Almost three and a half years ago, I began at my current call to ministry, a tiny congregation to the south of Seattle. A congregation with very few children and that, quite frankly, wasn’t used to having children present in the congregation.
My (at the time) four-year-old child with autism was definitely a change for this quiet congregation. AJ can vocalize and laugh and giggle very loudly. On occasion, he had made not-so-happy noises. I have interrupted my own sermon to try to calm him down when others could not.
When we first came, he ran up and down the center aisle and the sides. He would run all over the chancel throughout the service and be difficult to contain and have him sit still. Once, he figured out that he could step over the pews instead of walking between them, and stepped over each one.
I heard complaints on occasion about my son being too disruptive and too loud. My first pastoral relations committee meeting was a tough one. I heard people ask if my husband could take my child to his church instead. I know people want to come and worship and take that one hour out of the week to reconnect with God and it’s hard to do it when the child next to you is screaming, or shouting, or yelling. But it’s even harder for the parent who wants to come to worship with their family and finds they are not welcome, let alone the pastor.
Now at age seven and-a-half, AJ still runs around, up and down the aisle. He sits at the drum kit and plays the drums, and often at the keyboard, refusing to follow any instructions but plays his own tune. However, when the prelude starts, for the most part he now knows that he needs to sit down. He often sits in the back pew with a friend, sometimes one his own age, but often an adult who can help him sit most calmly in church.
But something remarkable has happened in these three and-a-half years, and it’s not that AJ has quieted down or matured a little. It isn’t that AJ has changed his behavior; it is that the church has changed with him. Children now take the offering during worship, and on occasion AJ has helped. A few young families have come with their little ones who have run up and down the aisle and all over the chancel. The children lead the adults in saying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday before the Prayers of the People. And one of our youngest read part of the Gospel According to Luke on Christmas Eve, along with the other adult readers.
At my most recent pastoral relations committee meeting, one of the eldest members of the congregation brought up how wonderful it was that children feel free to dance and wiggle and move about. She remarked how delightful it was to her, that it warmed her heart to see the children so free to be themselves in our church, a place where they are welcome just as they are. And she turned to me and said, “It’s because of AJ. AJ has made this church welcoming of all children.”
Too many churches still try to do a separate-but-equal ministry for persons with disabilities, or an outreach to persons who are houseless, or to teens who are at-risk. Too many churches want to do something to change other people, to make them more acceptable.
But this is what inclusion does: inclusion changes us.
We are continuing to have to push for inclusion in our child’s school and our school district. Often, students with special needs like our child’s are separated in a Special Education class. While they receive more individualized instruction, they do not receive the socialization with other students. However, as we keep promoting at our child’s school, it’s less for AJ’s growth as it is for the other general education students. How will “typical” peers ever learn about students with disabilities if they are not in their classes? How will adults live with and work with (and hire, if they become employers) students with disabilities if they have had little to no social interaction with their disabled peers?
Outside of public education, we still are struggling for inclusion for AJ in extra-curricular activities: music and dance and sports. Summer camps have been notorious for not including (by not accommodating) students with different needs. And sadly, this has proved true for us, even at church-run day camps and Vacation Bible Schools. We know from other parents that this does not get any easier as children grow into teens and young adults; few of them are ever included in the events of their peers.
This is one of the places that the church still has the opportunity to lead the way in our communities, and frankly, in our world as a whole. We have the opportunity to lead the way in building up the beloved, inclusive community of Christ here on earth. We have the ability to truly make a difference—not just for people with disabilities—but for all of us, because inclusion changes us. And I believe it changes us to be more like the image of God.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. ~Isaiah 11:6
Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. ~Mark 10:15