Ohana: Nobody gets left behind or forgotten in God’s family

A member of the Ohana Ministry taking part in the main service at SKMC

Every 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month, those who serve in the Ohana Ministry of Sengkang Methodist Church (SKMC) arrive bright and early. The ministry’s helpers and volunteers—like Cindy, Melissa, Ho, Samson, Dominique, Yek Kwee, Clarissa and Veronica—excitedly prepare for a very special Sunday school class.

Their students arrive from 8.45 a.m. Gracia—Cindy and Yew Hock’s daughter—is blessed with an incredible memory, being able to state the day of any date given to her. Sarah enjoys singing and serving together with her parents, Mary and Anthony, and their cell group. She sometimes serves as a “mother hen” figure, helping to care for and manage the students in the class. Jun Ming guns for the front-row seat. Ethan is an energetic boy drawn to tinkering on the piano. More friends—Zach, Julius, Ezra—join them.

The students span a wide range of ages, from 13 to the early-30s, but they have all come to feel cared for and included in their local church community through Ohana, which empowers them as persons with disabilities (PWDs) to participate meaningfully in the church.

Ohana Ministry members and volunteers leading worship on Ohana Sunday
Ohana Ministry members and volunteers leading worship on Ohana Sunday

How Ohana began

This special ministry that caters to the different needs of PWDs started in 2013 as a class within the Children’s Ministry. In 2016, by God’s grace and word-of-mouth testimonies, the class grew. By 2018, the students in the class had outgrown the age range of the Children’s Ministry. Hence, there was a need to establish Ohana as a standalone ministry. Since then, Ohana has expanded beyond its Sunday school class to explore social and recreational activities for its members as they grow into adolescence and young adulthood, as well as to provide a platform for caregivers to pray for and support one another in fellowship.

From the beginning, the vision of Ohana has always been based on the gospel episode of Jesus healing the paralysed man who had been brought by the man’s friends (Mark 2; Luke 5). They worked together to overcome physical and social barriers like the roof and the crowd, so that the paralysed man could encounter Christ. Such an experience would have been transformative not only for him, but for his friends too.

“Disability awareness and inclusion is a journey we all take, both personally and as a church community. Disability ministry is not about offering charity; it is about ensuring that everyone, regardless of ability, can encounter Jesus Christ, nurture their faith and feel included. It is crucial not to isolate it as a separate ministry, but to take an individualised approach to intentionally integrate each person with disability meaningfully into church life.  Ultimately, we need to remember that the greatest need in special needs is the same as for everyone. It is the need for the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Dominique Phang, who leads the ministry and is also the vice-chairperson of the Local Church Executive Committee at SKMC.

Where possible, Ohana champions an integrated approach—today, about seven to ten per cent of members belonging to age-level ministries (Children’s Ministry, Youth Ministry etc.) are PWDs. Only PWDs who face more difficulty in integrating within their age-level ministries join Ohana’s Sunday school class. Even with this pull-out programme, the eventual goal is for PWDs’ age-level peers to join as buddies to develop friendships with them. However, leaders are aware this will be a challenge given the trend of youth and young adult congregants leaving their local church communities.

Building a home

For Mary and Anthony, and Melissa and Samson, their journeys of finding a home in Sengkang and a church family in SKMC have been transformative for their faith. Both couples were brought by God’s divine intervention into the Sengkang neighbourhood, and only thereafter did they find out about Ohana. Seeing how God brought them to SKMC led them to give thanks to him for preparing such a place for them and their children, who have special needs.

Both couples, as well as Cindy and Yew Hock, have seen how their children’s experience in church has improved. They also serve as volunteers in Ohana. “In SKMC, church members may find it easier to accept those with special needs because it is made known to them through Ohana,” Cindy explains. “Even when some PWDs make noise or behave differently, they will understand. In other churches, there might be less understanding or more fear about how to manage such situations.”

Even these parents of PWDs accept and continue to learn just how different other PWDs are from their own children as they serve. “It is not just about empathy, compassion and patience, but also about building different skills, which takes a lot of deliberate effort and hard work,” Melissa observes. “It is important to be intentional—not just incidental—about giving PWDs the support they need, so that they are not neglected.”

“We have been encouraged to see a few more members of the congregation stepping forward to invest their time to be buddies to Ohana members,” notes Samson. “It is not easy for buddies too, who need to stay calm when a PWD is going through a meltdown. But we all have our good days and bad days, whether we are PWDs or not.”

A volunteer guides an Ohana member (in purple) on how to sell food at Ohana Sunday carnival
A volunteer guides an Ohana member (in purple) on how to sell food at Ohana Sunday carnival

The Ohana team has also seen days when nothing much goes according to plan. Through reflecting on these experiences, they have grown the ministry into what it is today. Now, buddies pre-emptively offer students earmuffs to reduce auditory overstimulation and provide psychological assurance, especially since there are other students who produce vocal stimulations. Through trial and error, the team has gotten better at planning for lessons that leverage differentiated instruction, accommodating both group instruction and one-to-one teaching concurrently.

While there will always be room for improvement, the Ohana team celebrates SKMC’s church-wide awareness and emphasis on accommodating different needs. Training was conducted at the various levels of church leadership to develop a stronger understanding of how to include PWDs into the whole church family. This has prompted other ministries of the church to learn how to best integrate PWDs within their plans and programmes.

Visual cues are used to guide the class on the activities and class rules

The annual Ohana Sunday

The Ohana ministry even coordinates with the Worship & Music Ministry to organise Ohana Sunday—SKMC’s annual disability awareness Sunday—in October, in partnership with other stakeholders like the autism-friendly Chapel of Christ Our Hope. Its timing is meant to coincide with the national Purple Parade movement for disability awareness. Ohana members are involved in various parts of the service on Ohana Sunday, such as leading worship with the worship team and reading the Scripture passages. Ohana Sunday thus serves as a time for the church to celebrate the gifts PWDs have received from God, and to renew its commitment of care and inclusion for all of God’s people.

Even as the Ohana Ministry gives thanks for God’s many blessings over its 11-year journey, the team knows that the work is not done. Individuals with more invisible disabilities can look quite like everyone else, with only their behaviour setting them apart. Others may therefore form judgments about them being ill-disciplined or having bad upbringing. The team aspires toward a future where people understand, empathise with, and extend grace to such individuals. This would encourage more people to step forward to serve as buddies to PWDs and to befriend them.

When asked what advice they would give to other churches keen to care for and include PWDs more intentionally as members of the local church community, the Ohana team had the following to say:

“Find people in the church who are willing to help and spend the time,” Yew Hock said. “After all, nobody really knows what to do, but it is through experience and from doing that you will learn what to do. We do not set any entry criteria on what training you need to have, because it is most important that you have the right heart of service and of worship.”

To find out more about the Ohana Ministry at Sengkang Methodist Church,
visit https://skmc.org.sg/get-involved/special-needs-ministry-ohana/

Brendan Loon worships at Aldersgate Methodist Church where he serves as an organist, a keyboardist and Worship & Music Chairperson. He continues to mentor boys and officers through The Boys’ Brigade, as Honorary Captain (33J Company) and Cluster Representative (South 2). / Photos courtesy of Brendan Loon, Eden Lok and Sengkang Methodist Church