In our church service last week, we had a baptism. A brand new beautiful baby girl whose mother grew up in our church family. Our congregation made a promise that day, to support this young family as their child grows, to encourage this family’s church journey, and to help educate this little one in the faith. It’s a promise that’s made to every child baptized in our church, including Caleb, a little over eleven years ago.
It’s a promise that’s been kept too. Our church family and leadership (and David and I) have worked to include Caleb in all aspects of church life. It’s not always easy, I know that. Church programs depend heavily on lay people for their programs. Men, women and sometimes teens who might not know how to help an individual with limited verbal skills or capacity for understanding some of the concepts of religion. We are grateful for these folks in our lives, who are living out their promise - not only to Caleb, but to all the children, some with other ‘unique needs’ in our church. I know that it’s not the case for many with differences who struggle to find acceptance in church.
A prominent organization posted the other day that they hoped their event, involving churches and people with special needs, would be a starting point for people - for churches - to realize that faith is for all people. That acceptance, inclusion and love need to be more than one night’s experience. “I hope so”, I wrote, “Church should a place, of all places, to find welcoming and caring people. Many people with ‘differences’ still find themselves on the fringe - unable to connect or find acceptance. I hope and pray these participating churches use this event as the start of their ministry to people with unique abilities, or to grow theirs if they have one.”
And yet, many report that they are unable to find a welcoming situation, and some even, exclusion. One study reports that almost 1/3 of special needs families said “they had left at least one church because their child was not included or welcomed.” Additionally, they had kept their child from participating in a religious activity because support was not provided, or they had been expected to stay with their child during the activity. Families desire that churches become more knowledgeable about disability; more training and education to support the growing population of those with special needs. *
Which left me with a Pandora’s box full of questions.
•What does it really take to get a special needs ministry off the ground?
•Do churches really need to have a separate ministry program for people with extra challenges? Why can’t everyone just worship together?
•Who takes the lead? The parents? The church leaders? The congregation as a whole?
These are all questions that I’ve prayed over in our 11+ year journey. I’m sure circumstances are different for each church, for each person. Some might need just a few accommodations to be included; some might need more. The point is, churches need to DO THEM.
I imagine that our faith denomination (Presbyterian) is not the only one that asks its members to participate in the bringing up of children and youth. To make promises. Promises on a Sunday morning that are meant to have a far-reaching effects. Promises that need to be kept regardless of ability level (or economic or status level for that matter). Promises of support and encouragement and education. And most of all, promises of love...in faith.