By Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell
Sitting in a local Starbucks, as JC and I checked our emails, our son AJ was in and out of his seat, jumping up and down, running back and forth. This is typical of AJ, whether we be home or at a restaurant or in any sit-down setting. Sometimes I try to persuade him to sit down, especially while eating, but it is hard for him. And sometimes, yes, I get a little embarrassed by him, but that has gone away over time, because I know he does not understand the social norm of sitting for a meal or even a treat at Starbucks. AJ is four and has autism. At this Starbucks, there were two other little girls who were also in and out of their seats, so I relaxed a bit and didn’t worry about AJ running around. While we were reading our emails and checking Facebook, a woman came over to our table and began to tell us about some local summer camps for children with special needs. We were delighted.
You see, it is rare for a stranger to approach us and talk to us about AJ. It is much more common for adults to shoot glares of disapproval to us. I am sure there are many people who think we have a disruptive and unruly child who does not obey the rules, whether they be posted on a wall or just the social traditions we have all accepted. But this woman was different. She had the advantage of having worked with children with special needs, but she also had the grace-filled spirit to not judge but to observe, and to even offer help.
Our family visited many churches this summer as we traveled from Oklahoma to Washington. All had different situations in which children were welcomed, either in worship or child-care situations. There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to children and church: either we should welcome everyone, including children, right into the worship service, or we should have child care and encourage parents to use the child care provided. Sometimes both were offered, and I think that is the right way to go.
As a minister I love having children in worship. Children never disrupt me or the sermon, and in fact, I always tell people I never hear the kids but I hear the adults saying, “Shh!” However, as a parent, when I go to worship I know that I can be distracted by my son. My son does not want to sit in a pew or chair. He wants to explore and run around. We joke often that he has two volumes: on and off. He can be very loud. I do become conscious of how others are able to worship, and how they perceive me as a parent when I bring AJ to worship. So sometimes, I do want the child care option. However, at one church, when we explained to the child-care provider that AJ had autism, the congregant that was leading us to the nursery became concerned, saying “She is not trained for children with Autism.” I turned and said, “Neither am I. Neither is anyone in the church, really,” as I let my son go with the child-care provider (AJ and the provider had a great time together).
So while I need to let go of my own ego as a parent, we also need to let go of our worries and perceptions as church members. To make families who have children with special needs feel welcome, we need to be open to the family’s needs. This past Sunday, as I visited a friend’s church (JC was not with me as he was preaching at his congregation), AJ did not want to go to childcare. While he cried in the sanctuary, he screamed in the hallway to child care. So I brought him back to the sanctuary, where we sat in a comfortable corner, where he could get up and move around and not disturb too many people.
And to my surprise, one of the members came and sat with me, even trying to engage AJ with drawing and reading, and when I shared that AJ had autism he said, “Thank you for sharing that with me.” I felt honored by his presence not only in engaging AJ, but in sitting in the corner with me. I was not alone. All too often, when I have visited other churches where children were welcomed in the service, we have sat in the back, alone, away from everyone else, so we might not disturb others, and so we can make a quick exit if needed. The simple gesture of sitting with me in the back made me feel more welcome than I had in any church for a long, long time.
AJ loves church. He loves the people, he loves the music (he will even sing while we do, but it won’t be the same song. One Sunday while we sang, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” he sang “Potato, Potato, Potato”), and most of all, he loves fellowship time when there are often cookies to eat. That’s his favorite part. So I do not want to deny my child the church experience. However, it is difficult for him to participate in sermons and times of silent prayer. In those times, I do rely on technology and this Sunday I brought out the iPad to quietly show a video for him (it helps to calm him down and it is something familiar).
One of the things I rejoice about the emergent movement is that perhaps church one day will be like Starbucks was to our family that day—where there are places to sit but it is ok to get up and move, where adults can converse and study and read together and children don’t have to participate the same way adults do. Most of all, I hope we can move away from judgment or fear in response to children with special needs, and remember that Jesus embraced the children, even when the disciples didn’t want them to be around, or maybe, they just weren’t sure how to have them around.