Kumbayah enables unique worship community

People with profound intellectual disabilities have found a place to worship together at St David’s in Palmerston North, after moving into the community after decades in an institution.

The Kumbayah congregation meets once a month on a Sunday afternoon. The service is run by the Rev Anne Bennett, an Anglican who previously worked as ecumenical Chaplain at Levin’s Kimberley Centre, and who is supported in her work at St David’s by a Presbyterian Foundation grant.

Kimberley’s residents, who often have multiple disabilities, were moved out over several years before the Centre closed in October 2006, as part of a shift away from institutions towards community-based care.

After living together at Kimberley for 40 years or more, residents were resettled into communities all over the North Island. They were relocated into small group houses in the community, with full-time carers looking after their needs.

Most of the men and women have responded well to their new way of life, Anne says, though it has taken a while in some cases.

Following the closure of the institution, Anne had an 18-month contract (funded by the Ministry of Health) working as a Community Liaison Chaplain and assisting ex-residents as they adjusted to a new lifestyle. "I was very much wanting to make sure their spiritual needs were going to be met and that people could keep in touch with their friends, who had often been resettled in another part of the country."

"For 40 years, these people have lived in community together and they have life-long friendships. They’re like family to each other."

The partings as residents left Kimberley for their new homes were sometimes traumatic. "As people left, some of their friends remaining thought they had died, because that was what it usually meant when someone wasn’t around anymore."

Anne visited ex-residents around the country and took photos that she could bring back and show to their friends to help explain what was happening.

The chapel at Kimberley had been a focal point for the residents. "It was part of the rhythm of life. Many have a deep and simple faith and love to worship."

Anne says she has worked hard to integrate former Kimberley residents into regular Sunday congregations, but there is also a need for special services where these men and women can gather and worship together in their own way.

Early in 2006, she established a monthly service in Levin that’s attended by many of the 150 people from Kimberley living in Levin, Waikanae and Paraparaumu.

Anne wanted to establish something similar for the 60 people who had gone into Palmerston North and Fielding, and so she contacted St David's.

"I wrote a letter to the Parish Council (asking about hiring their building) and I was totally amazed at the letter I received back. It wasn’t just ‘yes’, but 'yes, it would be a privilege - and there’s no charge, and what else do you need?'". At the time, Anne says, there was still a level of opposition in the Palmerston North community to having people from Kimberley housed nearby.

The monthly service started in October 2007, and was called "Kumbayah" after a favourite song from the Kimberley chapel services that is also used as a basis for prayers. The service features a lot of singing and music-making with percussion instruments. Anne says some people love waving coloured scarves to music, and others enjoy dressing up to act out the Bible story.

The service is geared to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, including those who have always lived in the community, though most who attend are former Kimberley residents. "It’s very encouraging that volunteer helpers and some family members also come and enjoy worshipping with us."

The 40-50 people who come along every month to the Kumbayah service see St David’s as their church, Anne says. "St David’s folk have been really supportive, coming along to help set-up and welcome people."

St David’s the Very Rev Pamela Tankersley says that when Anne's community chaplaincy contract ended in June 2008, St David’s didn’t want to lose the ministry. "Once we got involved, we realised this was a call on us."

So the church applied for and received a Presbyterian Foundation grant that would support Anne to work 20 hours a month.

Her ministry has been a huge privilege, Anne says, and working with people who have multiple disabilities has changed her perceptions. "I think about the mystery of what it means to be made in the image of God."

Pamela says Kumbayah has become part of St David’s identity and ministry. "Sunday morning worship is not the only way. Kumbayah is another congregation; like family worship on a Friday night once a month; or communion for older folk on a Thursday afternoon."

"They’re actually changing us too; worship with that group is so authentic. In whatever way they can, these men and women participate fully. They believe they belong in this place."

 By Amanda Wells 

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