In early 2007, Gabriel Surjana, 16, began reaching for the communion cup and the tray of bread as it was passed in worship. Before that he had shown interest, but now he was indicating in his own way that he wanted to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper like his parents, Pearl Shangkuan and Okke Surjana. So they explored with his Sunday school teachers the possibility of Gabriel professing his faith in Christ at their church, Neland Avenue Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Gabriel has Down syndrome. He’s always loved Bible stories and knows them well because his parents read and pray with him each night. Though communicating verbally is challenging for Gabriel, he can read. Each Sunday he faithfully follows the liturgy in the bulletin and points out to his parents when the mutual greeting is inadvertently skipped or a different song is sung. But sitting in church has not always been easy for Gabriel. Loud noises are upsetting and there are many distractions. His parents have worked for years to help Gabriel feel comfortable in church.
The congregation at Neland has enfolded Gabriel in ways that are meaningful to his parents and to him. An elderly member of the congregation frequently sits by him and helps him find the pages in the hymnal. Gabriel’s mother notes that Sunday school leaders have been willing to include Gabriel in their program and to teach him in a way that fit his abilities. Because he learns best in an individual setting where there are few distractions, four volunteers take turns teaching him in the church library. For several years, his peers have taken turns joining him for his Sunday school classes. He also attends the social outings of the youth group. “I appreciate it that they enfold him,” says his father, “but they don’t overdo it by drawing attention to his limitation.”
Gabriel’s connection with God is more than a love of Bible stories and following the liturgy. The Spirit’s work in his life began very young—a fulfillment of the prayers his parents made for their children. Gabriel’s father noted that “at the mention of the name of Jesus, something in Gabriel’s countenance changed. Underneath the intellectual ability, God is really God. I was moved by Gabriel’s awareness that there’s something special about the name of Jesus.” He emphasized, “God initiates that relationship.”
“I think he has such a childlike sense of wonder,” says Pearl. “He looks forward to church, to Sunday school. That’s a good reminder for those of us who participate week after week.”
After his parents requested that Gabriel be allowed to make public profession of his faith, Ann DeBoe, one of Gabriel’s teachers at the time, adapted the booklet Expressing Faith in Jesus: Church Membership for People with Cognitive Impairments (Faith Alive Christian Resources, www.FaithAliveResources.org) to help Gabriel prepare. Over the next six months, Ann made the lessons of faith concrete for Gabriel. He learned what it means to be part of the church, what the work is for each person of the Trinity, and what it means to make profession of faith. Early on, Ann was inspired to create a pictorial booklet with Gabriel that describes God’s connection with him and his relationship with God and the church. The visual guide reinforced what he was learning and gave him a way to communicate his faith to his pastor and elder, and eventually to the congregation.
When Gabriel and his teacher met with his pastor, Leonard Kuyvenhoven, and his elder, Pat Westveer, Gabriel was well prepared. They met in the familiar surroundings of the church library, which is where Gabriel’s Sunday school class met. His pastor and elder asked him questions like, “Who made the world?” “What is the work of the Holy Spirit?” “What did Jesus do?” Gabriel was able to answer by pointing to the pictures associated with the questions.
On the day of Gabriel’s profession of faith, he sat between his pastor and his teacher in front of the communion table, prepared with the bread and the cup. Most young people make profession of faith by answering the standard questions with a simple, “I do.” Gabriel answered questions about his baptism, the Trinity, and the church by pointing to the answers in his faith booklet. His testimony of faith booklet was printed in the bulletin for the congregation so they could clearly understand what Gabriel believed.
Ann, Gabriel’s teacher, says that while she can’t definitely determine Gabriel’s level of understanding about faith, “What I can tell you is that Gabe is an eager learner, a faithful worker, and a joyful participant in the life of the church at the level he is able.” Sharing in Gabriel’s profession of faith was a gift to her and a calling. “I am called to lead and love. I felt more used by God than ever,” she said, choking back emotion.
Pastor Kuyvenhoven believes it was important for Gabriel to have this opportunity to profess his faith, “just as it is important for everyone else to speak in their own way about their connection to Jesus Christ. I know that God cares about Gabriel deeply, and he is worthy of our respecting God’s work in him.” He notes that Gabriel’s profession illustrates what it means to be part of the body of Christ in the way that his mentors lovingly and beautifully taught him over a period of time. “I was deeply moved. It was beautiful to behold.” It was personally meaningful for Kuyvenhoven, especially because his own young daughter has autism.
Elder Pat Westveer, one of Gabriel’s early teachers, observes that Gabriel “has matured so much, and by joining the church, he senses that he has a new place for himself in the church and in God’s kingdom.”
Gabriel’s growth in faith continues. He has studied the Apostles’ Creed and knows it well. He is learning about the early church, prayer, and what it means to have a daily connection with God. His mother observes that his prayers are expanding.
Gabriel loves to serve. Shortly after he made profession of faith, Ed Hoeksema, a member at Neland, asked his parents if Gabriel might be able to pick up the bulletins in the pews after worship. Gabriel learned quickly and developed an efficient and systematic method. Now he also straightens the hymnals and Bibles in the pews. “It is so satisfying to see that Gabe has embraced that,” said Ed. “We need to use the gifts people have.”
Perhaps more than anything, Gabriel loves taking communion. When he sees a fresh loaf of bread in a restaurant, he says “Communion,” and he says “Blood” when he sees red wine. “He’s always reenacting communion. He loves having communion in church,” says Pearl.
One of the gifts that Gabriel’s faith journey has given to his father is a greater appreciation for the process of faith itself. “Because we go through it step by step with him, we reflect on what we go through as well. Because ours is a lot faster we often miss a lot of the details.”
The Spirit has nurtured and grown Gabriel Surjana’s faith over the years. Okke emphasizes that God has given the gift of faith to Gabriel, just as he does to other believers. But God also uses faithful teachers, loving parents, and the faith family at Neland Church to tend the seed that God planted.
For Further Reading
To learn more about including people with cognitive impairments in your church, check out the following resources, all available from Faith Alive Christian Resources (www.FaithAliveResources.org).
- Friendship Ministries. This international nonprofit ministry provides consulting services to help start programs for people with cognitive impairments and offers a comprehensive set of Christian faith formation materials—including Bible studies, life studies, and Expressing Faith in Jesus—for adults and children with cognitive impairments. For more on Friendship, visit www.friendship.org.
- Autism and Your Church, by Barbara J. Newman. Helps church leaders to more fully include children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the life and ministry of the church.
- Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities. Practical ideas for including people with disabilities.