Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Read and Learn: Some Thoughts on Special Needs

Recently I had a great conversation with a friend of mine about how to incorporate people with special needs into the life of the church. For my friend it is a challenge as she has a son with aspergers syndrome (which falls on the autism spectrum) who has not been able to attend Sunday School for some time now. For me it is a challenge because as someone soon to be entering into ministry, these are important things for me to explore and seek to understand. But it is important for all because these are our brothers and sisters who seek the very same things we do: love, acceptance, and meaning in life.

For the most part, our culture and society tell us that those with "special needs" or "disabilities" are not capable of contributing to society. Individuals with special needs are not always able to live independently. It seems rather selfish to me really. When you serve someone who has a disability, from the get go you know it isn't going to be reciprocal. Or is it? For those with cognitive disabilities, we wonder how this person could teach us anything being that our ability to understand is better than theirs. Or are there other ways of understanding?

In our society we place a high value on verbal communication and cognitive understanding. But are these the only ways in which we learn and communicate? And to take it to the next level so to speak, are these the only ways in which God communicates to and ministers to people? If someone cannot cognitively understand that Jesus is God's Son does that mean they don't understand that at all?

There is another friend of mine who has a son who has high-functioning autism. He once told me a story about how he asked his son a question about God. I don't remember the question my friend asked and I don't remember the answer his son gave, but I do remember that it brought my friend to tears. God spoke through my friend's son that day.

Another thing that is a significant part of this conversation is the question of who is ministering to whom? In one of Henri Nouwen's books ( I cannot recall which one at the moment) he speaks about how often we go to the hospital to sit at someone's bedside and minister to those who are sick and dying. Nouwen proposes that it is in fact the other way around. After all, someone who is dying is probably a lot closer to God in those moments than we are. They are not relying on God day by day, but rather minute by minute. So it seems to me that there is a shift that needs to be made from ministering to individuals with special needs to ministering with individuals with special needs as well as allowing ourselves to be ministered to by individuals with special needs.

There is much more I would like to write about this but there are so many thoughts bouncing around in my head at the moment that are preventing me from doing so. I would invite your comments and would specifically be interested in those of you who have been a part of a church (or churches) in the past that have been welcoming of those with special needs in such a way that these individuals became integral parts of the life of the church. In closing, I must say that I am only recently entering this conversation so please let me know if anything I have said is offensive or wrong headed.


runnin 2 Him said...

I enjoyed your blog on the "special needs" people in our society. I am a volunteer with Special Olympics Virginia and have been since 1990. This group of individuals is the most loving, caring, non-discriminating group I have ever worked with. Their love and affection for one another and for the volunteers is completely unconditional. I have learned a great deal by working with this group over the years, and continue to learn each time I go to an event. The staff at SOVA is very comitted and work long hours to make sure the athletes have the greatest experience possible. My hat is off to those folks, and to anyone who has a special needs child. Your statement about the hospital visit is so true. We can't be sure who benefits from the love and endearment that results from God's blessing.

Israel Pattison said...

I highly recommend a new documentary from Diva Communications called "A Place For All: Faith And Community for People with Disabilities". It is an excellent interfaith examination of faith communities that have succeeded in addressing this issue. Check it out here.

Pinkhammer said...

Thank you for the comments and recommendations! I sincerely appreciate it!

Sarahlynn said...

My daughter has Down syndrome. She has physical and developmental disabilities.

We are very involved with our church. When my daughter was just a few months old, a member of the children, youth, and families committee called me to ask what we needed, what would be helpful to us so that our daughter and our family felt fully included in the life of the congregation.

In those early years, all the volunteers and employees in the nursery let us know how much they enjoyed and appreciated my daughter. They never made us feel that caring for our child was a burden or even a challenge. (The same is true for the music director and others who've worked with us in various capacities.)

When Ellie reached school age, I had some conversations with the CE director about inclusion. She asked a stay-at-home mom in the congregation who used to work as an occupational therapist to help Ellie participate with her Sunday School class. She did that for a semester, before everyone - Ellie, the other kids, the Sunday School teachers - was comfortable with Ellie attending Sunday School on her own without an "aide."

Sometimes Ellie's behavior in church is not perfectly typical. But there are always people around us who make a point of saying hi and telling us how much they enjoy Ellie's participation.

Because - more in the next comment -

Sarahlynn said...

My 6-year-old daughter brings the spirit of Christ into the sanctuary when she enters. She glows from within with her pure joy at being in church.

She talks too loudly, sings off key, and doesn't recite the Lord's Prayer in perfect monotony with the rest of us.

But she's there. She's doing it. She's participating. She gets it. She might not win at Bible trivia, but she could teach all of us a few things about:

1) Pure joy
2) Honesty
3) Unselfconscious expression
4) Love and compassion
5) Paying attention to others. Ellie knows far more about the relationships between people (which parents go with which children, whether someone's happy or sad) than most kids - or most adults.

There's a new young adult with Down syndrome at our church. He attends evening Bible Study alone, sometimes, and his comments are not always exactly on topic. Sometimes they run a little long.

But the minister listens to him and responds appropriately, not acting like the young man's contributions are an interruption.

Sure, a lot of inclusiveness and respect comes from the clergy and the staff. But at least as much comes from the other members of the congregation.

Pinkhammer said...

SarahLynn: Thank you for commenting about your oh so very personal experience with this. I really value your thoughts as I try use my time in seminary to figure out what church should look like. I have heard there are places where they don't feel as though they have the resources to minister to special needs children and that is very sad to me.

I am taking a class on Presbyterian Polity right now and inclusiveness is ALL OVER the Book of Order. It seems like we make it harder than it needs to be.

And I am sure your little Ellie could teach us all quite a bit. I think the question the rest of us need to answer is will we let her?

Sarahlynn said...

It's interesting to me to watch the other kids with Ellie. I can tell which parents are most comfortable with Ellie by seeing how their children interact with her - since even very young children frequently pick up on their parents' discomfort.

I don't think inclusiveness is about financial resources as much as it's about respect for others. ALL others. (And patience and compassion and flexibility.)