Twenty three years ago, my world was rocked when we were told that our middle son had Down Syndrome. Looking back the diagnosis itself was probably the most painful experience of my life, but the task itself of raising a child with disabilities seemed doable. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act we learned that a path which included early intervention ensures that schools must try and meet the needs of each child with disabilities by providing special education and related services.
Surprisingly the real challenge has been how to proceed in life and do the normal everyday things that most Christian family’s do such as go to church. Maybe that sounds outlandish to you, but it took a federal law to ensure that every child in this country who has a disability has a right to an education. What strides have we made in the church with those who have disabilities?
It is the age old problem that Jesus addressed in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We are too busy, we look away, and we walk on the other side of the road so we don’t have to get involved. We have all done it; it is not a new pattern or behavior. Our heart and our desires lean towards our own selfishness. We may even go so far as to rationalize it by thinking we are not qualified, we don’t know what to say, we don’t have enough teachers and workers as it is, and let’s not even mention budget restraints.
Fortunately, our church family supported us with meaningful but simple things including celebrating and welcoming our child’s birth with cards of congratulations as well as encouragement. This support helped us to disregard some well-meaning advice from those inside and outside the church; including professionals that encourage families to give up their child to those they deem better prepared to handle the obstacles.
Unfortunately, not every church reacts to a child with disabilities in the same way, especially as they get older. While on vacation we called ahead to let the pastor know that we would be visiting to make sure that it was okay for us to attend Sunday School with their congregation. At ages 4 and 3 years of age, we typically put both boys in the three year old class. At this point our son was on point with most 3 year olds. The pastor assured us that it would be no problem. He assumed because he had an excellent teacher that taught that age group she would welcome us. Unfortunately that was not the case. The teacher’s reaction was less than positive. More disturbing is that this reaction is typical. Due to negative reactions like this, entire families of special needs children are discouraged and remain or become unchurched.
Take a moment to think about your own church. Does your church family include those with disabilities? If not, why not? Are there families in your community which include members with disabilities? The answer is most assuredly yes.
In order to worship, families that include a special needs child have to make a greater effort to arrive at all, much less on time. It is important as a church that we be welcoming to the families. Let’s use the basic principal of the Good Samaritan.
First we must SEE the individual and their family. Don’t turn away, don’t go the the other side of the road. Offer basic respect by smiling, speak to the individual, begin a line of communication. We are to love others even when it makes us uncomfortable. He answered and said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and your neighbor as yourself.’ ” Luke 10:27 (NKJV).
This is the first of two parts for this article. The second part will be posted soon.
You can also see a list of all of Kim’s blog posts here.