When Church Hurts, by Shawna Wingert (Not the former things blog), and Why Church Is a Burden for Special Needs Parents, by Sheri Dacon. This is a subject not often discussed, but it needs to be! People with disabilities often struggle to find churches that are willing to accommodate, accept, engage with, integrate and welcome them. Shawna writes a very descriptive account of her son’s sensory overload at church- crowds of people, various smells, loud and louder sounds. She also gave examples of judgment for non-attendance, judgment of parenting abilities, and exclusion from Sunday school. Sheri recounts her tears, when her son’s new Sunday school teacher treated him as a child, not a problem- and she learned that it was okay to expect love and acceptance.
We have not often attended church as a family, since our youngest, “Abi”, was little. She finds the noise and quantity of people difficult- we have spent several services walking circuits around the carpark, or laps up and down the stairs. She’s not always quiet and still, so although I did monitor her noise/activity level, I’ve been “invited” to spend the service in the creche, which had no video/audio input, more times than I’d care to remember. I’ve accompanied her to Sunday school, but there was nothing in the lessons that she could participate in. In the end, we figured it would be more comfortable for one parent to stay at home with her- because neither she nor her accompanying parent were actually participating in the service.
These experiences were across multiple churches. Two of the churches we’ve been to were very willing to work with us to include Abi- but weren’t the right fit for other members of our family. In particular, our older daughter, “Hannah”, is wanting solid teaching and discussions and connections with likeminded peers- yet the Sunday children’s/youth ministry at many churches ends as children finish primary school. Those churches were a great source of healing to me- to know that there were churches where we were welcomed, and could attend as a family.
The last few years have been an intensive immersion in learning about autism, for me. As evidenced by this blog, I’ve done a lot of reading, and have also attended numerous courses. And I’ve come to the realisation that just as Abi has the right to an academic education, she also has the right to a spiritual education. But more than just an education- I believe she has the right to be loved, accepted and included as a member of God’s community. However, in order to access that for her, I will need to advocate and educate.
While I can’t speak for all Christians or all churches- in most cases, I don’t think that the exclusion that many people with disabilities have experienced is deliberate. I think that many Christians/churches simply don’t know how to engage with and integrate people with disabilities. They may not be aware that their programs/services aren’t disability-friendly. Sadly though, there are some churches that are unwilling to integrate people with disabilities- therefore they’re not places I’d want to be, anyway.
The problem is, I don’t have the energy for education or advocacy of this magnitude at the moment. If I’m going to do it well, it will be a big job. I don’t want to start, then it all end up a failure because I wasn’t able to follow it through. There’s a lot of big things that have happened in our lives- some related to autism, some not- but we have learned that we can’t do everything immediately, so we’ve had to prioritise.
In the meantime, as I ponder the specifics of what inclusion could look like for Abi, I came across a wonderful program run by Christian Blind Mission in Australia, called Luke14. Luke14 is a CBM Australia initiative equipping churches to be places of welcome and belonging for people and families living with disability.
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind… and you will be blessed.” (Luke 14:12-13)
I could easily link to every page on the Luke14 site, because there is so much good information! It’s nice to know that there are programs available to help churches learn how to welcome people with disability- and really integrate them.
I hope to see such programs implemented in many churches in the not-too-distant future.