On Sunday at half past 11, a San Antonio social agency called The Ark reverberates with a gleeful cacophony of sounds. Instruments like tamborines, bells, chimes and maracas unite in an expression of praise and worship that’s not often heard in your average church, especially alongside Anglican liturgy. But that is exactly why the group assembled is so glad to be there.
A mother slips in late with her two special-needs children. “It’s been so long since I’ve been to church, and I really miss it,” she whispers to the Rev. Daniel Lizarraga. “I was just struggling to get everyone out the door.” He assures her that she is welcome to participate however and whenever she is able—that’s why Los 12: The Holy Apostles Community exists.
In fact, it’s a place for his own family to call home. Daniel’s daughter Sofia, 18, has a genetic chromosome condition that renders her unable to speak and fixed at the cognitive level of a 3-year-old. When he first began dreaming about a multi-cultural worship community that would embrace her and the needs of their whole family, he felt the Holy Spirit saying that many others in San Antonio needed the same care. He listened, and in October 2014, the non-profit ministry FaithAbility was born.
Because worship is central to the Christian life, FaithAbility’s first phase was the Los 12 Sunday worship service, launched during an annual festival for the special needs community. It may become a church plant in the future, but right now Daniel, a member of Grace Fellowship San Antonio, functions as a chaplain over an Apostolic Work.
“There are families who don’t go to church because they don’t feel welcomed, but they have a desire to be part of corporate worship,” he says. “My daughter doesn’t speak but likes to clap a lot. I loved the idea of having a worship space conducive to those expressions of praise, though they are not spoken words or when they are supposed to be. They are just being themselves, and [their contributions] are something to be recognized.”
FaithAbility is modeled after the accompaniment style of L’Arche, an inclusive community founded by Jean Vanier in 1964 where people with and without intellectual disabilities shared life together. [Many will recall Henri Nouwen, the renowned theologian who wrote about his experiences at L’Arche.] Now a worldwide movement, its main purpose is to change the way people perceive those with special needs. Most of the time people view a person with special needs as someone to be ministered to, but Lizarraga says these individuals are actually ministers themselves who can be a powerful witness to others. This requires a conversion in our thinking—what can they show us about Christ?
“That has been the spirituality that has nurtured our family in terms of how we can fully embrace working with and having a special needs child,” Daniel says. “We have seen and benefitted from that as we have opened ourselves to what God is speaking to us through Sofia. The work and challenge is for us to be able to hear that message.”
At FaithAbility, it’s about a missional calling rather than a strictly pastoral approach, guided by the question, “How can special needs individuals serve Christ and His Church?” For example, onlookers are often humbled and inspired by the sacrificial way parents care for their special needs children. Special needs individuals can also remind us of God’s simple presence in a complicated world.
Daniel’s future plans for FaithAbility include trained Stephen Ministers who provide spiritual guidance for home-bound special needs families with limited resources and transportation; ministers will lead Bible studies and worship services and equip families to continue the work themselves. FaithAbility will also encompass an ecumenical life group community called The San Antonio Community of Faith and Light, reaching out to the city’s large Christian population and beyond. The life group will teach people how to connect and live in community with those with special needs, hopefully resulting in a L’Arche Community in San Antonio.
To accomplish these goals, Daniel plans to partner with other agencies, foundations, schools, businesses and organizations both locally and globally. As he develops resources for his own context and beyond, Daniel draws from ministries like Joni and Friends and adds his own unique flavor.
“We need a strong bicultural approach—resources in Spanish, not just translated linguistically but culturally,” he says. “In the Latino culture, when you have a child with special needs, that is sometimes considered a punishment from God because you or your ancestors have committed a grave sin against God. That has faded in modern society but some of those underlying currents are still there. I’m asking, How do we work together to create a place of blessing and remove stigma? How do we develop these ministries that present a positive, alternative, spiritually uplifting model?”
Recently joining Daniel in a leadership role is the Rev. Heather Herschel, an ordained Baptist minister with Cerebral Palsy. She is wheelchair-bound but feels called to serve the special needs community.
“It’s a new experience for both of us,” Daniel says. “God brought us together in Dallas at a recent conference, and this partnership will allow us to do so much more. She has a beautiful story and spiritual insights and is very well-versed in Scripture.”
Meanwhile, each Sunday, Daniel finds true joy in leading a group of people joyfully banging on tambourines, free to be themselves.
“We are a scrappy group and have a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s a beautiful experience.”
Learn more at www.faithabilitysa.org