EAST LIVERPOOL - On a recent Thursday night at God's Choice, an East Liverpool church for people with developmental disabilities, Pastor Shirley Elosh was taking prayer requests from members who had arrived in wheelchairs, who needed assistance eating, who had difficulty speaking, who had limited mobility.
But the requests weren't for themselves; they were for family members, for the nation, for veterans, even for the Pittsburgh Steelers. And then there were the unspoken requests.
"For those who didn't say anything," Elosh said, "He knows!"
Kregg Berg (second from left), a member of God’s Choice in East Liverpool, “signs” the words to the song “Jesus Loves Me” at a recent service. With him on the worship team are (from left) Ann McMains, of East Liverpool, Dave Kidder, of East Liverpool, Pastor Shirley Elosh, of Columbiana, and Jessica Keeder, of East Liverpool. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
Elosh, 59, of Columbiana, Ohio, is pastor to a growing community of Christians who, because of their handicaps, are used to being prayed for but who often struggle to have their requests taken seriously. The fact that she does is one of the reasons they keep coming back, members say.
"This church accepts people with disabilities," said Doug Wimer, 45, of East Liverpool, who has been attending God's Choice with his wife, Nicole, 37, for a year and a half.
Wimer said he feels like he has found a home at God's Choice after years of trying churches where he didn't always feel welcome.
"In some churches, a special-needs person can be lost," he said. "Either they don't have a wheelchair ramp or the pastor doesn't understand. The preaching is based on a higher IQ, and the special-needs people don't understand what the preacher is preaching about."
A self-described recovering addict, Wimer said he and his wife of 15 years feel accepted and appreciated at God's Choice despite their learning disabilities.
"I wasn't here a week and Pastor Shirley had me working as an usher," he said. "I'm trusted being an usher, and that means a lot to me."
Since coming to God's Choice, Wimer said he has rededicated his life to Christ and been rebaptized. "(Pastor Shirley) led me back to the Lord. She doesn't think any question is too dumb," he said.
The Wimers are among a growing number of people with mental and physical disabilities who attend God's Choice, which celebrated its third anniversary in September and holds services weekly at First Free Methodist Church, 16260 St. Clair Ave. An estimated 40-60 people attend the 5 p.m. Thursday service in the church's gymnasium, coming from as far away as Beaver County, Pa., and Steubenville.
Services are characterized by an informal style and include a meal, a craft, a praise and worship segment, a Bible lesson, and a question-and-answer time following the sermon. Members who answer a question correctly can claim a prize, while Elosh's son, Jon, plays "The Price is Right" theme song in the background from his smartphone.
Jon Elosh, 29, of Columbiana, was born with spina bifida, which limits what he can do physically. His parents claim him as their primary inspiration for founding God's Choice in 2010.
"He taught us about handicapped people and how to love them," Steve Elosh said.
"He's been our educator as to how special-needs people look at things," Shirley Elosh said. "He's taught us a lot. We learned to see things through his eyes."
Even though Jon Elosh helps with setting up and tearing down each week, he has to watch that he doesn't lift anything too heavy, he said. "It's nice to be needed. ... I feel useful. I feel accepted," he said.
Shirley Elosh said the spark for what became God's Choice was lit when she attended an "Overflow Conference" of the Free Methodist Church in the summer of 2010. There, she said she received divine inspiration to pursue the idea - but not without struggle.
"This was an ongoing battle I was having with God, back and forth, thinking, 'That can't be really what he's telling me,'" she said. "I couldn't escape it (but) I didn't want to do this because it was too involved and too massive."
Elosh first went to her husband, Steve, and her son, Jon, and talked to them. She then took the idea to the Rev. Steve Forsythe, senior pastor at First Free Methodist, and the church board. She received their backing and permission to use the church building.
"There really wasn't a lot of discussion. It was just like, 'Wow, this makes so much sense,'" Forsythe said. "She was able to take what she knew as the mom of a special-needs child and what she knew about ministry and combine it. ... She brings a passion for ministry."
Elosh said she did research on the Internet about special-needs ministry and learned about a church in Minneapolis/St. Paul called Christ For People With Developmental Disabilities. She contacted Pastor Don Anderson, who offered support and shared the church's materials with her.
God's Choice chose 1 Samuel 16:7 as its mission statement: "But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.' "
The Scripture is now emblazoned on all God's Choice T-shirts, and the God's Choice "brand" is spreading. The East Liverpool congregation has spun off three new congregations in Monaca, Aliquippa and Rochester, Pa., and more may be forthcoming, Forsythe said.
"It's been looked on as kind of a movement within our church structure," Forsythe said. "I think a big part of it is ... this was very much an overlooked group of people. ... Sometimes people wouldn't feel comfortable themselves coming (to church) or bringing their loved one because of special needs that the person has. ... We have found that this feels like a safe environment for them."
Since being ordained as an elder in the Free Methodist Church, Elosh also has received support from the denomination to take the God's Choice concept to other churches and provide training, Forsythe said. Free Methodist churches in the Pittsburgh Conference can receive startup funds for their own special-needs ministry, he said.
The developments of the last three years feel like both a surprise and a confirmation to Elosh, a former hairdresser and seamstress. "I've always felt that God was calling me. I felt that he had a unique type of calling for me," she said.
Doug and Nicole Wimer said the church has helped them individually and as a married couple. In March, when the couple celebrated their 15th anniversary, Elosh recognized them by reading from 1 Corinthians 13 and playing the Kenny Rogers song "Through the Years."
"She made it very special for us," Doug Wimer said.