Meeting with Sarah was the best part of my week. I would arrive at her family’s home and go up to her bedroom where she was situated in her desk chair watching her YouTube videos of “Gemmys” animatronic dolls on repeat.
“Hi Sarah, are we going to hang out today?”
“Yeah? Bring Santa?”
“Of course. Jazzy Santa?”
“Yeah. Play Raffi in the car real loud? Blast speakers?”
Her mom and I would get her down the stairs and into my car, and we would take off for a “Sam and Sarah Day.” The wide variety of our experiences included trips to Chicago or the Wisconsin Dells, makeovers, carbonated bubble facemasks, “sleepover at Jones’s” where my dog, Harper, did not leave her side for one second, shopping trips, and trick-or-treating…just to name a few.
The most unique such experience was going to church. Sarah and I would sit in the back with her large bag of items to keep her occupied as I tried to pay attention. Her goal was to talk to as many people as she could during service and sing at the top of her lungs. Though I discouraged her from talking to her neighbor during the sermon, I embraced her shouts to God regardless of onlookers. I attend a rather large church with a semi-supported special needs ministry run by devoted volunteers. Nevertheless, this is not a ministry equipped for someone like Sarah to thrive.
Discussing the topic of disability ministry with Sarah’s mom was a conversation that quickly frustrated her. With the number of individuals with varied needs in our communities, why were there absolutely no ministries for Sarah to be involved in? Sarah’s mom and I would sit and talk for hours about this very topic. As I have a brother with special needs and have spent time working in the special needs community, this didn’t make sense to me either. These were questions my seminary training could not answer.
One thing that all people have in common is that they do not want to be overlooked, rejected, or forgotten. But in the so-called safe space we have strived to create in the walls of the local church, those who cannot always advocate for themselves experience this very neglect. The church spends time and money implementing state-of-the-art technology in order to reach out to the masses when in reality those who need it the most are the ones being silenced in the back while their parents are being told there are no “resources” to help them. I propose that investing in these who are silenced and pushed aside and their families is actually the way to reach the masses.In the so-called safe space we have strived to create in the walls of the local church, those who cannot always advocate for themselves experience this very neglect. Click To Tweet
My own family struggled when we went to church. My brother Zach could not sit still for that long and would begin to wander around the pews with another young women with varied abilities in the congregation. For the most part, everyone knew Zach and this other woman; however, the amount of stress it put on my parents not knowing where Zach was and not being able to focus on the sermon was incredibly challenging. What made it worse was hearing the pastor and other congregants suggest that Zach be put in a facility so that my parents could “have their life back.”
(As a brief aside, the topic of whether an individual with special needs should receive home care, or care in a facility, is a very sensitive one that should not be treated lightly and should be addressed only by the individual and those in direct care of the individual with the sole goal of what is best for that person. In our situation, this was not the case, and it drove a wedge between my family and the church. The fact is, churches pass the buck of responsibility of loving and caring for these individuals and their families so no one in the congregation ends up doing it.)
There are churches who have great special needs ministries—but only for certain people. For a relaxed, high-functioning individual, this is the ideal situation. For our family, for Sarah’s family, for many people I know and work with, this is not the case. Let us face the truth: most of the population does not know how to interact with individuals with special needs, that is to say, people who are different from themselves. So, when an individual acts up in any way, defenses go up, and churches say they do not know how to handle it. This leaves families with special needs members at a loss, feeling even more isolated because the place they are supposed to be included and helped pushed them aside like the rest of society. That becomes a further affirmation that they and their child are not worth helping, and if that is how ambassadors of Christ act, then what does that communicate about God? If the local church is spending thousands of dollars on a parking lot, or on multimedia presence, then they can afford to do basic training for leaders on how to interact with individuals with special needs.If the local church is spending thousands of dollars on a parking lot, or on multimedia presence, then they can afford to do basic training for leaders on how to interact with individuals with special needs. Click To Tweet
So, how does the local church create an effective special needs ministry? It is easier than one might think: start by recognizing that individuals with special needs are humans just like everyone else. They are not babies. Look them in the eye and treat them their age; show them respect. They have unique ways of communication, they have needs, they have much to teach and a lot of love to give. Second, speak with the families and find out what it is that they need. Do they need a tutor? Do they need aid in finding transportation? Is it someone to pray with before going into an IEP meeting where they must fight for equal learning opportunities for their child? Finally, pursue continuous advocacy and education for everyone in the congregation. Introduce the family to the church as a whole and model what it looks like to be inclusive.
Church, we can do better. We should be doing better. It does not take a lot of time. It does not take a lot of money. But it does take a willingness to learn. It takes an open heart. Let us strive to share God’s love for and acknowledgment of all his created beings, regardless of their ability.