The organizers of the monthly dinner at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian for adults with developmental disabilities say their mission is to treat their visitors as they would treat someone without a disability.
The visitors were from Reality Ministries, a Christian-based service for teens and adults with disabilities just a few blocks from the church.
“These people are so loving,” said Nancy Carstens, a longtime member of Trinity who helped organize the event with Reality. “They’re loving to one another. They’re loving to others. There’s no agenda.”
Carstens got together with Reality about three years ago to start the dinner. The church was looking to reach out to the community nearby it, and Reality is just about five blocks away from Trinity Avenue Presbyterian just off North Gregson Street.
“I’ve been a member for 25 years,” Carsten said. “I’ve been sitting in the pew, but when I went to a talent show (at Reality), I just drank the Kool-Aid and said, ‘This is something I want to be a part of.’ It was very moving. You laughed. You cried.”
The church hosts 60 to 70 adults from Reality in its fellowship hall the first Monday of each month. They begin arriving about an hour before the food is served and greet each other and church members with hugs.
This week, the church had set up a “photo booth,” with a Valentine’s Day-themed backdrop at the back of the fellowship hall for the February dinner. Props such as masks, pink and red plastic hats and balloons were out for the visitors to pose with.
Before dinner, everyone from Reality who has a birthday during the month gathers up front for recognition. As each birthday is recognized, they say prayers for one another.
After dinner they usually break off into groups for activities, but this month they all stayed together to play trivia with questions about each other that Elizabeth Houston, a community leader at Reality, had put together.
Patrick Hatch, who lives in Durham with his father and grandmother, said he has been coming to Reality and the dinners at Trinity for about a year and he enjoys the fellowship. “You make friends,” he said. “You meet new people. Everyone’s nice. … I love everyone at the church.”
Hatch said a highlight of his time at Reality was going to camp for a week last summer. He stayed in a cabin and especially enjoyed getting to go on a rope course.
Lindsey Pareis, who also lives with family in Durham, had a more basic answer for what she liked about coming to the church: “I love the food. It’s good and it’s healthy.”
Ned Weeks, who is 38 and said he had been on a waiting list to get into a group home since he was 19, just got placed in one in Chapel Hill in April. Until then he had been living with his family in Fayetteville. “There’s more going on here,” he said. “Fayetteville is just real quiet.”
Despite his autism, Weeks works at the Orange County Animal Shelter, the Habitat for Humanity ReStore and the Orange Congregations in Mission Thrift Shop.
He said he enjoys the dinners at Trinity because of the chance to worship God and to meet new people. “Everyone takes you in,” he said. “They’re great to you. It’s nice for the church to help out people with special needs. It’s nice of them to do that.”
Church members prepare the food each week, led by chef Lisa Drummond, who has been a member of Trinity for 21 years. “It’s just part of me,” Drummond said. “I’m all about service. It’s making people happy. … This is not something everyone in the church does, but when they come, they just can’t not get it.”
Trinity Pastor Katie Crowe said she ends each service with the words, “Now you don’t leave the church. You go out to be the church.”
“That’s what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re receiving God’s light through the people who come through the doors. You get the feeling that the walls are growing out, and it feels like even after Reality Ministries is gone that residue of joy stays behind.”