On a rainy Saturday morning in late July, Richard Luedtke arrived at the Paradise Charter Cruises dock at Bohemian Flats on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.
Luedtke, 77, wiped moisture off his glasses as he kept check on a steady stream of people converging at the dock, waiting to board the Minneapolis Queen.
“Rain was not part of the plan,” said Luedtke. “But the head count is encouraging.”
That head count included about 40 people — those with special needs as well as families, friends and volunteers — all eager for a free boat ride down the Mississippi, followed by a pizza picnic. They hoped the rain wouldn’t deter their plans, but they were grateful simply to be together in special communion.
The group began gathering 50 years ago, said volunteer director Luedtke, when many people with developmental disabilities moved from large, state-run care facilities to community-care settings. This Special Needs program was created at St. Stephen's Catholic Church near downtown Minneapolis, he said, to meet these new neighbors’ need for connection to each other and to their new home.
In 2008, Spirit Catholic Community became an offshoot of St. Stephen's Catholic Church and carried support for the Special Needs group with them.
Today’s activity is one of many bringing the group together. During the season of Advent, Special Needs hosts a Christmas pageant and worship service; in the spring, they venture out to a retreat at Camp Courage. They have picnics in between, to which family members and group home housemates are invited.
Danny Heinz, 57, is one of about 30 people with special needs accompanied to the morning’s boating outing by about 10 staff members. Heinz has attended the program for 20 years, but he especially enjoys being on the water. “I have made many friends on such rides,” he said.
Luedtke, a retired ELCA pastor, grew up with a grandmother in a state-run care facility and has “quite unforgettable memories” of visits to Cambridge State Hospital which, while always clean, was “always a bit chaotic and very impersonal and institutional.”
In 1969, when Luedtke was on his internship year during his seminary studies, his father died. Soon after, an “uninvited” puppy came into his life, but dogs were not allowed in the residence, so Luedtke scrambled to find new housing. He and his dog landed in the servant rooms atop a new group home for teens with developmental disabilities in the neighborhood, “and thus became a group home resident of sorts.”
A year later, he met his future wife, Marilyn, whose mother was one of the “founding mothers” of the Special Needs program. His path in life was set.
“The thing I find most exciting about Special Needs,” said Luedtke, “is its authenticity as a faith community in its own right. This is a group of people who have all the obstacles other developmentally disabled people face and who need a good bit of arrangement support to get together, and yet they are totally undaunted by any of that.
“These folks are old, dear spiritual friends who pray for each other, sing with each other, grow together, however and whenever they can,” Luedtke said. “They have made themselves a church in their own right.”
Still, the Special Needs ranks are shrinking, from as many as 100 members to about 20 now. Many participants who became involved in the program in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s have died, or have physical disabilities that make it harder to participate; others have made an exodus to the suburbs where they have found more affordable group homes. Several people live in their family homes, with support from parents and family.
Heike Peckruhn, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based theologian who studies the intersection of disability and faith, sees both physical and emotional obstacles to worship for people with special needs. Sometimes, physical access is difficult with historical buildings, she said. “Leaders will say, ‘If we just put in a ramp, that’ll be enough,’ when, in fact, for some church communities, it would mean a radical shift in the physical space, including taking out pews.”
Liturgy can also be hurtful, she said. “How do we talk about ‘broken bodies that will be made whole?’ ” she said. “Or, are bodies that are different already whole?”
Churches with a social justice focus may be best suited to inclusivity, in the songs chosen, language used and spaces chosen to gather. “When you embody true love and care with anybody who comes your way,” she said, “that speaks far louder than putting in a ramp.”
At around 11 a.m., to everyone’s joy, the boat ride begins. Heinz is elated as the captain explains the history and significance of various spots into which the boat forays.
Volunteer Dr. Edward Ehlinger, former state commissioner for health, plays his guitar to keep the mood upbeat. “The idea is to keep them engaged in as many ways as possible,” he said. “Being on the boat, they get to see almost everything the Twin Cities has to offer.”
Virgil Mathiowetz, 69, a professor of occupational therapy at the University of Minnesota, agreed.
“There is a bonding in the group,” said Mathiowetz, also a volunteer. “They like getting together. Seeing the city from the river gives them a different perspective.”
As the boat returns to the dock, with light rain still falling, Luedtke announces that they’ll go to the church for pizza instead of a nearby park, which was part of the original plan.
Everyone is hungry. No complaints.