Nancy Kearney and her friend Bonnie stood up to worship yesterday at the 9 a.m. pre-Christmas mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Silver Spring. It was an emotional event for each of them.
"I feel happy, I feel God, (it's) love, really," Bonnie said, when a visitor asked her how she felt about attending church.
Bonnie "spoke" by pointing to the letters of the alphabet printed on a piece of cardboard she carries with her everywhere. Partial physical paralysis and other handicaps prevent her from speaking, although she can understand most of the words that are spoken to her, according to her friend Kearney.
Bonnie has been attending church for the past month under an unusual program started 15 months ago by Kearney, a nun with the Sisters of Mercy order. Under the program, volunteer members of the congregation use specially equipped buses and private cars to transport as many as 16 adults each Sunday from their residential cottages at Great Oaks, the Maryland state facility for the mentally handicapped, to the church, located at 12319 New Hampshire Ave.
"We don't do it out of pity," said Kearny. "We do it out of strength. Handicapped people can do a lot more than most people think, but they need encouragement and the benefit of being out in the community, in as normal a situation as possible," Kearney said.
Her program is similar to others around the country that attempt to integrate handicapped people into the nonhandicapped community, an approach that is consistent with new state and federal guidelines as well as contemporary thinking in the field, she said.
"We had one young woman in the program recently who had never been to church before, who had never been out in the community. One day I took her to Sears to shop for a dress, and when she saw herself in the mirror she became alive, she became feminine, she started humming (the song) 'Easter Parade.' Today she lives in a group home in Rockville, and I know the church and other experiences helped her," Kearney said.
"i am the special friend to people who need a friend," said Joey Rodano, 13, who often got calmly up from his pew yesterday to help handicapped people turn the page of a hymnal or Bible, or help them simply to stand. "Sometimes it looks like they have no loving where they live, and they need a friend," he said.
"At first I wondered if the attendance at the 9 o'clock mass would decline once we started bringing our new friends in," said The Rev. E. Carl Lon, who conducted yesterday's service."But it hasn't, not at all."
"At first I was disturbed by them," said John Koback, a parishioner who serves as the usher for the section where the Great Oaks residents and their friends sit. "I didn't know anything about them, about what they needed. But now I know all they want to do is worship, and I wouldn't trade sides (to be an usher elsewhere) for anything," he said.
Yesterday Christmas gifts were given by some members of the congregation to the handicapped parishioners, who stood up with the rest of the congregation to exchange greetings of "Peace be with you," as directed by Lyon.
"They have a right to worship, as does anyone else," said Kearney. "One man became depressed last year when no took him to a Christmas mass. Another man finally convinced his family of how much he wanted to come to church when he struggled at the dinner table and finally made the sign of the Cross," she said.
Anne, 17, said she like coming to church "because you get to meet people," David, in his 20s, proudly held up in one hand a belt he had just received as a Christmas gift, and in his other hand held a bible. When a visitor riding in a van with them started to fall backward as the van lurched forward, a woman with Down's Syndrome (a cause of mental retardation) put up her hand to support him.
"They are very independent people who want to be accepted for themselves," said Pat Brown, 21, who drives a bus in Kearney's program each Sunday. "They don't want favors."
Yesterday Bonnie, who is oftern afraid of traveling in the bus because of the difficulties of moving her wheelchair back and forth on the mechanical lift, pointed out an answer to the question of why she likes going to church.
"I know Jesus loves me," she said.