Yesterday, I posted a blog “The Hardest Place for us to Take Our Special Needs Child? Our Church.” This was my Facebook introduction of the link: “While our family has overall had very positive church experiences, we have had some moments. I get a lot of feedback from my own blog about the lack of inclusion in The Church for individuals with intellectual disabilities. This blog speaks to a different perspective. I am posting in hopes that those who need to see it will. Thanks to the author for sharing her heart that represents so many.”
I knew it would cultivate quite a bit of discussion because it always does. I’ve had some interesting conversations through the years and in the past few months with
- People who want churches to be more inclusive
- People who want more segregated special needs programs
- Church members and staffers who want to create a more welcoming environment and
- Church members and staffers who are trying to figure out why parents of individuals with special needs often feel excluded.
It has solidified my thinking that we have to educate people. This summer a gentleman was genuinely horrified when I told him of a family who had been told by a Christian church that their son with autism couldn’t come to Sunday school, and they would not provide childcare during worship. Non one at this church had ever met the child or the family. They offered the parents the option of sitting in the media room with him and watch worship. This may not be the norm but I’m not sure it is the exception either. Likewise, I spoke with someone who told a horrible story about a family sending their child with Aspberger’s to camp and not really preparing the staff for how to manage it. That, too, should be the exception.
In a Facebook discussion thread, I also clarified my introduction with this comment: “When I mention The Church – I’m not referring to one specific church. I’m talking about The Church as in the one Paul and Jesus are referring to in the New Testament. There are certainly many, many churches doing a great job with individuals with disabilities but from the feedback I get from readers around the country, it seems it may be the exception. Awhile back our own worship minister wrote a great blog about his work with Rachel. I’ll post it tomorrow!”
So here you go. I think all of us have a lot to learn from Pastor John’s blog. Special thanks to him for sharing this on his blog a few years back.
Just Like You
By John Hollan, Pastor of Worship, Blue Valley Baptist Church
“At the age of 16, before I even had a clear understanding of faith and following Jesus, I was offered my first paying church job. I was the Interim Music Director for a small Baptist church on the Texas Gulf Coast. There hasn’t been a time in the 29 years since then when I have not been actively involved in church music ministry. I’ve planned and led countless worship services, served as church accompanist, directed choirs, led mission trips and choir tours, and been involved in any number of other things you can imagine, all as a part of my calling to ministry.
However, even with 29 years of ministry under my proverbial belt, I realized just last year that there was one thing I’d never done in the church: I’d never taught in a setting that included people with Down syndrome. I had acquaintances who live every day with Down syndrome in their families. My wife had taught students with special needs. But I had never been in that position.\
A particular family of friends who are involved in our church have a daughter who has Trisomy 21 (the formal name for Down syndrome), and their daughter has been involved in our circle for several years, both through theatre and through our age-graded music program at BVBC. Rachel is a delight, but until last year I only knew her casually… When she started middle school it meant that she would now be eligible to join our student choir, and I knew for certain that Rachel would participate. I’ve known and loved Rachel for a while now, but in almost three decades of working in the church, she would be the first child I ever taught who had Down syndrome. Fortunately, her parents are articulate and informed and they have been my best teachers as I embarked on a journey of learning how to include Rachel in our ministry… After all, our student choir functions differently than the children’s choir where she had been so engaged. At the onset of the year I spoke with her mom and explained my inexperience in teaching children who are differently abled. Her solution to my problem was simple: Ask questions.
And so, I started learning… I did a small bit of reading and web surfing, but mostly I just did what seemed right in including Rachel in the workings of our choir. I knew her parents have very high expectations for her in regards to effort and attitude, and I found that all I had to do was teach accordingly. It was a great year for BOTH of us, I believe, and now I find myself feeling a stronger responsibility not only to include her in the workings of our ministry, but also to find ways to help her follow Jesus more effectively. That is, after all, a pastoral responsibility.
It was a startling thought to me when I realized that churches on the whole aren’t always prepared to disciple those who have cognitive and physical challenges. My calling as one of the pastors at BVBC is to shepherd the people in my charge, and God has given me all kinds of wonderful people to lead… a couple of them happen to have Down syndrome. Granted, I’m FAR from being proficient in maneuvering their special educational needs, but I am learning ways to treat them as they want to be treated… just like I treat the other kids in my choir.
Recently Rachel had the opportunity to be included in a short 13-minute film called “Just Like You” that features three sets of real-life friends; in each pair one friend is a “typical” teen and the other has Down syndrome. The film GENUINELY warmed my heart and gave me hope for our future. I would encourage you to take a few minutes and watch it. It’s TOTALLY worth your time. Further, I would encourage you to step into opportunities you encounter that might involve people with Down syndrome. It’s not hard… just don’t shy away.
When we know better, we do better.”