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Article Published July 3, 2019
Seibert Helps ‘Rhythms of Grace’ Provide Comfort, Connection for All Faiths and Needs
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

On Sunday, July 14, a Christ Episcopal Church service designed to invite comfort and connection for those on the autism spectrum and others sensitive to sensory overload or with special needs, welcomes families and people of all ages and faiths to experience Rhythms of Grace during a 5 p.m. outdoor service at Jacobs Beach.

The summer service will mark about a year’s time since parishioner and Guilford resident Winnie Seibert first helped bring the new, once-monthly service to her church. She’d experienced something similar at her family’s church in New York more than 20 years ago, but the idea really took flight after a serendipitous talk with a stranger in 2013.

“In the early ’90s, when we lived in Westchester County, our church had a very successful service for what they called the developmentally disabled. It was once a week and it was full of music and movement and alternative ways of celebrating,” says Winnie, a retired educator. “It just sort of opened my eyes to reaching out in your church to people who can’t easily sit through a regular church service.”

The family moved to Guilford in 1998 and Winnie continued her work in education as a school administrator and private school director of admissions. In addition to being involved in outreach at Christ Church, Winnie’s involvement in the community has included her efforts on behalf of Guilford ABC, Guilford Youth Mentoring, Guilford Free Library, and Guilford Keeping Society.

Winnie was actually out of town when she first heard of the Rhythms of Grace program in 2013.

“It’s really funny how things happen,” she says. “I was up volunteering for a program my two oldest grandchildren were involved in, in Massachusetts, and I was paired up with another person who happened to be very active in the Rhythms of Grace program in Walpole [Massachusetts], which was one of the first ones.”

The program is based on a guide co-developed by Priest Audrey Scanlan (now bishop of Central Pennsylvania) and educator Linda Snyder titled “Rhythms of Grace: Worship and Faith Formation for Children and Families with Special Needs.” Faith groups use the guide as resource to develop a multi-part service tailored to include Bible story presentation and tactile activities (arts and crafts, music, and movement) that support fine and gross motor skills, communication, and the concept of “tactile defensiveness and sensory integration” as well as promoting kinesthetic awareness.

A safe space is also built into the service for those who would rather observe the activities, or simply be by themselves, while attending the service.

“She was telling me about this program, and I said, ‘Wow! That would be something really good to do in our area,” says Winnie. “I felt that Guilford was a good spot for looking into something like it, because we have special ed programs, we have SARAH and VISTA, and we had Roses for Autism.”

She brought the concept to Christ Church, which embraced the idea. With parishioner Bill Cuddy, Winnie began looking for actual programs to visit to learn more.

“And as we looked into it, there were no Rhythms of Grace programs nearby, Hartford and Tarrytown, New York, being the closest,” says Winnie. “We visited the program in Tarrytown and we really liked the structure, and really liked what we saw.”

It was there that they also learned about the written guide, she adds.

“So we got a hold of the book, and we were impressed by it,” says Winnie. “Basically, what this program does is it promotes comfort for those with what I call sensory experience overload. It promotes a comfortable situation for people who might not be comfortable at a regular church or synagogue service.”

A Different Sort of Service

The service begins with a gathering (a time for all to come together to feel comfortable and to interact), followed by storytelling (presenting a Bible story with extra aides such as a Jesus doll, pictures, stuffed animals, and other visual aids so participants have a hands-on experience with the story), then “exploring activities”—three or four hands-on, tactile and therapeutic arts and craft projects that support the story.

Following that, there’s “regathering” using a familiar game or activity to bring the focus to the Eucharist portion of the service with communion (all religions welcome). The service ends with a spoken and hand-motion rendering of The Lord’s Prayer and the song “Jesus Loves Me.”

The first service was held at Jacobs Beach last August and has since become a regular, monthly offering on the second Sunday of every month at Christ Church, 11 Park Street, at 4 p.m. and three summer services (this year, June 9, July 14, and Aug. 11) at the pavilion at Jacobs Beach at 5 p.m. The service is about an hour or so in length.

“Father Harrison always does a church service at the beach in the summer time, but it’s now been incorporated into this Rhythms of Grace service,” says Winnie, adding she hopes to see many new faces and families come out to attend the next service on July 14.

“It’s all very simple and very hands on,” says Winnie. “We always do a Bible story, and they are always supplemented with both visual and hands-on tactile aids. Last month, wind played big part in the Bible story, so we put together streamers for children to wave to make wind.”

The activities are there for kids to “dabble in” during the service, if they would like to participate, Winnie adds.

“Activities for arts and craft really pay special attention to sensory, hands-on activities, like finding items in a bin full of rice, using a water table, making and frosting cookies, doing collages,” she explains.

Winnie also notes the program is specially designed with the intent of making “slow transitions” from the greeting, to the Bible story and activities, after which “we slowly come back to the actual Eucharist, where children are able to participate if they want to, or not participate if they don’t want to. They can stay aside from it or come have a blessing from our rector. So it really honors many different kinds of religious beliefs.”

While Christ Church has been offering Rhythms of Grace for some time now, attendance has grown slowly, mainly among parishioner families. Winnie is hoping to get the word out to the broader community.

“We’re really anxious to not have this be a service for Christ Church people, but a service for any people who would like to worship in this way. We just feel that this is an underserved population,” she says.

Christ Episcopal Church’s Rhythms of Grace service is held Sunday, July 14, 5 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 11, 5 p.m. at Jacobs Beach, 140 Seaside Avenue, Guilford, under the pavilion (weather permitting), followed by monthly services the second Sunday of each month at 4 p.m. at Christ Episcopal Church, 11 Park Street, Guilford (meet in the Parish Hall next to the church). For more information, contact Donna LaFata