It wasn’t the intention of Lenexa St. Paul’s UMC to create what it believes is the only support group in the Kansas City area for adults with autism.
The group grew out of St. Paul’s presence ministry, which provides dialogue in a relaxed setting rather than the sometimes-overwhelming world of a church service.
About half of the dozen-plus persons attending those services were on the autism spectrum.
“What we accidentally did was create an environment where a lot of people who were on the autism spectrum (found a place where) extended sermons or loud music didn’t really speak to them,” said associate pastor Mike Marcus, who has led the presence ministry since late 2016.
In discussions with those attending the services, it was discovered there was no support group for adults with autism in the Kansas City area on either side of the state line.
“That’s a much-needed resource,” Marcus said. “After much conversation, we thought, ‘Why can’t we be the one to create this resource for the community?’”
The group began meeting this spring, led by St. Paul’s member Melissa Bustamante, a clinical director at the Elizabeth Layton Center, a community mental health center in Ottawa and Paola.
“It was a blessing to have a fulltime mental health provider in the congregation who was willing to lead pro bono for the first year,” Marcus said.
Bustamante said she was glad to volunteer.
“I’m a person who likes being involved with my church and involved in giving back to my community,” she said.
The monthly support group meetings, conducted via Zoom due to the pandemic, center on a topic selected by Bustamante. Topics so far have included conflict resolution, sensory issues, relationships, and overcoming and embracing awkwardness.
Bustamante said there is no curriculum for the meetings, just a discussion topic.
“It helps them to see that their experiences are like other people’s experiences, and gives them that sense of community,” she said. “I ask them to say positive things about themselves and be able to identify their strengths and be validated by members of their community.”
She said the group is not necessarily a Christian-based group, but St. Paul’s is identified as the host in every meeting.
“St. Paul’s is all about peace and justice and getting involved and being involved in the community,” Bustamante said. “Sometimes being in the community isn’t talking about God, it’s creating opportunities for community reform. I think it’s an awesome experience.”
Bustamante said the stigma surrounding autism has gradually shrunken over the years.
“They’re capable of having fulfilling relationships, and although the stigma is decreasing there is some stigma, and people should give them a chance,” she said.
Marcus said St. Paul’s supports the project, and even raised money for it during its Easter offering. He said he and others are investigating ways to fund the support group, particularly to pay its leader.
“Seeing it come to fruition through that very first meeting was really impactful,” he said. “It’s been so long that this has been a need in the KC area, and people were willing to listen and equip the people that needed to be equipped to go and do the things they have the gifts and the graces to do.”
Even when in-person worship and gatherings resume, Marcus said, the support group will likely continue to meet online. If additional funding is provided, the group may be able to meet twice monthly, or even weekly.
Though the project wasn’t planned, Marcus said, it still proves churches should keep their eyes and ears open for ministry opportunities.
“It’s good to have direction, but that needs to have an asterisk — ‘subject to change,’” he said.
“Looking back in time, I don’t believe this is honestly something we would have done or could have done,” Marcus added. “But we got put into the situation we got put in, and wanted to live out the mission we felt called out, to be a presence — pun slightly intended — for the communities that we serve, and because we’re serving a neurodiverse community, and we’re willing to listen, that’s just where we’ve been.”
One of the fans of the program is Spencer Hunley, a North Kansas City man who has attended the sessions since the first one last spring.
“I wouldn’t say it solves all my problems, but it does give an outlet for finding out that there are others who feel the same way I do, who are going through and are going through similar experiences,” said the 34-year-old, who was diagnosed with autism at age 17.
“It gives me a lot of relief, because when you feel like you’re the only one going through these things, you may start to question yourself and what you’re doing and how all of that is going. You wonder if it’s you or someone else,” he added. “It’s a good way of solidifying that you’re not making a lot of mistakes or screwing things up.”
Hunley, who recently resigned from a position in IT and lost his health insurance, said the group fills the void from when he went to a therapist.
“It kind of filled that role where I could bounce things off other people, and I could talk about certain issues and experiences and what I’m going through,” said Hundley, who is currently enrolled in the LEND, or Leadership Education and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, at the University of Kansas Medical Center, hoping for a new career working with those with autism.
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