inclusion

2017: What The (White Protestant) Church Must Do

By Rev. Mindi

I read this post shared by an Episcopalian friend this week, and along with some online conversations on “what is the future of the church?” with declining attendance and resources, I’m wondering what has happened to our ecumenical movement? What has happened to our movement for unity?

As an American Baptist pastor married to a Disciples of Christ pastor, I can tell you that not much really separates us. We all do baptism pretty much the same way. We do communion the same way, albeit Baptists tend to only do communion once a month. We aren’t opposed to doing it every Sunday, we just make it out to be more work than it really is. We have some common roots in history. We have faced some of the same struggles on inclusion and diversity in recent years, and as both denominations have taken steps to truly live into God’s ways of love and justice and the teachings of Jesus, some of our more conservative kindred have gone out the door, or have simply stopped talking with us.

And it’s not only American Baptists and Disciples, but Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists (and other UCC-ers), and the list goes on. While we vary in our ways of baptism and communion and vary in our liturgical rigidness, when we start talking about issues of justice, Black Lives Matter, inclusion of transgender and lesbian, gay, bisexual and other queer folks, and welcoming refugees and immigrants, we have so much in common. I regularly have conversations in ecumenical gatherings of clergy (especially fellow clergy in a similar age range to me, but not always) about the same issues facing our churches. The same issues facing our communities. The same longing to follow Jesus and being held up by resources.

So why oh why oh WHY ARE WE NOT WORKING TOGETHER? Why are we still separated on Sunday mornings? Why is (as the author of the blog post I shared stated) Sunday morning still the most segregated hour, decades after Martin Luther King Jr. called us out on it?

I know I am not the first to say it, but as a response to white privilege and white supremacy, perhaps those of us in the traditional white protestant churches, as we face closing down and shrinking numbers, need to go join a Black church. Perhaps we need to listen to someone else preach on Sunday morning and tell us how to be involved in the community. We can do this within our own denomination to start with.

Secondly, we can join with our kindred down the street. While many of us have “full communion” with other denominations or allow for those of other ordination standards (or none at all!) to preside at the table and at baptism, we do not move beyond those relationships (as again, the author of the blog post I shared stated).

As we enter 2017, the future of the church doesn’t lie in us keeping to ourselves on Sunday morning. If we do that, we will continue to shrink, decline, and close. Those of us who are white Christians need to especially consider giving up our power and ownership of space to join with our Christian kindred of color to truly follow the ways of Jesus (who wasn’t white, as we keep pointing out but fail somehow to truly comprehend). We might find that the church isn’t declining, but thriving, if we give up our own vision of what the church is supposed to look like, and join in God’s vision:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, and to the Lamb!”

~Revelation 7:9-10

Love for Country, Love for Our Neighbors, Love for Ourselves

By Rev. Mindi

This video is going viral on Facebook, thanks to the Ad Council and the campaign #WeAreAmerica. I love what this video is about in general, but there is an underlying message that I think is even more important: our identity--all of who we are--is something incredibly special. And while the title of the video is "Love Has No Labels," the narrative states that, "We know that labels don't devalue us, they help define us, keeping us dialed into our cultures and our beliefs in who we are as Americans."

Perhaps, as Christians, there is something we can learn from this video, as we work to include the great diversity of our communities that we minister with and to. Because our identity is holy and sacred.

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.

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. 



#YesAllWomen

By Rev. Mindi

In the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, this time in Santa Barbara, the hashtag #YesAllWomen popped up on Twitter. Because while this was another mass shooting, this time the motive was quite clear from the beginning: the shooter’s hatred of women.

This isn’t mental illness. And while the shooter may have had a mental illness, it does not go hand-in-hand with his motives. Misogyny is not a mental illness. Misogyny is a direct result of patriarchy. Women must be controlled, despised, scapegoated and blamed.

Of course, the backlash started almost immediately with “not all men.” We women know that. We know that not all men hate women—but the minute we start to dismiss it we have lost the voice of women. All women have experienced sexism. All women have experienced fear. All women have been marginalized, oppressed, and in some ways have experienced violence or the repercussions of it. The fact that the woman who began the hashtag has now removed her Twitter account due to the threats against her is proof enough.

And within the hashtag other conversations have occurred. Often, white women end up dominating the conversation, ignoring the violence of racism within the conversations of patriarchy and feminism. The voices of women of color, women with disabilities, trans women, and women who are poor may be ignored or trampled on, or seen as not as important as the “overall” message of violence against all women. But we cannot include all women if we do not include the voices of those who have experienced violence and hate due to race, sexual orientation, transgender, disability or poverty.

It is time—instead of letting another misogynist gone rampant—to allow the voice of women to speak. It’s time to allow the stories that women share to speak for themselves. For all of us to listen to the voices of the girls in Nigeria, the Christian woman in prison in Sudan, the voices of women in our churches who have experienced sexism and violence.

As Christians, where do we speak up for all women? Another hashtag, created by Joelle Colville Hanson, #YesAllBiblicalWomen is a powerful voice about the marginalization and oppression of women in the Bible, in church history, and church life today. There is now a Twitter account @AllBibleWomen that is tweeting the stories of Biblical women along the hashtag that speak out for women from the Bible to church life today. Here are a few examples tweeted out in the last two days:

Sarah: because my husband thought pimping me out was better than other men killing him to take me.

The Daughters of Zelophehad: Because women controlling their own lives was so radical we had to advocate for the laws to change.

Miriam: because I was a prophet and a worship leader, and my role is minimized to sister and singer.

Joanna: Because I was an apostle, but they did not believe me, and did not grant me the title.

Phoebe: Because I smuggled the Epistle to the Romans into the city, but women still can't be action heroes.

Michal: bc I loved/protected a man who "won" me from my father by sexually violating 100 foreign men. Turned he was a rapist and murderer.

 

For more, check out Twitter #YesAllBiblicalWomen @AllBibleWomen, and #YesAllWomen

Let the voice of women, silenced in the Bible, silenced in our churches, and silenced by gunshots, be heard loud and clear. 

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.