In case you were wondering , yes I was taken to Church!
I loved going to Church as a child, and I always assumed I would do as my parents had done for me. That I would take my children to Church. After my son was diagnosed with autism the simple exercise of going to Church became challenging. A lot more challenging. Especially in my son’s younger years.
I spent some time recently with a wonderful lady who is passionate about disability and church inclusion. I learnt so much from listening to her share about the work she has been involved in at her church to achieve this. I thought about my own experiences and came up with a few ideas on how churches and faith communities can excel at loving, accepting and embracing children and adults with disabilities and their families. Here goes…
1. Listen. Churches need to listen to the parents, the siblings and the person with the disability. Really listen. We all desire to be heard and understood. Validating the journey is so important. Disability does not last a week or a month. For many people it will last a lifetime so listen and continue to listen. Keep an ongoing dialogue. Church leadership and/or appointed key Church volunteers need to make a time to meet with the person or family, and at a location and time most convenient to them. Start with asking the question: ‘how can we serve you better?’ Don’t assume. Don’t pass the buck. Communicate and Listen.
2. After listening comes a decision to make a heart change. This starts with the Church leadership. Make the attitude adjustment. I mean really go there. People often support the idea of inclusion until they actually have to make a change, or they find themselves outside of their comfort zone. Accommodations may be needed for that family or that person. The temptation may be to only think about the costs. Or the inconvenience. Making the decision to have an attitude change will make the practicalities of true inclusion and real acceptance so much easier.
3. The National Organization on Disability found that 85% of people surveyed (both with and without disabilities) state their religious beliefs as being important in their lives, but only 47% of people with a disability attend Church at least once a month. What can be done to remove the barriers that prevent church members with disabilities from attending? I would encourage Church leaders to meet with its members, do some research, brain storm, set goals and make a plan to remove any and all of these barriers. Check out the website disabilitiesandfaith.org – it has links to a range of faiths and denominations and loads of great info too!
4. As Hubby says to me: ‘it’s not ‘them’ and ‘that Church’, it’s ‘us’ and ‘our Church’. I know what it is to be in Church leadership and I know what it is to be a Church member. Church leadership absolutely has an important role to play in setting the tone for an inclusive and welcoming culture. However it has been everyday church members, those without a title, who have often made the most positive difference to our Sunday experience and to our overall sense of wellbeing and belonging in our faith community. If every church member can ask ‘how can I serve this family or this person with a disability better?’ …then love has legs. And that is truly a beautiful thing.
5. Parents and Carers can feel isolated. Caring for a person or a child with a disability can be tiring. Practical help is always a blessing. In the case of my son his disability is not physical and can therefore be ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’. If the Church can show kindness in practical ways it can make a huge difference. Making and delivering a meal, free babysitting, a cup of coffee waiting at church free of change, carrying a mom’s bag into church, helping someone to their car, watching a child after church so mom and dad can fellowship. Showing kindness in small and practical ways can be incredibly meaningful. It certainly has meant a lot to me.
6. Don’t say stupid things if you can possibly help it. Think before you speak. As the old adage goes: If you can’t think of anything nice to say…well… You know the rest.
7. Say things like ‘Thankyou for making the effort to come today’, ‘You are doing a great job raising your child’, and ‘We are so blessed to have you here today’. Address the person with the disability. As a parent I don’t want people’s pity and I also don’t want be the reason somebody else feels like their life is not that bad. I always want my faith community to love and value our Kiddo.
8. My child is going to grow into an adult- true story! I want him to know and be assured of his place and value in our faith community both now and in the future. Having some of the young and older men in our church reach out to greet and connect with my son means the world to me and Hubby. Ted and Craig are two men in my Church who talk to Kiddo every Sunday. It blesses my Mama heart every time and I believe Kiddo feels accepted because these men treat him with kindness, dignity and respect. Yeah it even makes me teary. These men are the real deal in my book.
9. Having a Children’s Program that can cater for children with special needs. My friend shared with me how she trained volunteers to be ‘shadows’ for children with disabilities, only stepping in if needed. She organized for each child in the program to have their own basket made up with instructions for the volunteer and other supports like visuals, schedules, fidget toys, favorite toys and even light coverings for a child who had struggles in that area. I believe children with disabilities should be included in the regular program to the fullest extent possible. I do not believe the parents should have to miss Service on an ongoing basis to make this possible. Yeah- see Tip #2.
10. Then Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ [Matthew 11 v 28 NLT.] I don’t have a disability but I am sure it can cause one to feel weary. This promise from Christ Himself is one I would love to see fufilled for all people with a disability who come to Church. That they would experience it as a place of rest, acceptance, inclusion and love. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing!
I would love to read about any ideas you have to add to the list. Or any experiences you want to share are always welcome !