Grace in the Pews

By J.C. Mitchell

Originally posted on May 8, 2014  "Edge Pieces" the Blog of Open Gathering 

My son and I went to a large city church to hear Rachel Held Evans preach.  Having my wife away all weekend, it was going to be just us boys and an interesting experience of welcome bringing a child with autism by myself, both positive and negative.

Packed with snacks, diapers, books, juice, iPad with communication program, and more snacks we were ready.  Now usually AJ goes to morning church with his mom, where she is the preacher, and this small congregation has developed systems and adults who understand AJ’s way of being, which is not unlike Tigger after a double espresso.  So I was aware this would not be an easy worship service, but off we went so I could expose him to a traditional service in a larger church.  I am in the business and there will be many more services in our future, and I hope he too will be fed as I am, as he is at Open Gathering.

I did my homework.  I called the minister in charge of children ministries earlier in the week. It did help that I knew the ministers.  I asked if I could be introduced to a Sunday School teacher, which I was before worship, and heard that they have a one-room school after a children’s moment.  So I just had to keep him calm while listening to the organ, announcements, and prayer.  Things looked great.  Someone came over and mentioned another option and made it very clear it was simply an option to sit in the room that was behind some glass windows, which at that time was dark and had the curtains shut.  I believe those rooms are important for babies and toddlers at times, but my son is a kindergartner.  He needs to start learning how to sit still in the service and that will not happen in the separate room.  And if I brought my son to such a room would teach him that church was a room behind glass where you can make as much noise as desired, instead of joining the entire congregation in the pews. So I declined the offer to the polite man, and then a woman stopped by to interact with AJ and he used his communication board to say “hi” and “thank you.” We laughed that he may have been saying thank you for the back rubs I was giving as she talked with him.  I felt great, and AJ was doing quite well, but I knew he was due to have wiggles and yells that he usually has, so while feeling great, I also was terrified, but I was in a church that welcomed everyone so I should be fine, I told myself.

So during the opening prayer he was getting loud and wrestled with me.  I could hear the prayer and while I dealt with his normal participation in life I struggled to soothe him as I listened to the gathering prayer. All of the sudden I was pulled out of prayer by someone offering the information about the room behind the windows,  I had to tell him I was in prayer after telling him I knew already about that option.  I realize he was not as used to this noise as I am, and so it was with the women in the pew in front of me.  I had been told this was where the children usually sit during worship. So after the prayer we were all singing “To you, O God, All Creatures Sing” and AJ smiled as I sung what I believe was bass.  He felt my beard and observed the sound of the organ we don’t usually get to hear together.  After that there was one more part of the service before the children’s moment and him exiting with the other grade school children to go to Sunday School.  It was called “Invitations to Involvement.”  AJ was restless, and for a moment even really loud.  So a woman in front offered to walk us to the room behind glass, I am sure it was a nice gesture, but to me that room is for babies.  She offered twice, the second time was much more stern, rather than an offer.  My son needs to learn how to sit in the sanctuary, and on the verge of tears I said he would be going to Sunday School.  What I wanted to share is what I am sharing openly in this post, and yes this church is much more open and the staff and active volunteers did everything appropriate, but there I was, wrestling back tears because my son is different.  The only way to teach him about where I work has included the passive aggressive statements that make us not feel completely welcome, and other times where others have not hidden the unwelcome.

Now I know it is difficult to worship with a child like my son, but it was only for the beginning and specifically difficult for a few moments during the part where someone was talking about areas of involvement.  Which I could hear fine when it was not being suggested that I move to the room that for my son that is “separate but ….”  Anyways, I did have a great laugh when the same woman that offered to walk us to that room of containment (during a moment in which AJ was being very calm) said about the man making this long announcement, “why does he have to go on like that?”  All those tears and guilt went out the window because obviously to this person it was not just my son’s noise that was annoying, but the announcement itself.

I know I was doing what was needed for my son and even for the church.  If you say you welcome everyone, you have to do it even when it is difficult, and having children only contained and kept silent is not a welcome.  The great news was how well the Sunday School accepted him with no issue and after the service not only did the woman that was so friendly continue in conversation, another middle aged father like myself came up and introduced himself and invited me to a support group of fathers with special needs kids in Seattle (one I had not heard of, as I work in the city across the lake).

It was, however, in the sermon I found peace and quiet that I had not experienced at all (save sleep) since my wife went to a conference on Thursday.  I heard the preacher for that morning reminded us that the Resurrection requires us to “Live openly and expressively” and she reminded us there is “no need to shrink away.”  When I heard that, I knew it was important to have my son in the pew with me even if the women in the pew ahead of me did not engage me or my son positively, others did and I was fed on the word (but I did miss the bread and juice).

There were great systems in place at this church and a wonderful welcome statement.  However, I cannot help wonder why the offer of help was always given with an answer.  The answer was to remove us from the pews, and put us in a room for babies.  If we took that answer, it would be years for a child with autism to get out of such a room, as routine is essential.  If, when my son was being rambunctious, someone came to me and asked, “How can I help you?”  I would have been overjoyed.  I would have probably asked them to sit with us.  What a different attitude that would have actually upheld their wonderful welcome statement:

Here you are encouraged to be fully who you are.  Here you are accepted, valued, and encouraged to grow into the complete individual that God wants you to be.  Here you can forget about the barriers that still divide so many parts of our society.  Here you are invited, just as you are, to join us, just as we are, in a mutual journey of love, support and respect.

I want to be clear this was a positive experience and the church did everything right; however, within the pews a few people had forgotten why we were gathered: to worship God as the Body of Christ and this is why we have Open Gathering.  First, to have a place that attempts to feed all people with and without special needs, but also to be a resource for individuals and congregations who are trying to bring their church from accommodation to full welcoming and belonging, by having a community that inspires them to speak up and to “live openly and expressively” in their home congregations as well as at our gatherings.