CLEARWATER, Fla. — Wendy Roth sat comfortably at the piano bench she’s known so well for decades.

“This was, like, my first job,” she said with a chuckle. “I was baptized (here) in 1963.”

Roth has played the keys at Grace Lutheran Church off-and-on since eighth grade. The church is celebrating 60 years in Clearwater in 2020. She’s seen a lot of change and a lot stay the same.

The newest changes have her and the rest of the congregation existed.

“We are reaching a population who has not had a service before that has been designed just for them,” Anne Burson said.

Just down the hall from the sanctuary, in the Fellowship Hall, the sound of music starts to draw a crowd around 11 a.m. The traditional service has ended, and the second worship opportunity of the morning is set to begin.

Tommy Tuomey is making the rounds. He shakes hands and gives hugs. He even tells a joke or two.

“They are wonderful people and I just enjoy coming here Sundays and making everybody laugh and smile,” the 48-year-old said.

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Tuomey, like many of the other 11:15 a.m. attendees, has a developmental delay. He and everyone else feel at home in Grace Lutheran’s adaptive service, which began in January 2018.

It’s a place for anyone who feels like they wouldn’t be welcomed in a traditional service.

“I never saw anything like this,” Rene Sagnella said, seated between two women with special needs. “Our population is very welcome and very accepted and it’s a good feeling.”

The idea behind the adaptive service came from Jefferson Cox. He’s served as the pastor at Grace Lutheran for four years. He saw a hole in the special needs community when it came to worship experiences. There are plenty of places for families with special needs to attend social events. The church was a different story.

He wanted to change that.

“We have people who are on the autism spectrum. We have with severe developmental disabilities,” he said. “We have to answer the question, how can we as a congregation be relevant to the people living around us?”

What started slowly has grown to 25-30 regulars on a Sunday morning. The adaptive service is shorter in length – about 30 minutes – and still includes all the elements of traditional worship as Grace’s 9:45 a.m. service. There is music, a message and communion for all.  

“Definitely more people are coming,” Sagnella said.

It’s safe to feel welcomed and included, according to parents who bring their special needs and disabled children.

“This church has been so friendly. It’s allowed us to participate,” said Virginia Ruf, who has lived in Florida for 35 years with her son, C.R. “So many times it’s easy to ignore someone who is not exactly like you and here, they figure that there are an awful lot of people who are not exactly like you and we’re all part of God’s world.”

The people at Grace Lutheran acknowledge that there is no ill-will toward anyone with special needs but a feeling of separation can sprout between that community and typical attendees on a Sunday morning.

“No one is perfect,” Cox said.

It’s a problem Grace Lutheran is trying to address with its adaptive service.

“I don’t think anyone intentionally doesn’t welcome but I think sometimes human nature we can be non-welcoming just with a look or something,” said Roth.

Grace Lutheran also supports the Haven House by giving the RCS pantry weekly food donations and routinely works with women with domestic violence backgrounds. The atmosphere Cox has helped establish in the 11:15 a.m. adaptive service is just the latest way the church is striving to impact its Clearwater community.

“May God’s ways be our ways,” Cox said.

Grace Lutheran is located at 1812 N. Highland Avenue in Clearwater.

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