One of the most critical questions for local churches to ask is, “what does the gospel look like in our neighborhood?” The responses will vary with each congregation and cultural context as disciples of Jesus discern unique embodiments of the love of God, especially alongside those so frequently relegated to the margins of particular communities.
This past February, Our Community Cup Coffeehouse was launched as one local congregation’s unique response to this pivotal question. A 2015 Covenant Fund recipient and collaborative ministry between Chambers Memorial and New Avenue Foundation, Our Community Cup is a weekly fellowship open to young people with disabilities and their caregivers. The shared ministry was birthed in light of limited social opportunities for young people with disabilities and the learned desire for parents and caregivers to be in community with one another. Each Friday night, guests of the coffeehouse gather in the church fellowship hall to play Uno, share about art and passions for the latest pop-music celebrity, sip fresh and fair trade coffee, dine at tables set with fine dishes and home-cooked meals, listen to live music performed by local artists, and dance with their friends, some who happen to be in wheel chairs.
“Part of who we are, “commented Rev. Pam McShane, pastor of the Chambers Memorial Presbyterian Church since 2009, “[is] continually to be opening to one another and continually to be offering hospitality to the one who is outside and to the one who might not quite fit in and to invite them in. That is what I understand to be at the very heart of the gospel. I think that’s what grace is all about for all of us.”
The extension of hospitable grace to members of their community with a wide-range of disabilities was nurtured as pastoral and congregational leadership listened to the hopes and dreams of one particular local resident. Jim Wurster, co-founder of New Avenue Foundation and neighbor to Chambers Memorial, approached Rev. McShane towards the end of 2014. A father of a 26-year old daughter diagnosed with autism, Wurster remarked, “A lot of the mentality is ‘you guys need to be fixed.’ We, as the rest of the world, can perceive [people with disabilities] differently and see that they do have value and can accept their differences.”
Our Community Cup’s inclusive spirit of validation and Chambers Memorial’s willingness to host this intentional community has personified good news for young people with disabilities in the Rutledge community. Trent, a frequent guest, shared about his experience, “Our Community Cup is a place I feel welcome to be myself. It filled a need that was empty for far too long. I thank the New Avenue Foundation and Chambers Memorial for giving a new meaning to my Friday nights.”
As Chambers Memorial has played host to this intentional community of play and possibilities, they have also been given new meaning to their ministry and neighborhood witness. A fairly traditional and older-adult congregation, the request to collaborate came at a time when the congregation was exploring how to include visitors with disabilities into their weekly worship and congregational life. Along with the Friday night gatherings, church members and pastoral leadership started listening to their stories, extending pastoral care through occasional hospital visitations, including them in regular prayers, and considering how their neighbors with disabilities, who may not be as accustomed to liturgical orders and rituals, could be affirmed as full participants in the church.
Rev. Pam McShane commented, “I have served in churches where unruly children were not accepted, where children with different behaviors were not accepted. I have also served in churches
where people with differences were not accepted…[Chambers] began to see this as the developing call of this church, to reach out beyond their comfort level to people who don’t necessarily fit within their ‘reasonable guidelines.’”
While Our Community Cup originated as a neighborly request to birth an initiative of grace, as the congregation has responded to God’s call, the venture is now being cultivated into a platform for church revitalization, renewed missional identity, and sacred opportunity to encounter the presence of God in the faces of neighbors frequently relegated to the sidelines of our communities. Thanks be to God for the faithful witness of Our Community Cup Coffeehouse and collaborative partners, Chambers Memorial Presbyterian Church and New Avenue Foundation. Their inclusive community alongside young people with disabilities is a generous demonstration of the broad web of God’s grace and unique response to the pivotal question, “what does good news look like in our community?”