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Clearwater’s Grace Lutheran Church accommodates disabled with special service

The church’s pastor said traditionally churches haven’t always provided a ‘warm welcome.’

CLEARWATER — It breaks Virginia Ruf’s heart to see how people with special needs are treated sometimes — inhumane, ridiculed or as if they are contagious and will spread their disability like it’s a disease.

She swore that would never be her son’s reality.

Unfortunately, it still happens at times.

Her son, Chris Ruf, 40, has Down syndrome and at age 12 was diagnosed with autism.

Often when the two dine out, people act like Chris does not exist or cut in front of him in line.

But when it comes to church service, her worries are over thanks to Grace Lutheran Church’s new adaptive service designed for people with disabilities.

“It’s wonderful that other people accept my son, and they don’t treat him like a mistake,” Virginia Ruf said. “Sometimes you go places and people shy away from you, but here you’re a human being like the rest of us.”

Jefferson Cox, the pastor at Grace Lutheran, has a close family friend who works with people with disabilities and is aware of many of the challenges and rejection they face.

He also found that in Pinellas County, 10 percent of the population under age 65 live with a disability, according to data collected from the U.S. Census.

So when he interviewed for his position in 2015 and was asked what he could do to better connect the church with the community, his first thought was to create a service catering to people with special needs.

One that was welcoming, flexible and accommodating.

Traditionally, churches haven’t always provided a “warm welcome,” Cox said, so there’s a hesitancy to get connected to a church. Many drift away.

“Churches can sometimes get into the habit of looking for people that already look and sound like they do,” he said.

Cox hopes to change that.

“Just by being humans, we tend to be comfortable around people like us, and for people that are different, it can be difficult for them to get connected to our community," he said. "But the gospel cuts across that, and it calls us to be more inclusive and more welcoming than our human instinct would encourage us to be.”

Normal Lutheran services have a lot of standing up and sitting down or kneeling and bowing when singing hymns, worshipping and receiving communion, For those with disabilities, that can be uncomfortable or difficult to keep up with.

In the adaptive service, attendees are not obligated to stand. Instead, the pastor and ministers serve them communion in their seats.

Paster Jefferson Cox and Deacon Iris Saxby deliver communion to John Domoulin and Carolyn Leisure, and allow them to remain seated during Grace Lutheran Church's adaptive worship service that caters to people with disabilities and the elderly on Oct. 27 in Clearwater. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Grace Lutheran also has a braille bulletin for the blind or visually impaired and offers Bluetooth hearing devices and ear protectors connected to the church sound system for those who are hard of hearing or sensitive.

Bluetooth hearing devices help attendees with disabilities to hear Pastor Jefferson Cox, who delivers a shorter sermon at Grace Lutheran Church's adaptive worship service in Clearwater. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The adaptive service is similar to the main service, with four stages: the gathering stage, the word stage with lessons and the message, the sacrament stage with communion, and the sending stage where church leaders prepare to send attendees out into the world.

The adaptive service starts at 11:15 a.m. and lasts only 30 minutes, which is later and shorter than the church’s usual 9:45 a.m. service.

“It’s not dumbed down,” Cox said. “It’s got the most essential parts of the service. I preach the same sermon but in a way that it’s shorter in time.”

Grace Lutheran Church holds an adaptive worship service on Oct. 27 in Clearwater. It caters to people with disabilities and the elderly, who otherwise would not be able to attend a full service. Accommodations include Braille and large-print church programs. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

And unlike some traditional church services, Grace Lutheran’s adaptive service welcomes casual attire and a relaxing atmosphere.

Chris Ruf wears shorts and occasionally a baseball cap.

For his mother, it’s a relief after sampling various churches with services for the disabled, including St. Paul United Methodist Church, which hosts a “Handicapable” Bible study on Wednesday nights.

She enjoyed Handicapable but it lacked communion and it was a little further than she was willing to travel. But there she met Cox, who attended the Handicapable Bible study to get ideas and learn from other churches before launching his idea at Grace Lutheran.

Now, she thinks she’s found a church home for Chris and herself. She can relax and pay attention to the sermon without worrying about him.

“I don’t have to keep poking Chris to behave or to sit still,” Virginia said. “I go to other churches, and he falls asleep, and (they) don’t like it if he falls asleep. But here, it’s 'that’s just Chris.’”

Contact Monique Welch at mwelch@tampabay.com or Follow mo_unique_

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