Side by Side brings people together across differences
By Catherine Ferguson
As a community of people of differing abilities experiencing life together, Side by Side (SBS) is a much-needed ministry, one that is in contrast to the polarization in the country.
SBS is a community where everyone belongs, said David Sittser, the executive director.
Its website describes it as a community guided by the vision that everyone was created by God and in God's image and that image is love.
"Disability is often used as a way to differentiate people, but we want to blur the lines between people with disabilities and people who are typically abled," he said. "We want to provide opportunities for people simply to be—without an agenda."
In short testimonial videos on the website, two participants, Mac and Grace, describe their favorite things about Side by Side as "hanging out…with the whole Side by Side crew" and "just being together, connecting."
David explained the genesis of this ministry in Spokane.
Because of his experiences during his study for a master of divinity degree at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., David co-founded the Side by Side ministry in Spokane in 2019 with two others, Janet Neder and Ryan Tjelle.
"During my program there, I began to volunteer at Reality Ministries, which fostered friendships among people of all abilities. I began to have friends there and really liked it. After I finished my academic work, they asked me to become their director of community development, and I stayed there for eight years," he said.
Eventually he and his wife, Kelli, came back to Spokane.
David described the quality of the relationships he formed there as mutual, authentic and reflecting the reality of Christ's love for all.
"An important part of Side by Side is the belief that while people with disabilities have unique challenges which can sometimes be a barrier to relationships, all of us are created in the image of God," he explained.
Side by Side operates as a faith-based organization and has spiritual elements in its programs, but the programs embrace individuals of all beliefs.
"Everyone is welcome regardless of their personal faith journey," he said.
These same qualities that David found in his experience at Reality Ministries are promoted in the relationships among the volunteers and participants in the programs of Side by Side, too.
He pointed out that it is important that relationships be reciprocal and take place in a culture imbued with beauty.
To aid in making that beauty, sometimes David's wife provides flowers from their garden to enhance the programs and events.
Both volunteers and participants value hospitality. They are genuinely glad that each one is there, and each takes the time to attend to the others, so they discover more about each other, God and the world.
The ministry currently has its home base with Central Lutheran Church at 512 S. Bernard in Spokane.
Presently its 55 participants and 45 volunteers are engaged in five programs that make up its core activities: music, cooking, evening groups, common prayer and farm days, which are scheduled at set times on different days of the week.
Since it is a faith-based ministry, common prayer is an important program element.
"We gather for morning prayer by Zoom on Fridays at 9:30, but since COVID, we are only able to gather online. We make sure the liturgy is accessible for all and that it is led by people of all abilities," David explained.
Its music program features a choir that sometimes performs at local churches and last January performed at the SBS Advent Arts Night.
Groups on Tuesday evenings alternate between large group gatherings that they call "the huddle" and a gathering of small groups that they call "home groups."
David described a recent huddle: "On Sept. 5, about 70 people gathered at Corbin Park. We ate, heard a message and sang together. At these gatherings and our home groups, we build friendships with people with and without developmental disabilities and have fun together."
For the home groups, eight to 10 people—participants and volunteers—meet at the homes of various SBSers where they share a meal and fellowship. At these gatherings, everyone builds friendships with people with and without developmental disabilities.
Farm days occur once a month on Saturdays from April through October as the weather allows. They feature a picnic lunch, walks and the opportunity to ride horses, giving people of all abilities the chance to enjoy outside activities together.
Side by Side's cooking program illustrates the essence of its key principles and the joy they bring to all involved.
The program has a team of about 18 members—about half with disabilities and the other half without. David plans the menu, puts together the recipes and then the team gathers on Wednesdays to prepare the meal. On Thursdays, they finish the cooking and serve the meal to families and friends. Over the course of time, everyone shares in the preparation, the cooking and the serving.
A recent meal treated guests to a summer salad, pasta with ricotta sauce and, as dessert, a peach cobbler with fresh local peaches.
David pays special attention to accommodating the unique needs of some team members, who may require adaptive tools for chopping ingredients or prefer grated alternatives to chopping, modifying recipes accordingly.
Besides the regular program activities, Side by Side occasionally has a special event that allows those who participate to see each other in a new context and to deepen the relationships that are so central to the vision of the organization.
Two of these mentioned by David were an Advent Arts Service in January and a spring talent show.
"The service was beautiful. The choir sang different carols for the lessons. Different kinds of art were displayed—from wood cuts to knitted baby blankets. Then, last spring, we rented a space for a talent show that drew 250 people."
Lauren Taylor, one of the volunteers, summarizes her appreciation of Side by Side, saying, "We get a better picture of who God is by walking in community with people who are different than us. Our life is better because of Side by Side."
SBS is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations and small grants for its funding.