In Ridgewood, a Religious Safe Space Like No Other

Friends to Friends Community Church adapts to the needs of its congregation, comprised entirely of disabled worshippers. 

Friends to Friends Community Church
Parishioners at Friends to Friends Community Church are made to feel comfortable, knowing they won’t be treated in a condescending manner. Photo by Fred R. Conrad

Despite their best efforts, some churches have a hard time accommodating individuals with special needs. That’s not the case at Friends to Friends Community Church, which welcomes all special needs worshippers—even those who are potentially disruptive or require special adaptations. It is believed to be the only New Jersey congregation comprised entirely of disabled worshippers.

“Here the worshippers can be fully who they are,” says Joanne Van Sant, pastor of the Ridgewood congregation, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Many churches are inaccessible to physically disabled worshippers. Often, those using wheelchairs or walkers are asked to sit in an aisle or foyer. Individuals with conditions such as autism, Down syndrome or neurological damage can be noisy or disruptive. Some lack verbal skills or process words slowly. Many can’t read. At Friends to Friends, a congregation of the Reformed Church of America, they are made to feel comfortable, knowing people won’t hurt their feelings or treat them in a condescending manner.

“Typically, churches asked them to leave because their behavior was distracting or because they were hard to accommodate,” says Van Sant.

[RELATED: A Support System for Budding Athletes with Down Syndrome]

At Friends to Friends, volunteers stand by to provide support for congregants. “It’s hard for some of the worshippers to be quiet or sit still,” says Van Sant. “It’s fully acceptable for them to move around, talk and ask questions.” PowerPoint projections help worshippers follow the service.

Gregory Riether, who is 35 and has cognitive issues, attended another church before Friends to Friends, but couldn’t participate in the choir because the singing was too hard.  “Here, what I enjoy most is the choir,” he says. “I also like the [PowerPoint] because I don’t have to flip pages.”

The approximately 120 Friends to Friends worshippers range in age from 21-70. They come from 25 group homes operated by 15 different agencies, mostly in Bergen County and some in Passaic County. The congregation meets at 7 pm Sundays. Donations and proceeds from a preschool program help cover the costs.

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