KOLOA — There was one voice, amidst the many, that rose louder than the rest during the singing on Sunday at St. Raphael Church.
It belonged to Jason Felipe, an altar server who has Down’s syndrome.
He sang boldly, without reservation, without fear, whether it was “On Eagles Wings,” “How Great Thou Art,” or “My Soul is Thirsting.”
People noticed. And it was good.
“He was singing out,” said Iwie Tamashiro. “I think he was feeling so empowered. I doubt he sings that loud during the regular Mass. The Holy Spirit was alive in him today.”
Tamashiro watched, later, as Felipe led the procession out of the Catholic church that was aglow with light pouring in through windows on the sunny afternoon. She saw the smiles from both Felipe and those he passed by as he carried the crucifix.
She felt blessed.
“That is the Holy Spirit,” she said, smiling herself.
This wasn’t your traditional Catholic church service. It was the Kauai’s Vicariate’s first Ohana Mass in Koloa. It was for Catholic families on Kauai that have children or adults with special needs.
The hourlong service, which was attended by about 50 people, included the usual songs and prayers, communion, a sermon and readings from the Bible. What made it unique was there were some with autism sitting in the beautiful, padded wood pews. One with cerebral palsy. One with Down’s. A few who needed walkers, canes or wheelchairs.
And instead of everyone sitting quietly and listening, there was an occasional outburst and commotion. But no one reacted with a frown or shake of their head. No one even seemed to notice. They were not hushed and their caregivers were not asked to take them out. It was OK to be noisy.
Because instead of a person with disabilities standing out, being different, even being stared at, they fit in just fine under an adapted liturgy “for families with sons and daughters of unique abilities and intellectual disabilities that they may fully participate in worship where they feel accepted and welcomed.”
They were encouraged to be altar servers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, ushers and greeters. Everyone there was treated the same.
“Look around and see who we are,” said Father Robert Stark.
All people are connected, he said, and “God speaks through all of us.”
He said everyone, including each person sitting before him Sunday, has some vulnerabilities.
“Who knows that better than all of you here?” he asked. “What we all share in common, everybody here has some vulnerability.”
And that is not always a weakness, but a gift. Everyone is called upon to serve the vulnerable, Stark said. Take care of the weak, the poor, the suffering.
“God brings out the best in us, calling us to serve others in need,” he said.
Lorine Paden, who served on St. Raphael’s Ohana Mass planning committee, learned last year about the Ohana Mass that was being held on Oahu. She prayed it would be brought to Kauai and worked with Tamashiro, an employee of the Catholic diocese, to make it happen.
As she expressed her gratitude that it did, her voice broke with emotion and tears rolled down her face.
“We wished one day that God would grant that for the people of Kauai,” she said. “Thank you.”
Paden has a nephew with autism. There are times he’s difficult to control and people will stare — and judge. It’s hard not to worry about what others think and sometimes say. And people are not always understanding of another’s problems with a special needs child.
“If you don’t have a family member with special needs, it’s hard to relate,” she said.
The Ohana Mass, Paden said, is one where families of special needs members “feel safe with their loved ones there.”
She said some families can’t attend Sunday service together for fear their special needs member might need attention or cause a disturbance and people would be upset.
“So the families never worship together. How can we call ourselves ohana when this is happening?” she said.
The point is, families need to worship as a large ohana with their church home, Tamashiro said.
“It is in being with people in their disabilities and vulnerabilities that we experience God,” she said.
Father Anthony Rapozo came over from St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in Kapaa to witness the first Ohana Mass. He hopes it will grow as word about it spreads throughout Kauai. He wants all people, whatever their disability might be, “to feel welcome and to know we value them” and to know they will “not have people giving them strange looks.”
At Ohana Mass, they will be part of the community.
“God accepts everybody,” Rapozo said.
The Ohana Mass will be celebrated the third Sunday of each month at 11:30 a.m. at St. Raphael’s, although it may eventually move to other parishes. Families from all over Kauai are encouraged to attend.