By DANNY MINTON
Several years ago, I came across a story where caregivers from a special needs group home started bringing the clients to a worship service. The group would take up a full row toward the rear of the auditorium. As with many individuals with special needs, they can, at times, like small children, not sit still or be a little loud. After bringing the group to the services for several weeks, their caretaker was approached by one of the leaders of the congregation and asked not to bring them anymore. It seems that they were disturbing their members and their ability to worship.
I remember a meeting of parents who were discussing the church and special needs. One of the mothers related that she had gone to several churches with her son and, in many instances, was frowned upon because of his actions. She was even asked at one church if there wasn’t somewhere she could leave him while she came to worship. She left and never went back.
“Church” is difficult for parents with special needs children. As a result, many people just stay home instead of going through the difficulty and struggles of attending with a child with needs beyond what most children require. “Church” is full of stimuli that have a special effect on children with conditions that make them more sensitive to what goes on. Our son had cerebral palsy and loved music, so when we took him to worship, he would get so excited at times he would scream out. When the crowds got too loud, he’d get nervous and almost come out of his chair.
What most people don’t realize is that the parents who bring their children to “Church” know that their child may be disturbing others. It’s embarrassing when they find it necessary to take them out or try and calm them down while being observed by those sitting around them. It hurts to hear the comments either directly spoken to them or whispered close by. It’s such a challenge that it makes staying home much easier. The drawback is that their caring for someone with special needs pulls them away from their time of fellowship.
Both members and church leaders need to be more aware of those in our midst with special needs family members and do what we can to help. Look around most congregations, and you’ll find autism, cerebral palsy, Asperger, Downs Syndrome, and various other conditions that families are dealing with daily. These families need this time with God and fellowship, and instead of staring and complaining, we need to look for solutions, whether it be providing help or helping them ourselves, easing their burden in some way.
We need to be looking at our facilities and making sure they are friendly to those in wheelchairs or disabilities that make it difficult to maneuver around. We need to be inclusive in classes and worship times, making sure they can be in the mainstream of the church family and not placed apart. We need to teach ourselves to be sensitive to the caregivers and be more understanding of what they must go through just to be there to worship. We need to be part of the solution instead of sitting on the sidelines criticizing.
We need to learn that if a child cries out during a song, that’s okay! If someone with Asperger gets up and walks around, that’s okay too. When a parent must take their child in a wheelchair out, get up and open the door and see if they need help. Offer to sit with their child if they need a little relief. If they need a tissue to wipe the drool from a face, hand it to them. If something is dropped, pick it up. Talk to them. Talk to their children. Sit with them, helping where you can. They are part of your church family, include them! Most don’t realize what these small acts mean to a family that deals with special needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We know, we did it for forty years.
Look around your church building. Look at your church families. Look at your friends and neighbors. Ask yourself what you can do to make life easier for them. Paul told the Galatian church, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2 (NASB) Ask yourself the question, “Are we bearing the burdens of those who need help?” In answering that question, look around and see what can be done to fulfill what God has asked us to do.
I will always remember the kindness of ladies who would come to our home on Sunday mornings to allow my wife and me to attend worship together. We were fortunate over the years to have people who could help so that we could have a night out. I’m thankful for a member who gave money to a church account to help us pay for a sitter. I’m thankful for the teacher who kept our son a whole week for my wife, our younger son, and me to take a VBS trip together. I’m thankful for the Abilene Philharmonic, who invited us to bring our son to practice because they found out he could get overly excited with loud music, and we didn’t want to disturb the audience. I’m thankful for two strangers who walked over to our table at a cafeteria over forty years ago and connected us with Scottish Rite Hospital.
If you open your heart to those families with special needs, I promise not only will they be blessed, but you will as well. Stop and think about it. Many of Jesus’ miracles were performed out of his love for people with special needs, people unwanted by society. Don’t ever let yourself or your “church” make people feel unwanted. Jesus didn’t.
Danny Minton is Pastoral Minister and Elder at Southern Hills Church of Christ