disability

Accessibility and Necessity

By Rev. Mindi

I remember when my child was less than a year old, joining a clergy group for breakfast, and finding out the hard way the restaurant bathroom had no changing table. And this was one of those baby pooplosions, where you cannot wait to change the diaper. It made me angry, and luckily, my clergy group decided to switch locations after that.

I also remember so many times my husband had to change our son in the car because the men’s public restroom did not have a changing table. Very few still do, and this is 2016.

With all the talk about bathrooms in the news these days, I wonder:

Are we having this conversation about accessible restrooms in our churches?

I serve a congregation where thankfully all of the bathrooms in our small building were renovated in the last fifteen years, are all accessible for disabled persons, and two out of the three having changing tables. All three are large enough not only to bring a wheelchair or walker inside, but also for someone to bring in another person who needs assistance in the bathroom.

My child is almost eight, and due to his disability needs assistance in the bathroom. Oh, and because both my husband and I are incredibly tall people (someone once remarked that we breed giants), our kiddo is the size of a ten-year-old.

I highly suspect this being an election year has brought this latest wave of transphobia and bathroom shock to light. Masked in the cloak of protecting our children from predators (look at statistics of child assault and abuse and you’ll find that 75% of the time it happens within the home from a relative) we have ostracized our transgender kin. And we have made restrooms—a basic function, a basic need of our humanity—less accessible than before.

Even if my kiddo didn’t have a disability that required some assistance in the bathroom, I’ll be honest: as a parent, I have a hard time sending my child alone anywhere with strangers. But I am 100% not worried about transgender folks. I am also 100% not worried about someone pretending to be transgender who might harm my child, because let’s face it, that is NOT happening. That is a lie perpetuated to drum up fear in an election cycle. No. I am concerned, however, of something happening to my child in a public restroom from a child predator, who most likely will be a white straight dude, based on statistics.

I remember the fear when I sent my child to preschool, after having moved, knowing no one in the area. Sending my child to a strange teacher with strange paraeducators in the classroom who would be helping my son use the restroom. Why? Because videos and stories of students with disabilities being abused by staff are abundant on the internet. New stories are abundant in the suburbs of Seattle, along with stories from parents.

I have seen the stares, heard the jokes, seen the rolling eyes by women as I bring my tall son into the bathroom with me. I remember once at a child’s play space a young girl complaining that “there is a boy in the bathroom!” I once had someone complain when my child was three—yes, three years old—that he didn’t belong in the women’s bathroom with me.

I am afraid for transgender people. I am afraid that they will be abused and harmed, even killed, by someone claiming to “protect” someone else. I am also afraid that as my child grows larger, as he gains more independence and uses the restroom by himself, people will report him because of his strange sounds and the time he spends in the restroom. I have known many parents of teens with disabilities telling me how they had to talk with a police officer outside of a public restroom where their child was inside because someone called the police on a “dangerous” person inside. I am also afraid that someone will take action themselves and claim to be “protecting” others.

So what can we do as the church? I’ve seen many conversations in social media focusing on certain laws and policies, but what about within your own congregation’s physical space?

We can start by creating safe spaces in our churches. Create restrooms that are accessible for persons with disabilities and their caregivers. Make it known that these restrooms are accessible and gender neutral. If you have existing men and women’s restrooms, if they have single stalls this makes it easier to go gender neutral, but also consider the need to renovate (if you can, knowing how church budgets are these days) to make them accessible for persons with disabilities. Also add changing tables, and if you are able to, adult changing tables. I have seen one restroom with an adult changing table. Yes, they are necessary for many adults with disabilities, and finding them in public is a very difficult task.

The simple, shortcut answer, is to create one gender neutral restroom, one accessible restroom out of the rest. This can ostracize folks, singling them out to use that restroom. Also, to be quite honest, it’s a pain to have to wait in line for the restrooms anyway—but to have to wait for that one special stall, or that one special bathroom to open up while everyone else is at least moving forward in line—that’s degrading. The longer-term solution is to make all of our restrooms accessible to all people.

While the debate continues over laws and policies, can’t we, within the church, start making safe and accessible spaces, including restrooms? Can’t we lead the way?

Many thanks to the Unitarian Universalist Association for this inclusive restroom sign.

Many thanks to the Unitarian Universalist Association for this inclusive restroom sign.

Leading the Way

By Rev. Mindi

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

Revisiting Equal Marriage

By Rev. Mindi

Last fall, I wrote this article about equal marriage and how while we celebrate that gay and lesbian couples can now get married, we still have a long way to go for creating equal marriage, especially among those with disabilities, in which one partner often loses their benefits if they are legally married. I am posting it again, because while I rejoice in the SCOTUS decision on marriage on June 26th, 2015, we still have a long way to go.

 

 

http://dmergent.org/articles/2014/10/28/equal-marriage

Let us celebrate now that marriage for gay and lesbian couples is now legal in the United States, but may we continue to work for justice for all in regards to the freedom to marry.

 

Disability Advocacy in Your Community

By Rev. Mindi

April is Autism Awareness Month. In previous years for Autism Awareness Month, I have written about how to create a welcoming environment for families that have children and youth with autism in your church. However, there is a greater need within the greater disability community to help support advocacy. Here are some ways you can help become an advocate within the greater community, and therefore your church.

Did you know that you can be an educational advocate?

As a member of my local special needs PTA (Parent Teacher Association), I have let parents know that I am willing to go with them to IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings. Students with special needs often have an IEP or a 504 plan (a 504 plan provides for accommodations for students with special needs; an IEP provides for individualized instruction and is much more detailed).  What do I do at those meetings? I am a non-anxious presence, there to provide support for the parent so they know they are not alone, as well as for the student. I ask clarifying questions. I am not there to take sides, but rather to encourage dialogue and offer support.

I am also an educational surrogate. I serve as a surrogate within the school district for students whose parents do not currently have custody and are not in the foster care system. I work to ensure that a student receives the supports necessary, which may include an evaluation for services and support and the beginning process of an IEP or 504 plan. I become part of the educational team.  How this happened for me is that I was asked to do this by a district official, who knew me as a parent of a special needs child, a board member for the special needs PTA, and as a local pastor. Since this time, I have now met two other pastors in other districts who also serve as educational surrogates in their district.

You can also join your local special education PTA, if there is one, or help form a community support network for students, as well as parents and educators of students with special needs. It takes the whole community, not just the family, not just the school—to help educate and support our special needs students and families.

Look for local disability advocacy organizations—they often need volunteer help—and partner with them. The ARC is a national disability advocacy organization with local chapters that has folks with disabilities on their staff and boards, and works to help individuals become self-advocates. With any disability organization, always check to see where its funding comes from, how its funding is used, and whether or not persons with disabilities serve on its board and staff. Persons with disabilities should be included in their own advocacy.

And as always, remember to include folks with disabilities in your church life. Folks with disabilities are already part of your congregation. They may be regular attenders in worship, but sometimes we forget that folks with disabilities can, and should, be included in leadership, worship, education and outreach—in other words, all aspects of the life of the church just as anyone else. And above all, be an advocate, wherever you are, for inclusion of persons of all abilities into our faith communities.

Rev. Mindi and her friend Rev. Danae Ashley launched Autism and Church in January. They are looking for more contributors, especially from adults and youth with autism, to write from their experience.

Inclusion and Acceptance--of those already among us

By Rev. Mindi

Recently, my son AJ was invited to a birthday party. This is a rare occurrence for us, as AJ has special needs and is not included in a classroom with typically developing peers. Though he goes on field trips and is on the playground at recess and in the cafeteria for lunch, most of the time he is in a classroom with other special needs students.  We know families with typically developing children, but AJ is often not invited to birthday parties. I’m sure it is not on purpose; I’m almost certain that he wasn’t thought of, or it was assumed that we would find it too much trouble to go, or that AJ would not be able to participate. Even when he is invited, often the other children do not interact with him. They don’t know him and don’t know how to. He doesn’t go up and talk to them like typically developing children; they have to take the initiative to go up to him, say hi and try to communicate with him.

This birthday party was great because he was not only invited, he was included and some of the kids knew him from other parties and occasions, and some of the older children did communicate with him. And when he didn’t respond at first and I told the older girl who was asking him a question that he had autism, she replied “One of my friends has autism” and went on to tell me about their friend.

This experience led me to reflect on the church, as all too often we say “no one is coming” or “there isn’t anyone to ask.” How many people do we not think of because of their age, or perceived ability, or perceived allowance of time? How often do we ask the same people over and over again, and not realize the people who are missing out on being involved in ministry?

And though I know we are all tired of the generational divide discussions, how many of our churches do not ask folks in younger generations to participate in the leadership and ministry of the church because of the assumptions we make? “They’re too busy,” or “They only come once in a while so I’m not sure how committed they are,” or even “They don’t know how to do it yet.”  I have heard all of those assumptions made about Gen Xers and Millenial church members that really wanted to be involved, but were never asked. And I wonder if the problem might be that we don’t know how to communicate past our assumptions.

Often the reality is that we act like parents planning a party, and we don’t even realize who we are not inviting. And when we do, we come up with quick excuses to dismiss them, and we’re not even conscious of what we are doing. We don’t want to be overbearing on the new family. We don’t want to burden the individual who started coming six weeks ago. We don’t want to ask the college graduate because they might get a job and be too busy or move away. We don’t invite the person who said no last time we asked because we assume they will say no again. And so on and so forth.

We need to be open to all of God’s people for all of the ministries of the church. And while I am thinking of my son AJ, I am reminded that folks with disabilities in our church are able to participate. There are a variety of ministries and a variety of gifts.

Inclusion is something we are constantly working on as a church. We want to extend the welcome to participate in the community of faith to all—but we often still have to work on including and accepting the people who are already part of us.

Pastoral Care to Families of Children With Disabilities

By Rev. Mindi

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, October is Disability Awareness Month. Being both clergy and a parent of a child with a disability, I thought I would share some of my experience for other clergy and church leaders in terms of pastoral care to families of a child with a disability.

When, at twenty months old, our son AJ stopped talking completely, we knew something was wrong. Our son had never said much—just “Hi,” “Uh-oh,” and “Mama.” But he knew at least twenty baby signs, and he would pick a sign up in a day, such as “more” and “all done” and “milk.” But this all stopped by the time he was twenty months old. At twenty-two months he began speech therapy and continues to receive speech therapy today at the age of six.

 

When AJ was three, we received the life-changing diagnosis of autism. I didn’t know what to do, or what to think. I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of information on the internet and in bookstores, much of it contradictory. We tried different diets, we tried different supplements, but nothing really changed AJ’s social or behavioral patterns.

A good friend of mine who has a child with a disability gave me some advice: I needed to grieve the child I had lost. It sounds harsh. My child did not die, they just received a diagnosis, a medical categorization, but my child had not changed from who they were. But at the same time, she was absolutely right. I needed to grieve my own dreams and hopes for my child, now lost probably forever. My child will most likely not grow up to be a great scholar or star quarterback or Olympic swimmer.

The truth is, most of our kids don’t grow up to be those things. At some point, our dreams as parents have to die and we have to mourn their passing, but we usually have a lot more time to recognize it. Parents of children with disabilities or life-changing illnesses have to make this leap a lot earlier and a lot faster: we have to grieve, and then we have to accept our children.

But society around us is very slow to catch up. I cannot tell you how many well-intentioned people have told us “just look at Temple Grandin!” Very few children with autism grow up to be like Temple Grandin or have the resources her mother had when Temple was a child, to attend private school, to have a full-time nanny, to be sent to an alternative boarding school as a teen. Most of us do not have those kind of resources available. And even those with good financial resources cannot always expect that their child will develop and grow the same way. The mantra is, “If you’ve met one child on the autism spectrum, you have met one child on the autism spectrum.” Every child is unique.

The truth is as a society we like to gloss over the challenges and difficulties many people face, with good intentions: we want to cheer them up, we want them to find hope, and somehow we think that our words will bring that. Hearing so many times, “He’ll be all right,” “He’ll grow out of it,” “He’ll catch up,” does not help me at all. It’s true he will be all right, no matter what his diagnosis or ability. It is not true that he will grow out of it. And I do not know whether or not he will catch up, and neither will you, because I am guessing you are not an expert in autism spectrum disorder. 

What is helpful is hearing, “That must be hard,” or “Thank you for sharing that with me,” when I or another parent of a child with a disability shares what they are going through. Also, silence is also acceptable. Just having someone to listen as we struggle and advocate and support our children is more than society often gives us.

I am a glass half-full kind of person. I still have a lot of hope for my son. Recently he is starting to verbalize more, repeating words and phrases from TV shows and songs for the most part, but he is using some of it in context. He seems to understand what he is being asked a lot more than he used to. He uses an assistive communication device (currently an iPad with speech software) to make his requests known and sometimes to comment on things that he likes. He also spells out words and is trying to read more. I have hope. Maybe someday he will go to college. Maybe someday I won’t have to buy large diapers in bulk. Maybe he will still live at home the rest of his life or have to live in an adult assisted living facility. And all of that is fine. One step at a time. 

Thank you for listening to me. Please be sure to listen to other parents of children with disabilities.

My son spelled this out in my office one day. I know that I have to be his voice, until he can speak for himself.

My son spelled this out in my office one day. I know that I have to be his voice, until he can speak for himself.

Equal Marriage?

By Rev. Mindi

I celebrate with my gay, lesbian and bisexual friends and family that now, in over thirty states, you can get married and have your marriage legally recognized. We still have a long way to go for rights for all LGBTQ folk (and especially the T, our Transgender kindred). But I am happy and celebrate in this moment.

But there is another group that does not have equal marriage, and those are persons with disabilities.

In the United States, if you are disabled and you get married, you run the risk of losing some, if not all of your disability benefits. According to the Social Security website ssi.gov, if you were diagnosed with a disability as a child and then get married, your benefits are revoked. Disabled individuals who marry someone who also has a disability can lose up to 25% of their benefits. My husband and I have heard many painful stories of couples who are not legally married because they would lose their benefits. We have also heard stories of couples who didn’t know that their benefits would be reduced so much, and struggle to make ends meet but cannot have a job due to their disability.

This is legally recognized marriage in the United States, and it is not equal or just. Many persons with disabilities choose to have a religious ceremony only, and maintain separate addresses so they can maintain their benefits that they need in order to live.

Sadly, the church, like the rest of society, is silent on this. When we and other disability advocates bring up this issue, we often hear, “That’s sad.” “I didn’t know.” “That’s too bad.” But I see no action. I see no work on legislation or even a cry out that this is unjust.

As we near the end of Disability Awareness Month, as we celebrate the news of legal marriage across the country for our gay and lesbian kindred, let us raise up our voice for disabled couples. Please listen to disabled couples and hear the stories of families. Speak to your lawmakers and encourage legislation to change this devastating fact for couples in every state.

And raise this issue in your congregations. People need to hear that equal marriage still does not exist for couples in which one or both have a disability. As you study this issue, be aware of areas in which the church is still not welcoming of people with disabilities, visible and invisible. How accessible is your building? How inclusive is your governing board? How welcoming are your Christian Education programs? What can you do to change the culture of your congregation?

May we celebrate with our lesbian and gay families and continue to work towards equal marriage in this entire country, and may we also raise up the voice for those who continue to struggle for a legal marriage in which their rights are protected.

Theology of Disability Brings Down the Roof

By J.C. Mitchell

I was on a dinner cruise with other Seattle area clergy.  Don’t ask me how it is funded or why, but it is a fun once a year event for the Baptist ministers in the area, and I am married to one of them.  Sure enough, I am often asked what I do, and I explain my passion of including everyone in the church no matter their ability.  That at Open Gathering we truly live out the hard welcome.

I will inevitably say that I am interested in the theology of disability, and I did so that night on the boat, and one pastor repeated it as if he never heard the term before.  I began to think of how do I answer the question of what is theology of disability.  I would suggest reading Nancy Eiesland, Amos Yong, and Thomas Reynolds to start with, along with many others, but the best place to start is with the Rabbi we call Jesus.

According to Mark 2, he was preaching and teaching in a home.  It was crowded and others brought a man on a mat who had been paralyzed.  Four of them carried him, and the scripture suggests there are more, but this group of faithful people with their friend who has a disability could not enter the home.  Please note that when Jesus told him to take up his mat later, there is no issue in vacating the house.  However, those that turned around and saw the man being carried by his friends just turned back to the lesson.  I even imagine the ones carrying their friend approached a window after the door, until one had the bright idea to climb on the roof and illegally break through the roof, to lower their friend.

Then, and even today, disabilities have been seen and interpreted as a result of sin.  It was clear that even the disciples struggled with this as they had to ask Jesus, according to John 9, about another man with a disability, “who sinned this man or his parents?” We know Jesus made it clear that his blindness was not a result of sin.  However, these questions still pop up in my reality: “What did I do to deserve cancer?”  “What did I do….?”  They may drop the word sin, but they are clinging to that theology.

So now the attention is on this man and his friends.  These friends did not believe the idea that just because their friend had ambulatory issues he should be ostracized and kept from accessing community.  They were so bold they even committed a civil disobedient act (to the point of property destruction) to create access and include everyone no matter what.

And Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (2:5b).

How many have, historically and even today, read that as if it said, “Son I forgive your sins?”  This question assumes the idea that people with disabilities are being punished and are not whole people.  But Jesus states the observation he knows so well and saw in his friends.  He saw their faith, not in some sort of mystical magical way, but in their actions of being in community. 

There were no sins for Jesus to forgive, but he had a question for the Pharisees in the room, a question for all of us.  Which is easier, to make people not have disabilities, or to change our idea of sin?  This question is well asked by Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey, in his March 6, 2013 sermon "The WE in ME" (Mark 2:1-7)

Which is easier?  To cure the people with disability and woundedness in your midst, to just make them better?  Or to transform your inaccessible, prejudiced, limiting, stigmatizing theologies and practices.  Which is easier to do?  That’s the question.

And that is the answer to the question asked of me as well: the theology of disability is about changing our lens to include all children of God no matter their ability, or any other form of division, for God sees community and love to be our work on earth as it is in heaven. 



Wandering and Welcome

By Rev. Mindi

It had only been ten minutes at the most, maybe fifteen since I last saw him. I had looked outside the window as I was finishing cleaning the kitchen and had seen him playing in the yard. Then I had sat down at the table and I swore I could still hear him just a few minutes ago.  Then JC came upstairs and asked, “Where’s AJ?” I looked outside and couldn’t see him. “He must have gone around the corner of the house,” I replied, but I wasn’t worried. While there was no fence on that side, there was a lot of tall brush that would be hard to get through. Except that volunteers from the church had just come to do landscaping that day and had cut most of the brush down.

AJ was not there. We started calling his name as JC went over the side of the brush and into the front. I checked all through the yard and then went inside. Maybe he had come in while I was distracted? I looked through the entire house, then went downstairs and into the garage. No sound, no sight of him.  I came back upstairs and out the sliding door. Nothing.  I called over to our church volunteers and asked if they had seen him, and they had not. Then I pleaded with them to help us look, as I saw my husband begin to run down the side street in front of the house.  They seemed a little baffled that we were so frantic, as they were certain he couldn't have gone far. I grabbed my phone and called 911 to report that my son was missing.

While on the phone, I searched the entire house again as the operator asked me to check under all the beds and closets.  The operator stayed on the phone with me until an officer pulled up in front. I shared the picture of my son with the officer and a description of what he was wearing. Now some neighbors walking on the street heard us and offered to help search for our son. I had been fairly calm, just certain he was around the corner until I realized that ten, maybe fifteen more minutes had now passed.  The officer radioed the description of our son and that he was non-communicative.  And just as a second officer pulled up, JC walked up the street, carrying our shoeless boy.

The officer was calm and happy for us, and told us we did the right thing. So many children with autism wander and many are drawn to water (and our son does love to play in water if he can find it), especially ponds, steams, and swimming pools. My husband had found AJ just down the street playing in the backyard of a stranger’s house. JC would not have seen him had AJ not just stepped off the back porch for a moment and gone back up the neighbor’s steps. AJ had a scrape on his knee, probably from falling while jumping over the side of the yard onto the concrete, and since he could not get back up the way he came, had probably just wandered down and across our busy main street by our home into another backyard. He was not worried, nor was he crying, nor was he afraid. It was just another yard.

It was almost six months later when I connected our story of losing AJ for an afternoon to another, familiar story. Imagine a mother and father traveling with their extended family and neighbors, doing something they have done every year around the holidays.  They know their son is a bit different, but he’s still a kid just like other kids.  They are on the return trip home and it hasn’t been that long—only a day’s journey, when they realize they can’t remember the last time they saw him. Didn’t we see him at lunch? Or was that breakfast? Wasn’t he with his cousin? Or was he with the other cousin? The parents begin to be worried, and start looking among all their families and friends and realize their son is not with them. They head back to the city and search for him. The news starts to spread among their friends in the city and people are out looking for their little boy, but no one can find him. Another day passes, then two, then three. Then finally, they go into the temple and there he is, sitting on the ground with the teachers, listening and asking questions. It was just another day. He wasn’t worried, nor was he crying, nor was he afraid. Instead, he asks his parents, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Sometimes we imagine that Joseph and Mary must have been angry and upset in this moment. I wonder if they were just so glad they found him. As you might understand, this story resonates with me and other parents of children with autism. While it is true all children have a natural curiosity and may wander a bit, children with autism often do not understand boundaries and safety. They do not understand that going someplace that is unknown may not be safe, because what they have known is safe. They may not look back for a parent or guardian to be close by. And they may not know that they need to ask for help, nor be able to communicate that need effectively to others.

April is Autism Awareness Month and today, April 2nd, is World Autism Day. The numbers are staggering: here in the United States, the CDC just raised the rate to 1 out of 68 children, and 1 out of 45 boys are diagnosed with autism. We do not know exactly why the rates are increasing nor why is it so prevalent in boys but there are girls also diagnosed with autism.

There is probably someone in your church who has a friend with autism, or a grandchild with autism, or they themselves may have autism. We as the church generally have not done a great job of including and welcoming those on the autism spectrum. We have turned around and shushed children who cannot sit still or be quiet, and many children on the autism spectrum have difficulty sitting still or make spontaneous noises. We have told parents that they cannot leave their children in the nursery because they are too old or too big, and we have told them they cannot attend Sunday school because they are still not toilet trained and are a distraction for the other children and teachers. We have not included people with autism, or with other disabilities in general, into the life of the church beyond a general welcome to worship, and even then we may not feel entirely welcome.

In our congregation, as people have come to know AJ, they also know that he likes to head out the back door. On occasion I have to run from the front of the church, but most of the time someone is keeping their eye on the stairs or the back door now. AJ likes to explore and wander, but now the church recognizes him as one of their own, and they do their part to help.

We see Jesus welcoming the children when the disciples wanted to send them away. We see Jesus embracing the ill and disabled when the disciples wanted to ignore them.  We see Jesus turning to those who cried out to him when the disciples wanted him to move along quickly.  

But when I look to Jesus, I also see our humanity reflected in him. I see someone who loves, who grieves, who prays, who wonders, and who wanders. I see Jesus as a child similar to my own. I see my son’s autism reflected in Jesus. For Autism Awareness month, let us all see Jesus reflected in the children around us, and let us learn to welcome them and to help keep them safe and loved.

 


Practicing Inclusion

By Rev. Mindi

“Inclusive” has become a buzzword descriptor among churches these days. Perhaps you mean it to include LGBTQ individuals and families in your congregation. Perhaps you mean it to include people of different ethnic backgrounds. Maybe it means including people of different economic statuses.

Inclusion means including everyone. It doesn’t mean creating a special program for or a specific mission outreach to a certain group of people.  Inclusion means you actually include someone: you value, encourage participation, listen to and incorporate all people into your congregational life.

Inclusion is actually very difficult to accomplish. Most of us have the best of intentions but don’t actually follow through. Most of the time, our inclusion is actually under another buzzword, “Welcoming.” We throw together a welcoming statement and say we welcome all people. We might even go to the next level and say we welcome all persons regardless of age, gender expression, sexual orientation, racial or ethnic identity, economic status, ability, etc. etc. etc.  However, there are places where we specifically do not include people and we need to not only be aware but acknowledge this.

We often do not include children, whether it be in worship (though many churches do include children to a degree, but we still often send them out after the Children’s Message) or in church business. Sure, we might ask them their opinions or talk with them in children’s sermons about things happening in the life of the church, but rarely are they included in business meetings or given the right to vote (my current church is in the process of revamping its constitution and it still states that members have to be age 16 in order to vote).  We have our reasons—they are not old enough to understand, or they would just vote the way their parents did giving them twice the vote, or other reasons we pass off. We also don’t include homebound members (often still called “shut-ins” in the life of the church) because they are no longer able to attend.  Sure, we visit them now and then, but we don’t include them in the business of the church, or the worship, for that matter.

And we do not include people with differing abilities, usually. We assume persons who use a wheelchair or walker, or those who have long-term illness, mental or physical, cannot participate in the life of the church. Sure, we welcome them to worship and we may build ramps and make our restrooms accessible, but we often do not ask them about participating, assuming they cannot.

Can a person who uses a wheelchair still hand out bulletins and greet people? Can a child carry the offering plate? Can a person who is ill still help make decisions in the life of the church? Can a young teen have a mind-blowing idea that could change the church? Of course!

Look at your congregation’s practice of inclusion. First look at what you say about yourself. Then look to see what you are really doing. Who is in leadership? Who is involved in worship? Who is involved in outreach or other ministries? What is the diversity represented? Even if there is little ethnic diversity in your congregation, look for other diversities. Are people with differing abilities represented? Are people of different ages represented? Economic status? How do you include home-bound members and those who deal with long-term illness?

How are you practicing inclusion in the life of your church? Is it a matter of lip-service, or are you doing your best to include people from all areas of life?  If not, how could you improve?

Here are some recent examples from churches I have known that have made a change to practice inclusion better:

 

-Including a ramp for the choir loft so that singers of all abilities could participate.

-Moving the choir down to the sanctuary floor for the anthem so that others could participate who could not get to the choir loft.

-Inviting a young man using a wheelchair to collect the offering

-Including a teen with Asperger’s on the youth outreach committee

-Making all restrooms accessible and changing the signs to “Restroom” with no gender indication

 

What can you do to practice inclusion better as a church community?