As we sing songs such as “The Gospel is for All” or “You Never Mentioned Him to Me”, do we think about those in our community and in our congregation who may be overlooked? Those that I take a particular interest in are individuals with disabilities and their families. It was my experience as a special education teacher, that almost none of my students’ families attended worship services. I’d like to look at some possible reasons for that and what we can do to change it.
As I speak of disabilities, a definition of terms and a few statistics might be helpful. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, estimates that by 2004, there were well over 9 million children in the United States with a physical, developmental, behavioral, or emotional disability. Some of these would include: Autism, Behavior disorders, Brain injury, Cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, Fetal alcohol syndrome, Mental retardation, and Spina Bifida. It appears that those numbers going up. As of December 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued their ADDM autism prevalence report saying that 1 in 70 boys and 1 in every 110 children are on the autism spectrum.
Until working as a special education teacher with kids having moderate and severe disabilities, I had never really considered ministry to this group or to their families. While the kids that I taught were low enough functioning that I believe their souls to be in a safe condition, I also worked with their families. These families go through challenges and grief like most of us will never experience. Stages of grief for the families of a special needs child are the same as for those grieving a child that is dying. According to Dr. Kubler-Ross in his book “On Grief and Grieving”, those five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Those stages are not identical for every person since each person’s reaction to loss is unique. Some stages may be missed, in a different order, or may be experienced over and over. In some cases, the parent of a special needs child may have a child that is physically dying, but more often the grief is over the loss of having a normal, healthy child.
Under the best of circumstances, parenting is a hard job. For the parent of a special needs child there are issues that the rest of us will not face: the strange and difficult behaviors, the exclusion, the stares, the rude or inappropriate comments, the fears about the future, the financial strain, the loneliness.
So what can we as a church do to minister to these families? First, let’s look at what is easy.
- Practice the golden rule. Sounds simple enough, but the practical application of that is that you will welcome these families into your midst. Be friendly to the child and to the parents. Let them know how happy you are to have them in your services.
- Do all you can to learn about the child’s disability. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Parents will probably welcome someone taking an interest.
- Understand that the child may exhibit unusual or distracting behaviors. They may be disruptive in worship services. Don’t whisper and gossip about the behavior. Don’t assume the behaviors are a result of poor parenting.
- Pray for these families.
- Include the special needs child in social events. Provide a peer “buddy” for the child.
- Provide your services to the family. Offer to babysit for an evening so that the parents can have some much needed time alone. Provide a meal or a gift certificate to a restaurant that has a take-out menu. Provide transportation for the typical sibling of the special needs child. Be available to go to doctor or therapy appointments.
- Love the child and include him as much as possible. Show empathy. Listen. See the child-not the diagnosis. Treat the child like you would want your own child to be treated. Create an atmosphere in your congregation of love and acceptance. Be an example of love to others.
There are some other things that we can do that will require more thought and planning by the leadership.
1) Provide a Bible class. Believe that people with disabilities are worthy of God’s love and should be a part of the body of Christ. Make your Bible class program available to learners with disabilities. Pair the child with an assistant in the regular class. If the needs are too intense, a separate class could be available where the child can receive one-on-one attention while the parents attend Bible study.
2) Provide a program of respite care. Using trained volunteers, offer activities for the children, and their siblings, which will allow the parents to have some much needed time together.
3) Develop a ministry program that looks for ways to include people with disabilities in the life of a church. Some things that they can do might be greeting others, doing office work, caring for the church lawn, sending/making cards, helping in the pantry, folding & stuffing envelopes, cleaning chores, picking up litter, picking up communion cups, collecting attendance cards, passing out bulletins.
4) Look at the physical facility. Consider how accessible your facilities are to those in wheelchairs.
5) Brainstorm ways to advertise and promote what your congregation has to offer to those in the community. These parents need salvation like the rest of us, but just do not know where to look.
As we look at the life of Jesus, we see that He healed the sick, made the blind to see, and helped the lame to walk. He showed love and compassion to those in difficult and desperate circumstances. How can we do any less? Matthew 25:40 tells us that “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”