Pastors Tom Evans and Michael Mulso with Emanuel Lutheran Church in Inver Grove Heights understand inclusion and how to create a meaningful role for people with disabilities in a church body.
“It is the love and compassion of all the people in the congregation. It is awesome,” said Claire Falls, the oldest sister and guardian for her brothers, Randy and Howard Falls, who have intellectual disabilities. The three attend Emanuel Lutheran.
“Howard and Randy feel safe and welcome. Pastor Tom and Pastor Mike are wonderful,” the sister said.
The family has been members of the church for 14 years and the Falls men have received day services from ProAct in Eagan for more than 40.
Fitting right in at VBS
The duo takes part in a vacation Bible school each summer, where a change in attitude from the children is obvious. From the first day, Randy and Howard are included in the third- and fourth-grade class and are greeted with suspicion, said Claire. “By the end of the week, it is clear that they are all best buds and have no fear,” she said. “They all understand that Randy and Howard are just big kids.”
The two brothers are also part of the kids’ Sunday school group during the school year. The classmates change as they age out, but Randy and Howard remain in the class, ever delighted to get to know more people. Year after year, this class allows young people a chance to know the jovial men. Additionally, Randy is a choir member, and from time to time, the brothers are given opportunities to help with the service, such as lighting candles, ushering and collecting the offering.
Fun loving and friendly, their costumes get attention
Randy and Howard are well known because of the special roles that are carved out to match their fun-loving, friendly personalities. For a traditional Halloween Party with 800 guests, they are costumed greeters for the “Trunk or Treat” event. The visitors, also in costume, check out the decorated car trunks in the church parking lot to ask for treats and then come inside for pizza. One year they were Uncle Si and Cousin Willie from Duck Dynasty and the next year, they dressed in SPAM costumes.
For the Christmas play the brothers are traditionally the shepherds or the wise men. With nine siblings in the family, the two are known for their laughter, practical jokes and finding the fun in every moment. They learned it from their parents.
More than a dozen others with disabilities call church home
Another meaningful church program is held on Thursday evenings twice a month. Known as GUPPY (God’s Unique People Praising Yahweh), the program is attended by 16 individuals with disabilities and their support people. The individuals live in group homes or with family. Their fellowship grows by singing worship songs, hearing a devotional message, and enjoying a snack together.
“If you are having a bad day, go to a GUPPY meeting,” said Pastor Mike who oversees the program. “They are always upbeat.”
Pastors’ families learned about disabilities through schools
How did this openness and inclusion come about? Both pastors credit their wives, who are educators and are familiar with individuals with disabilities such as including autism. There is an emphasis on including people in a variety of ways that match their skills. The pastors are unaware of other churches that have these types of programs. Emanuel Lutheran has 600 members. That size, the pastors said, enhances the church’s ability to create diverse programming for those with disabilities.
“The people in the congregation accept them (Randy and Howard) for who they are, treat them with respect, and do not hesitate to hear about their new shoes or outfit,” said Claire Falls. “I never have to worry about them at church and know that they are appreciated for what they can bring to the church. They (the church members) never turn away from them.”