A spirit of “everyone serving everyone” and planning ahead for accessibility are two characteristics that mark this thriving group in Regina, SK.
On any given Wednesday night, nearly a dozen paratransit busses from the city of Regina come to a stop in front of Hillsdale Baptist Church. The parking lot is crowded as each van takes its turn unloading passengers, many of whom have motorized wheelchairs and need a little extra help getting inside. The travelers, mostly adults with intellectual disability, enter the church via accessible ramps and elevators. Other guests are dropped off by caregivers and greeted cheerfully at the door.
In all, more than 150 friends with disability will gather here before the day is done. Some attendees are there for the singing. Others come because they were invited by a friend, and still others may be there primarily for the snacks. But no matter the original purpose, they all find a special evening of Bible study, worship, and fellowship with friends at the Hillsdale Friendship Club.
The Hillsdale Friendship Club is so large that local paratransit services notified the church that they were filling to capacity before every Friendship program! But it wasn’t always such a thriving program. The original group was started over twelve years ago by a young woman who was interning at the church. Launching the Friendship Club was her special project, and in the beginning it consisted of just a handful of friends and mentors. Since that time, it has blossomed into a huge community ministry. Anywhere from 90 – 170 friends attend on a single night, along with dozens of volunteers.
Accessibility in Advance
To host such a large group, the church purchased and renovated another building in October of 2018. The facility originally had a wheelchair-accessible elevator, and the church added a wide wheelchair ramp accessible restrooms and other universal design features. After hosting a Friendship Club for over a decade, Pastor Craig explains that a positive shift has happened in teh church, making them extra-sensitive to issues of accessibility, and elevating the importance of uniersal design in their congregation.
“Now, our first thought is, ‘What can we do to make things as accessible as possible?’” he says. “We have seen the whole attitude of the church change to a more welcoming and inclusive kind of environment. In looking for a new facility, accessibility was already in our DNA.
A Typical Night at Friendship Club
Not only is the building itself designed with accessibility in mind, but the entire Friendship program is geared at creating a welcoming environment to persons with disability. They utilize Friendship curriculum with sign language, closed captions, interactive dramas, and videos to teach the evening’s message in unique ways.
The Friendship Club program is longer than a Sunday morning service as the schedule is a bit more relaxed. They fondly call it “our fifth worship service” as they have four regular weekend services.
Group nights begin with a few moments of silent prayer. Then someone delivers a welcome and announcements, where they celebrate birthdays and accomplishments of Friendship members. This is followed by a time of worship with music and singing, and then teaching using Friendship Ministries curriculum. In the past few years, the group has worked through familiar studies like Living with Pain and Jesus: Face to Face. They have also dived into the newest Christmas curriculum, Magie: Unexpected Guests through the Advent season.
“Friendship Ministries is our go-to resourcing group; I’m not sure if we’ve used curriculum from anywhere else,” laughs Pastor Craig. It helps that Hillsdale is outfitted with a great system of computers, screens, and tech support, which helps the digital TOGETHER curriculum run smoothly. Pastor Craig explains how the Friendship studies not only provide good content, but also help leaders understand how to teach – simplifying the message, incorporating repetition, and planning engaging activities.
Everyone Serving Everyone
“We have a gentleman in a wheelchair with a gregarious smile,” recalls Pastor Craig. “He is nonverbal, but he communicates with a tray on his wheelchair, and there’s a sign set on his tray: ‘Welcome to Friendship Club.’ He’s serving, it’s his ministry role, and he loves it.” There are other ways for friends and mentors to serve, too – the hospitality team, the coffee team, the prayer team, the sign-language team… At Hillsdale, each person is invited to take ownership of Friendship Club in whatever way they are able.
“Friends actively doing ministry. Friends serving,” says Pastor Craig. “That’s what reminds everyone we’re in this thing together as a team.” Throughout his years working with this ministry, he has seen clearly that it’s not a model of servant and served – instead, both friends and mentors encourage, support, and strengthen one another. “Friends, regardless of their abilities or inabilities, are part of the body and a way that God has designed the Church. And so they give and they receive, and in that, the larger body is blessed.”
In this way, it’s not just the official “volunteers” who are serving. “Invariably volunteers always leave feeling blessed, even if it’s been a challenging night,” Pastor Craig explains.
The impact of the Hillsdale Friendship Club extends far beyond its nightly attendees, however.
“I can see how much this has been a blessing to the overall congregation,” shares Pastor Craig. “It has helped us grow as a church in attitude, in joy, and in responding to the needs that the Lord places before you. The joy in the journey, where you might make lots of errors, but you step up and try.”
And that’s the invitation that the Hillsdale Friendship Club extends to other churches in North America and beyond – step up and try! What begins as a small, fledgling program can be used by God for amazing things.
“We would love other churches to carry the load with us,” says Pastor Craig. “It was an intern that started with a dream, really small, and little by little it gained momentum. There’s no reason why any congregation can’t joyfully go on the journey.”
Ready to get started? Check out friendship.org for resources on how to begin, join, or grow a Friendship group.