Ben Hack loves going to church. The 22-year-old man is on the autism spectrum and has trouble connecting with people, but one of his favorite people in the world is his priest, Father Jim Worth, who he looks forward to seeing every week at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Maplewood, New Jersey.
So when Ben’s church, like countless others, shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben was absolutely devastated. He missed going to mass and seeing one of his best friends and singing along to the music.
As it turned out, Father Jim missed Ben too. So he came up with a way to connect to the young man virtually during the time they had to spend apart.
Father Jim now hosts virtual concerts on Facebook Live for Ben and the rest of the parishioners to enjoy. He dresses in orange, Ben’s favorite color, and plays all of Ben’s favorite church tunes and songs. It’s a time of praise and worship for everyone in the parish who wishes to participate from home, but it’s an extra special time for Ben.
“When Father Jim sings Ben’s favorite song, ‘God Bless America,'” says his mom, Mary Beth Walsh, “it is amazing to see the smile spread across Ben’s face.”
Like lots of other parents have during the pandemic, Mary Beth has struggled to find activities to do with her son and places that she can take him that are both open to the public and friendly toward people on the autism spectrum. She’s happy to have an event that Ben can participate in from the comfort of his own home.
“It can make all the difference in the world” for autistic children to feel welcome, Walsh says. “Families whose children have been stared at in the grocery store for their behavior or noises need that extra outreach.”
Ben was finally able to return to church services in May of 2021 after more than a year of virtual services and concerts. However, Father Jim says he will continue doing the virtual concerts on occasion just for fun.
“It’s important to include everyone around the Table of the Lord. Those with any kind of disability need some extra help feeling welcome,” says Father Jim. “Being attentive to them and making them feel valued is certainly what Jesus would want. I’ve always felt a special bond with those who have difficulties in life.”
Dr. Anne Masters, director of the Archdiocese of Newark’s Office for Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities, says, “I hope his example inspires other priests and pastoral leaders to realize that parishioners with autism and other disabilities should be neither avoided, nor idealized, because of their disability. Too often, individuals and families still struggle to feel they are appreciated or that they truly belong.”
Thank you, Father Jim, for making people like Ben feel welcome in your parish, even when you aren’t able to meet with them in person. Our world needs more people willing to meet others where they are and make them feel included.
As Dr. Masters says, “To feel like one belongs is what all people want.”Whizzco