Hacklander) really is working toward more inclusivity of all people in our church,” said Debby Newman, Eve Newman’s mom who started the Flames project and keeps it organized. “It's just part of what Centennial is, and he's so affirmative.”
Hacklander, who has been at Centennial for 19 years, says the congregation has been open to new ideas such as adding a second campus and becoming a reconciling church. Both happened during his tenure.
“I'm just so grateful for that (openness), and look forward to everything that God will be doing into the future,” he shares.
The church wrote a congregational ministry plan in 2010, Hacklander said. The mission statement begins “We invite everyone to see God in their lives.”
Debby Newman has led the effort at Centennial for people with special needs.
“She had support from others, but she had the passion and the expertise organizationally, and in terms of relating to persons with special needs, that could make this happen,” Hacklander affirms.
Eve, 37, who suffered a brain injury from a tumor when she was 5, has been thriving, especially in the arts. She sells paintings and greeting cards with her art on her website and writes poetry and songs. She is employed as the assistant custodian at Centennial, a job in which she takes pride and enjoys.
Racial and ethnic inclusion
In 2015, after a three-year discernment process, the congregation voted to become a Reconciling Congregation, meaning they “welcome and affirm people of every gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, who are also of every age, race, ethnicity, physical and mental ability, level of education, and family structure, and of every economic, immigration, marital and social status.”
The next step for Centennial, based on a recommendation by the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, is to “truly be welcoming and be in ministry with persons of color,” Hacklander reports.
“We are a predominantly white congregation, as is true of the vast majority of churches in Minnesota, although we've always had persons of color in the congregation,” Hacklander continues. “But we realize that we can be doing more and we're called to do more.”
Recently, Hacklander did his first adult-immersion baptisms in a local lake. The baptized men come from Burundi and The Democratic Republic of the Congo, where their custom was adult rather than infant baptism.
“To be asked to celebrate this, for them and with them, was really glorious,” Hacklander states. “And to go to a lake and invite the congregation across both campuses to join in witnessing that and being a part of that liturgy was really, really cool.”
Centennial is researching the possibility of supporting resettlement of another refugee family or individual, something the church has done as far back as the 1980s.
The Flames are active at Centennial beyond their monthly meetings. They help out in worship services as acolytes, ushers and reading Scripture. Some partner with youth groups and United Methodist Women on projects including potting plants for church members in care centers. A few Flames have been confirmed in the church along with the regular annual class.
Eve Newman is a member of The Disability Ministries Committee, a partner ministry of the Commission on Religion and Race, and she stresses that it’s not a ceremonial appointment.
“I make cards for thank-you letters to people who give donations to our committee,” she said.
Eve says her church activities are “really important” to her.
“Because I think that people with disabilities deserve to have opportunities to learn as much as people without disabilities.”