Fellowship – Inclusion

Fellowship – Inclusion

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Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.

On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts to not require.  But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. I Corinthians 12:22-26

Someone on Prayer Team recently wrote me about how their family can’t go to coffee hour on Sundays because their child has a severe peanut allergy.  This prompts me to write about “inclusion” of people who have “special needs.”  Special needs comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes.  Developmental delays, physical handicaps, dietary restrictions and all kinds of other “special needs” are present in every community.  Some are more severe and noticeable.  We can easily spot the person in the wheelchair who can’t sit in the pews and will need a ramp to even be able to get into the church.  We don’t necessarily know the one with the food allergy.  As for developmental delays, in some cases they are known and in some cases they may not even be recognized by parents.

It’s obvious that Christ preached inclusion.  In Luke 14: 12-14, He said: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.  You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”  Whether He was talking about calling sinners rather than righteous (Luke 5:32) or sitting with the tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:15), it is very clear that Jesus “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I Timothy 2:4)  If we, as a church, are serious about following Jesus, we have to have an environment of inclusion.  And this begins with each individual making a choice to look to include everyone.  And this is not just for worship, but for fellowship, and for all the ministries of the church.

We have to make sure that our churches are handicapped accessible.  Can someone in a wheelchair get into the church?  We have to make the priest aware when someone is unable to walk up to receive Holy Communion on the solea so that he can come down to wherever the person is in order to give them Holy Communion.  In the parish where I serve, one of the ushers alerts me each Sunday as to who wishes to receive but cannot come up on the solea.  During Holy Week, we take the icon of Christ the Bridegroom, and even the Holy Cross of Christ to people who are not going to be able to come up to the solea and venerate them.

There are so many kinds of developmental delays.  A good number of children are on the Autism spectrum.  Others have attention issues.  It is clear from the education system that not everyone learns the same.  And thus it should be clear that not everyone will come to Christ in the same way.  In our parish, we have started to work on IEPs (Individual Education Program) for our children with special needs who go to Sunday school.  Teachers work with parents in order to make sure that all children can participate in our Sunday school program.  This extends to our Christmas program, to being an altar boy, and to being part of GOYA (teenage group).  A culture of inclusion means that people work together and figure out solutions so that each person gets the best possible outcome.  Notice, I didn’t say “the perfect outcome.”  I also didn’t say “so that everyone get the same outcome.”  Equal doesn’t mean fair and fair doesn’t mean equal.  Inclusion strives for the best possible outcome for everyone—for a special needs child, for their parents, for their peers, for everyone.  During the Divine Liturgy, it means everyone being patient and tolerating some level of noise.  For the priest it may mean rehearsing with a child how to receive Holy Communion or Holy Unction.  For everyone it means being a little nicer, kinder, patient and empathetic.  It means not stigmatizing children with a special need or the parents that care for them.  For the parents of a special needs child, it means advocating for your child, but doing so in a respectful way.  It means making people aware of your child’s needs, but also being patient with missteps that will occur along the way.

Christ tells us to love all people.  And St. Paul tells us that the first two characteristics of love is that “love is patient and kind.” (I Corinthians 13:4)  Going back to today’s Scripture quote from I Corinthians 12: 22-26, we are to see our church community as one body.  Each member of the body is to be seen as an indispensable part.  Everyone should be rated with honor.  All members should “have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (I Corinthians 12: 25-26)  As for the coffee hour, people with food allergies should make the church aware of what they are.  And people who provide the food for the fellowship hour need to stay away from those foods.  Or make people aware which foods are without the allergens.

All must be made to feel welcome at worship.  And all must be made to feel welcome in fellowship, in Sunday school, in the altar, and in other ministries.  This is an area of community life that will take a lot of work, work that is just beginning.  Dedication and patience are the order of the day as we build a culture of inclusion in our communities.

Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Thy name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for Thy name’s sake!. . .Then we Thy people, the flock of Thy pasture, will give thanks to Thee forever; from generation to generation we will recount Thy praise.  Psalm 79: 9, 13

Inclusion is a community decision.  But it starts with each member of the community doing their part to contribute to a culture of inclusion.

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0