Finding a Home in Houses of Worship

Triangle faith communities welcome, support exceptional children and their families
O Downs Boy With Book

When their sons Emiliano and Daniel were diagnosed with autism, life changed for Joaquin and Claudia Bello of Raleigh. Worshipping together became challenging, Joaquin says, as one of them needed to be with the boys at all times. He began searching for a church with resources for families of children with special needs and found Hope Community Church.

There, says Jessica Benninghoff, the church’s special needs ministry core director, children from infancy through college age who have special needs can be paired with a buddy who helps them access programs for their age group, including worship in large and small groups. The church also offers parent support groups and special family events. Joaquin says now he and his wife can worship together “in peace, knowing that someone is taking care of your children with love and with good intentions.”

It hasn’t always been easy for families like the Bellos to find faith communities offering this kind of support, but that has changed in recent years. Just ask Elaine Marcus, volunteer co-chair for BRIDGES, a group at the Levin Jewish Community Center in Durham that promotes inclusion at the center and beyond. BRIDGES recently hosted a workshop about inclusion in religious settings for people of all faiths.

Faith communities, Marcus says, are logical places for families to seek support. A religious community “is a place of joining,” she says. “I think it is also a place where people can get more than their physical needs met, and that’s important.”

Here are a few other special needs resources offered by local faith communities.


Finding “What Works With Individual Children”

The Inclusion Committee at Durham’s Judea Reform Congregation grew out of a 2012 workshop during Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, says Committee Chair Cora Harrison, also the congregation’s inclusion coordinator. The committee educates the congregation and staff about how to best support members with special needs. They explore “what works with individual children and how to communicate with them in a way that feels natural for people,” Harrison says.

One program pairs congregants with a family or an adult with a disability for religious services. They’ve engaged an American Sign Language interpreter for services. A plan to tailor bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah services for a child’s needs is also being developed.

“We’ve had kids participate … in services, whether they participate by opening the ark where the Torahs are housed or whether they are involved in musical opportunities,” Harrison says.


“We Show Them They Belong”

Due to cultural differences, some Muslim faith communities are newer to working with families with special needs, but Arshiya Siddiqui, a member of the Islamic Association of Raleigh, discusses the great strides one group has made to create a network of support. Siddiqui, a Raleigh resident whose son Hasan has moderate- to high-functioning autism, and her friends organized a group for exceptional children and their parents that meets at Cary Masjid.

The group enables parents to share information. “It really helps to talk to each other and compare notes,” Siddiqui says. During meetings, they follow a picture schedule that includes circle time, storytime, arts and crafts, music and snacks. “We basically show them that they belong to a religion and want them to connect with God,” Siddiqui says.

Siddiqui has also worked with the Islamic Center of Raleigh to secure a room during Ramadan where children with special needs can read or play while their mothers pray and listen to the imam or prayer leaders over a speaker, and she continues to work to educate the local Muslim community about the value of inclusion.


“However We Can Support the Whole Family”

In 2000, Raleigh’s Brooks Avenue Church of Christ hosted a carnival for families of children with special needs. Since then, the church has expanded its resources, says Melinda Oldham, coordinator of the special needs ministry. They offer specialized religious education classes as well as extra support in mainstream classes. Vacation Bible School and summer camp are inclusive as well. 

Parents of children with special needs also meet as a group, and last year the church began the Lyft program for teenage siblings. “It’s however we can support the whole family … so that they can work on their relationship with God,” Oldham says.

Kristine Harris of Cary, whose son Josh has cognitive disabilities, attends Brooks Avenue Church of Christ with her family. “All of us have been able to build some relationships through the support for Josh … [as] we’re freed up to participate in different kinds of activities.”

Josh’s response? “He loves it.”


Laura Lacy is a freelance writer and editor in Chapel Hill.


For more information

Hope Community Church




Judea Reform Congregation


Islamic Association of Raleigh (or email


Brooks Avenue Church of Christ

Categories: Annual Guides, Exceptional Child, Special Needs