Four hours after my son Sean was born, our pediatrician informed me that she thought he had Down syndrome. That was a hard pill to swallow, but just as hard was breaking the news to my wife, Harriet, who was still in recovery from a C-section. All at once we were shocked, frightened, saddened, and disoriented. A particular future we had envisioned simply evaporated before our eyes. For both of us, it was like being crushed under a massive weight of uncertainty. This wasn’t in the plans we had made for our lives. Our older son, Luke, was four years old at the time, and he had to be wondering what in the world was going on.
My family lives in Texas. Harriet’s family lives in England. We had only recently moved to Dayton, Ohio, where I had taken a new job. Had it not been for the community of faith—both at the church we attended and the seminary where I worked—we would have been extremely isolated. At the time, our church, Stillwater UMC, did not have a focused ministry with people with disabilities. Many people, however, went out of their way to make sure we knew that they cared about us, cared about Sean, and wanted to do whatever they could to help. That in and of itself was extremely important.
Christian friendships buoyed us through this time. They gave us the support and allowed us the space to envision a new future—not exactly the same as the one we imagined before, but nonetheless filled with love, hope, and happiness. We began to think about life differently, to view people differently. We didn’t sink into despair, but weathered an emotional storm, only to come out the other side with a transformed sense of God’s love and the ways in which we could help to show that love to others.
You can imagine how pleased we were, then, when couple of years ago a member of our church, Sue Hey, came forward with an idea to start a new ministry for children and teens called Special Friends. Sue is an occupational therapist who works with people with disabilities, and she offered a simple but powerful proposal. In contexts like Sunday school, some kids require more attention than others do. Kids with various physical impairments, learning disabilities, and behavioral issues could become more active participants in the life of the church if they had “buddies” to help them through the morning. Our son Sean, for example, has some trouble observing boundaries. He’s likely to try to make a run for it and go tearing down the hallway. (Once he actually made it and joined the pastor up front during the sermon.) His buddy simply guides him back into the classroom and redirects him toward more appropriate activities.
So far the program has been a huge success. We have an annual kickoff we call “Special Friends Palooza” to generate publicity, and the ministry itself has become an increasingly important part of the life of our church. Sue is able to vet and train volunteers to help in the program, and she coordinates which buddies will be on duty on a given Sunday. Here’s a video describing how important this program has been for some of the families in our church:
Over the years, I have spoken in many different venues about theology, Bible, and ministry with people with disabilities. One common theme I have noticed is that many people want to do something like this in their church, but they don’t know how to get started. Not every church has an occupational therapist who has a clear idea of what a program like this should look like. The hesitancy to begin is totally understandable because there is potentially much that can go wrong if the program is not set up properly.
There are resources, however, that provide helpful information on the ins and outs of ministry with people with disabilities. The Disability Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church has a website with a resources page. Joni and Friends, an evangelical organization dedicated to ministry with people with disabilities, provides local-church training. I have a couple of recent blog posts related to resources for ministry with people with disabilities. You can find them here and here. If you’d like to connect with Sue from Stillwater UMC, you can email her at email@example.com.
A ministry with people with disabilities really doesn’t require an expert in the congregation. It simply requires a heartfelt desire to reach out to people in your community who live with mental, physical, and emotional impairments. You have to want to welcome these folks into your community of faith. Once you decide that you really want people with disabilities in your community, the rest will fall into place. The training, the personnel, the space… eventually, you will find a way to care for each of these.
About one in five people lives with some form of disability. If we think of people with various physical impairments, people on the autism spectrum, people with Down syndrome, people with significant ADHD, and those who live with other kinds of impairments, we can begin to see the breadth of the challenges and opportunities before us. Many families of kids with disabilities simply stop trying to attend church because they can’t find a community willing to do what is necessary to welcome their children on Sunday mornings. These families need Jesus. They need Christian community and the support of Christian friends.
When we reach out to people with disabilities, we engage in the church’s important work of justice and at the same time fulfill the evangelistic mandate given to us by Christ in Matthew 28. Starting a ministry of this kind may seem like a daunting task, but it can be done. With God’s help, and by drawing upon the resources already available to us, it can be done. People who never would have known Christ will come to know him. Families who would be isolated and alone will find community. Christian friendships will form. People like my wife and me, who had no idea what the future would hold, will weather emotional storms and emerge transformed. And people like Sean will find hands to hold and fathers and mothers in the faith to love them. Your church can do this, and I pray that it will.