I recently visited a Messy Church in Clacton-on-Sea, led by Trish Hahn our SEND coordinator, as I wanted to experience what was ‘special’ about a Messy Church that was adapted for those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
As I walked through the door at 10.30 am on a Saturday morning, I was warmly greeted and invited into the church hall setup with a variety of activities to explore the theme of Pentecost. It looked and felt like a regular Messy Church to me, as families drifted in over the next half hour and got stuck in. Spying an opportunity to get properly messy, I headed to the activity involving paint and started chatting with the other participants. The table leader was part of the setup team but was expecting her husband to arrive with their eight-year-old son. She’d tried taking him to a Sunday church service but had felt shamed by people tutting and telling her to keep him quiet. Dad and son arrived, bursting with energy, and hurtled off to the free-play area. He looks like other eight-year-old boys, except he has a short attention span and delayed learning. His mum explained to me the difficulties she encounters because of his hidden disability that manifests as behavioural differences. However, Messy Church was a place she could feel at home because here there were others with SEND accompanied by carers who understood her challenges.
The story of rejection from Sunday church was a common theme as I listened to people’s stories, whilst creating flame Pentecost art. However, it became apparent that some people came because there was no other provision for families with SEND in the area and this was their first experience of church. Messy Church provided a safe and accepting community, and now they were at the very start of a journey discovering that they and their child were accepted and loved by God. This was demonstrated so beautifully as I watched the care and fuss made of a mum with a new baby with cerebral palsy. As she arrived at Messy Church for the first time, other parents with older children with cerebral palsy, some of whom were non-verbal and wheelchair users, gathered around to show their love and acceptance, share their stories and offer hope at a time of uncertainty.
This uncertainty can also be felt by siblings, and whilst the new baby was being fussed over, I had a great chat with Maia, the eleven-year-old sibling, who had bought her friend. They were anticipating their Year six school journey the following week, and sharing what they were feeling anxious about. At my next activity, I encountered Ellie, who enthusiastically told me that her best moment of the week was getting over 100 followers to watch her latest Genshin animation on TikTok. I have to admit, that I had no idea what ‘Genshin’ was, so I let her introduce me to the anime-style characters she’d designed to create her own version of this fantasy role-play game. She comes to Messy Church with her family, as one of her siblings has SEND. It’s a place where the whole family can be and play together, but also a place where she is noticed and gets some one-to-one attention from other team members. However, as she politely excused herself from our interaction with the words, ‘Sorry, I can’t show you any more now as I want to play with my friends whilst they’re still here,’ I realised she also needs a supportive group of friends that understand.
As we moved into the main church for storytelling, song, Makaton signing and bubble machine prayers, it was lovely to be a part of this interactive and inclusive celebration, as parents and carers, those with SEND and their siblings came up to the front to join in. It was the adult with learning difficulties that caught my attention, totally enthralled by the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, she called out in an unfiltered way her insightful responses to the ‘I wonder’ questions. I sat opposite her during lunch, where she suddenly blurted out, ‘I think you’d make a really good foster parent.’ I must admit, I felt very affirmed that even though I was a total stranger, she had recognised qualities in me that suggested I was a ‘safe’ person. Could this be a prophetic word? It was something I had previously considered. Our conversation continued and before I knew it, she was inviting me to be her foster carer, as she didn’t like living in an adult care home but liked the sound of my family. I reflected on how ‘God sets the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6a)’, and reassured her that for now, Messy Church was like her extended family.
As we celebrate Learning Disability Week from 19-25 June, I wonder how Messy Church could be a welcoming extended family for those with SEND in your community. What small changes will help make your gatherings more accessible for everyone including SEND children and adults? What can you learn from parents and carers who spend their time advocating for their children?
If you want to explore this further, check out Trish Hahn’s article and top tips, together with the ‘Communicapers’ article on how to use Makaton during Messy Church, in the May–August 2023 edition of Get Messy!
Trish has kindly filmed a ‘How to welcome people with SEND’ video guide with a top tips sheet, which we’ll release in September. Whilst you wait, you can catch up on our first two videos: ‘How to build your team’ and ‘How to advertise your Messy Church’ here.
Aike Kennett-BrownBRF Messy Church ministry lead
For safeguarding reasons, the names of the children in this blog have been changed.