“Church is the one place where we should always feel love and accepted, yet it is one of the most intimidating places of all.”
~Jennifer J. Holt, Homelife Magazine, 2011
This past weekend I attended a Disability Ministry conference with two dear friends. The aim of the conference was to help churches learn practical ways to serve people and families with special needs. It was good to be in the company of others who shared a desire to see churches implement creative ways to reach special needs communities. I came away inspired, armed with notes and a new book (Autism and Your Church, by Barbara Newman), and my head swimming with ideas.
I love this excerpt from the book:
It was time in the worship service for the pastor to give the message. As the pastor began to speak, an individual started making noise in the back of the church. Without missing a beat the pastor calmly said, “Some of you might be hearing my friend Marie. Marie’s mom and dad have asked me to tell you that she has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Sometimes the tags in her clothes or a sound she hears really bother her. I appreciate that Marie is my cheering section today.”
A workshop I attended included a panel of 4 adults with special needs sharing about their involvement in church. This was the best part of the conference for me, and I found myself actually whispering prayers to God on their behalf (and Rhema, too) throughout. The panel was asked about positive experiences they’ve had in church, and I noticed that each response had something to do with friendship. It was clear that community and the relationships they’d formed in church were so significant to them.
When the panel was asked about negative experiences in church, a young woman spoke about how she struggled with the music being too loud for her. She said it actually physically hurt, and she often experienced guilt over needing to leave. For years she thought it was her fault. (And at this point I wanted to put my arms around her). She said that now she understands that it’s ok to leave the sanctuary if she needs to and she is learning not to be so quick to blame herself.
Another young woman, with a speech delay, also answered the question about her struggles in church. Each precious word she spoke took effort and I cannot ever forget what she said: “There’s no other kind of me.” I thought of my Rhema. In our church right now there is no other little girl like her. And I don’t know all that she feels, but I know she enjoys being a part of things even if she’s doing her own thing – that is her part. And I’ve no doubt she desires friends and meaningful relationships, as we all do, even though she may not show that longing in a way we might expect. Oh, how I pray that she will experience true friendship in her life.
There’s no other kind of me. Sweet girl, it’s a burden and it’s a gift.
Another question for the panel was, “What can people in church do to make it more welcoming to people with disabilities?” One answer: “We don’t like to ask for things, we are not being picky, we are not expecting everything to be perfect. Just know that it’s a big deal to ask for help.” A young man with Asperger’s said that he wanted people to know that he has what he has and is what he is forever, and that it’s hard.
As I listened, I was suddenly filled with an odd dream, a desperate prayer and an even bigger hope. God, one day can my Rhema sit on a panel like this? Can we hear from her? – what she thinks and how she feels, the good and the hard, anything she wants to share. I don’t care if it’s her own speaking voice or an automated voice or pictures on an iPad, please please help her find a way. Please just let me hear what’s inside.
The panel did a great job, and I hope there will be many more conversations like it in many churches. An oft-referenced Bible passage is Luke 14 where Jesus instructs, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Make them come in, so that my house will be full.”
The ones who require extra help, the ones who are too loud, the ones who don’t speak, the ones who are lonely or bullied or overlooked, the ones who cannot seem to reciprocate – God says they will bring blessings! And they are to be given special honor.
Do not let fear or your child’s challenges (or your own challenges) deter you from finding a church home. I have found that many churches have a heart for the special needs community – from putting trampolines in Sunday school classrooms to setting up buddy programs to hosting “Mom’s Morning Out” for women who have children impacted by disability.
Two years ago this happened:
So there’s another thing about church. We always sit in a small pew, in the second to last row, near the door so that we can make a fast getaway when the need arises. I think it can be overwhelming for Rhema still – all the people, the sights and sounds – but her seat, her pew, is predictable and comforting. In the past, if we’ve arrived and people were already sitting in “our” pew, Rhema has attempted to sit on them. When we re-direct her to another pew, she’s completely thrown. She’s even cried.
This morning before church, B and I had a brief conversation about where we’d go if the pew was already occupied. We had a plan.
But when we arrived at church we found this in our pew:
No one said anything to us about it. They just noticed our struggle on Sundays and wanted to make it easier. We often worry that we’re disrupting the service. But that little sign spoke volumes to me – that we are loved as we are, that we belong, that we are family.*
Ed Note: If you are visiting a church for the first time, call the church office a week ahead and let them know about your particular needs.
Some articles and resources:
Is Your Church Open to Autism? By Emily Colson
Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Families By Amy Fenton Lee
The Inclusive Church blog
Special Needs Smart Pages: Advice, Answers and Articles About Teaching Children with Special Needs by Joni Eareckson Tada