The kids sang along, answered questions and listened to the story. For their parents, that was plenty.
A church in Lincoln conducted a pilot project of sorts Saturday, holding a small Christmas service for children with autism and other special needs.
About a half-dozen youngsters gathered on a rug in front of the altar at St. James Episcopal Church for the 20-minute service, which featured singalongs, a prayer of thanks and a telling of a simplified version of the Christmas story.
“When they got to Bethlehem, they had the baby,” said the Rev. Sarah Quinney, gathering the children around her in a haphazard semicircle. “The baby that changes everything.”
Quinney, assistant rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roseville, was brought to Lincoln for the service because of her background: She’s a former music therapist who has worked extensively with children with developmental disabilities.
She also brought more than a little zeal to the service. She is adamant that churches must draw special-needs kids into their religious services even if behavioral issues can create disruptions.
While churches have done a fine job of providing day care to those kids, the institutions “are not really finding ways to engage them in their faith,” Quinney said in an interview. “There hasn’t been a place for them, a good place for them, in church.”
Natalie Cooper, whose 9-year-old son Colin is autistic, said she was thrilled to see him interact as Quinney strummed the guitar and sang “Jingle Bells” and other holiday favorites.
“It gave him an opportunity to understand Christmas,” said Cooper, who normally worships at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Rocklin. “He goes to church every Sunday, but this was really geared to him.”
Maria Johnston, a St. James member and organizer of the service, was overwhelmed afterward. The mother of a 13-year-old with high-functioning autism, Johnston said the service offered a powerful message of inclusiveness to families who can be reluctant to bring their special-needs kids to a church service.
“It touched me so much,” said Johnston, her chin quivering as she spoke. “For our kiddos, I think there still remains a stigma.”
Paula Schaap, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, said the service was believed to be a first for the diocese.
Quinney said she was pleased she was able to hold the children’s attention – only one boy wandered off and a girl had to be carried out briefly after she began squealing.
“They responded really well; they responded super well to the story,” Quinney said. She wants to hold another service at Easter and eventually hold services every two months.
When the Christmas service ended, she dispatched everyone to the church’s social hall for snacks and a visit from Santa Claus.
“Go forth to eat cookies!” she said.