Jill Carpenter took her son to various churches off and on but never felt welcome at any of them. Eventually, her son, Matthew, didn’t want to go anymore.
Matthew, 32, has fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that comes with learning disabilities and autism-like characteristics.
“He couldn’t keep up with his age group, and there was no place for him to be in the church itself,” Carpenter said. “When he was put in with his peers, there was not an effort made to make it good for all of them. We would periodically try new churches. He didn’t feel comfortable.”
While Carpenter was coaching Matthew’s Special Olympics volleyball team, another player’s mom told her about two churches that had come together with a mission to be friendly and open to families who had members with special needs.
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Selma Presbyterian Church and Good Samaritan United Church of Christ share a church building at 306 N. Pollock St. in Selma. Last year, the churches starting holding services together with a common goal of welcoming those with special needs.
The congregation is understanding when someone gets up and walks around or makes nonverbal noises during a service. The churches offer instruments for those who are nonverbal so they can take part in musical worship. And there are sensory toys available for the younger kids who need to stay busy.
Matthew went through confirmation, became a church member and was baptized. He takes part in services by lighting the candles or leading the call to worship sometimes.
“I never thought any of that could happen,” Carpenter said. “He’s very happy there. I’m very happy there.”
“It was like an answer for prayer for me,” she added. “It was what I wanted for him for years.”
The Rev. Linda Leuser, pastor of Good Samaritan, is especially welcoming of those with special needs because of two of her grandchildren.
When her youngest grandson, Parker, 5, was diagnosed with autism, she moved from Pennsylvania to North Carolina to help out. She thought she could relocate to a United Church of Christ, but when she didn’t find one in Johnston County, she started one.
She met the Rev. Susan Sexton of Selma Presbyterian Church at a luncheon for female ministers, and the two had a lot in common as female pastors at more-progressive churches in Johnston County.
The Presbyterian church owned a building, but the aging congregation had dwindled to 13 members. Leuser’s new church had grown to 24 members and needed a building.
“The Holy Spirit got us together and is leading us into it. It’s been a blessing,” Leuser said. “We have families that haven’t been to church in many years.”
The two pastors alternate preaching and are working to officially merge the churches in 2016. The two denominations are compatible as they ordain women and gay priests.
“A lot of people feel that it’s wrong, but we feel like God made them just like he made everybody else,” Leuser said. “If that’s how God made them, we are going to accept that. We are not going to judge.”
“That’s a whole new type of special needs, because someone who is transgender, gay or lesbian doesn’t always feel welcome in churches,” she added.
However, right now, the most common special need in her church is autism.
Leuser said the church is growing because families with special-needs children come, feel welcome and tell others.
She has big future plans too. Leuser wants the church to find a way to care for aging special-needs people as their parents pass on. Another goal is for the church to grow to a point where it can open a business to employee those with disabilities.
Want to check out the church?
9 a.m. Sunday school classes
10 a.m. worship services
Located at 306 N. Pollock St. in Selma