'Everyone belongs': West Dundee ministry embraces those with special needs
The logo for the Parables Community church in West Dundee depicts a school of fish swimming in tandem.
Heading in the opposite direction is a lone red fish that stands out from the group and doesn't quite fit the mold.
That doesn't mean it's swimming the wrong way -- just a different way than all the rest.
"We like to say that everyone has a little bit of red fish in them," Pastor Jeanne Davies said. "This is a church for red fish."
The worship and fellowship opportunities offered through the Parables Community are all-inclusive, with an emphasis on empowering children and adults with special needs, as well as their families.
Like the lessons, or parables, taught by Jesus, individuals with disabilities have unique gifts that "turn things upside-down" and provide others with a new perspective, Davies said. But a traditional church setting isn't always welcoming for special-needs families, she said, many of whom have shared experiences of being asked to sit in the narthex or wait in a classroom so as not to disturb the congregation.
The services at Parables are a "no-shushing" zone, meaning members are allowed to speak out, sing, make noise, move or dance. Music, art and imagery are incorporated into worship, and the audience is encouraged to participate in any way they feel comfortable.
"It's a place where people won't give you a strange look, won't judge you. You can feel free to just come exactly the way you are," Davies said. "(We want to) create a place where everyone belongs -- a place where everyone serves and everyone is valued."
One boy who is on the autism spectrum loves to run up and down the aisles. So Davies gave him the role of acolyte, bringing a battery-powered candle to and from the alter.
Another young man with Down syndrome enjoys opening each service with a prayer.
"Part of my work as a pastor, I think, is to observe carefully. What are the gifts that people bring?" Davies said. "We're not trying to fix anybody.
"We're just trying to accept and love people just the way they are."
Davies, who lives in West Dundee, first learned about the Parables ministry while attending a conference in Minnesota about 4½ years ago.
She had been serving as a pastor at Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin for several years and was contemplating her next move, which she hoped would involve starting her own church.
After hearing a presentation from the Rev. Leslie Neugent, who founded and implemented Parables at a church in Minnesota, Davies knew she wanted to bring that concept to the suburbs.
A congregation in Lombard -- far enough away from her former church -- offered Davies an office and space to host her version of Parables as a separate church community.
She gathered a group of interested people and spent the next few years developing the ministry's style.
This past August, Parables started holding one service a month at the First Congregational Church of Dundee, closer to Davies' home and more convenient for a majority of her regular families. Parables has now fully relocated to West Dundee, where they hope to continue growing.
Services will be held every second and fourth Sunday of the month starting in February.
The worship services have become a "happy place" for Elgin resident Jessica Perkins and her 8-year-old autistic son, Eric Kendall, who joined Parables about two years ago.
Eric struggled in a conventional church or Sunday school setting, she said, so the family had stopped going to church.
At Parables, he's free to blow bubbles or watch his iPad or play with Legos.
It might not look like he's listening, his mom says, but at the end of the service, Eric will be able to relay the sermon's entire message to anyone who asks.
"It's hard to go to church when you have to worry about how your son's going to act, say, do," Perkins said. "(Parables) has helped us greatly."
Benjamin Shively of Elgin regularly participates in church services at Parables Community in West Dundee.
- Courtesy of Susan Templin, First Light Photography
All gifts welcome
Elgin resident Jonathan Shively feels fortunate to have never experienced any church horror stories involving his son, Benjamin, who has a genetic disorder known as Williams syndrome.
His family still attends traditional church services, he said, but no worship experience engages and embraces his son quite like Parables.
Benjamin, 24, loves to play the drums and lead the congregation in the Lord's Prayer. He's made lots of friends, he says, and he's even helped Davies preach a sermon.
"I feel like what makes Parables unique is our approach to a very intentional celebration (and) inclusion of each individual's capabilities," said Jonathan Shively, the ministry's board chairman.
"Whatever gift you bring, whatever part of your God-given makeup you have to offer, it's welcome at Parables."
Up to this point, the church has been primarily funded through a grant and a donation from a family trust, both of which are expiring at the end of this year.
Parables is now seeking support from other partnerships, grant opportunities and donations, Davies said.
"A lot of families that have family members with special needs are financially pressed because they have therapy or special schooling or caregiving costs," she said. "We may need some outside support always."
The ministry's financial uncertainty hasn't stopped Davies from exercising her creativity as a pastor.
She's invited a mime troupe to act out a sermon. Her husband created a giant coloring page for members to work on.
A comfort dog attends each service, and a sensory area is set up outside the worship area where members can access fidget spinners, headphones, weighted lap pads and other devices that might help them.
Davies also organizes service projects in the community, such as volunteering for Easterseals and Feed My Starving Children.
"Often, people with disabilities are never asked to share their gifts or to help other people," Davies said.
"Everyone has a basic human need to feel needed, to feel like you can serve somebody else."