Stephen J. Tracey
Many Orthodox Presbyterian churches warmly welcome, encourage, and disciple people and families with disabilities. At Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine, we are learning that to minister to families with disabilities, you don’t need to be an expert; you just need a teachable and willing heart.
There is plenty of reading material on disability and the church, with interesting titles like “How Wide Is Your Door?” or “Through the Roof” or “The Inclusive Church.” But it was not reading any of these that set me thinking, or that pushed Lakeview OPC to learn. It was Finley.
Finley is one of God’s precious gifts to our church. He was born twelve years ago, a child of the covenant. His parents and grandparents are believers. He is fourth in a family of six children. At the time of his birth, we did not know there was a problem, but eventually, along with his mom and dad, we learned that the challenges were serious.
Around the same time, my own son, Mark, volunteered for one week as a short-term missionary at the Joni and Friends New England Family Retreat (see sidebar on page 8). This retreat provides five days of respite for families who are affected by disability. Each family has at least one companion assigned to them, called a short-term missionary. Mark wasn’t driving yet, so my wife and I went to pick him up at the end of the retreat. We arrived in time for the closing ceremony, walking into a gymnasium with about three hundred people in it. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, there were children with disabilities. Just then, in came Andrew. That year, he was not in his wheelchair. Having just had several surgeries, he was in a kind of small, solid stretcher. He had two buddies assigned to him, and they carried him everywhere as though he was in an old-fashioned sedan chair. Mark later told me that everywhere they went, the buddies would shout, “Make way for the king!” Andrew was grinning a big grin as he came in the room.
Then the slideshow began. As a picture of each child came onto the screen, there were whoops and hollers and cheers. Here were little people, made in the image of God, in a place where they were being celebrated just for being themselves. They were being recognized and loved and honored. They were noticed; not pitied, not mocked, not hidden from sight.
I must tell you that I cried. I didn’t know what to say. And to be frank, I still don’t know what to say. I’m still trying to find words to describe not simply what I think is the compassion that is shown at Joni and Friends Family Retreats, but the justice, and rightness, if not the righteousness, of it all. This is love. And this love is the fulfilling of the law and the gospel.
That grinning boy, Andrew, passed into the presence of the Lord Jesus a few years ago. He was a wonderful child. He loved Jesus. And he was deeply loved.
Yet not all special-needs children are so warmly received by Christians. Author and advocate Mike Dobes comments,
Families affected by disability spend countless hours and energy navigating the education system, the medical system, the therapy system, and the list goes on. What would it look like if they could attend your church and not feel like there was a list of items to navigate? What if church was not another place where they felt like a burden, but instead was a place where they were loved, cared for and even celebrated? (Are You Ready?, 27)
After the retreat, I began to think more carefully about our church and disability. At first, I was only thinking about Finley and ministering to his family. We began to address the issue of accessibility in our physical space. We realized that our church building needed a better ramp, and then an elevator. We introduced a buddy scheme for Finley in Sunday school.
But a question that first came to me at the retreat kept bothering me: where were the families with disabilities in our community? One day I asked Finley’s father, a ruling elder, “Does our area just not have very many families with disabilities?” (You see my ignorance.) “Oh no,” he replied. “Just be in the therapist’s or surgeon’s waiting room at the right time.” That is when I realized that perhaps we just weren’t looking.
In the year 2017, an estimated 12.7 percent of noninstitutionalized men and women in the United States reported a disability, according to disabilitystatistics.org. The prevalence in Maine is 16.5 percent.
I started to explore the Joni and Friends website—every nook and cranny of it. There’s a lot of material there. Then we invited Joni and Friends (New England) to our church to help us think more carefully and practically about these things. It was profoundly helpful. We looked at our building, and we looked at our attitudes. We thought more carefully about the things to say and the things not to say. We learned some etiquette toward people in wheelchairs.
We also began learning about the autism spectrum. As Doug Babbitt teaches all volunteers in the training, “When you’ve met one child on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one child on the autism spectrum.” It’s a spectrum, after all. A buddy system is a simple and effective way to begin to help both the child and the family who are affected by this need. If you’re exhausted after serving as a buddy, remember how the moms and dads must feel!
In the last two years, another family arrived at Lakeview, a single mom with a boy on the autism spectrum. His grandparents are already members. This young man hears every word I say when I’m preaching, but while listening carefully he also often draws a map of the roads around the church, marking every utility pole, and distinguishing the four different types. There are four different utility poles leading to our church building. Who knew? Well, this little guy knows. He perceives things that I overlook. A gift.
Both Finley’s family and the new family invited another family to visit our church. Their little guy is also on the spectrum. He now sits in the very front row, in the front right seat. And I hear him repeating every word of the Lord’s Prayer. In the same year another family arrived, with a five-year-old son who has Down syndrome.
We also set aside one of our rooms as a sensory room and bought equipment for it, including weighted blankets, a huge bean bag, and several sensory toys to help calm an over-stimulated mind. Another family uses that room every week. It has enabled their whole family to attend church.
One way to learn more about disabilities is simply to volunteer at one of the thirty-four Joni and Friends Retreats throughout the country. A few years ago, Mark finally persuaded me to volunteer with him at a Family Retreat. I was apprehensive, but agreed. I served for a week as the buddy of a teenage boy who was there with his mother. His medication was being changed, and he was in great pain. (Getting medication right for children on the autism spectrum is not always easy.) I spent a few days with this deeply gifted and artistic young man and glimpsed the daily challenges his mother faces. There are few masks at a Joni and Friends Retreat; the pain and difficulty is all too apparent. But so, also, is the happiness. It is the sweetest happiness this side of glory.
Now, I not only go as a volunteer, to do whatever they need me to do, but I go to learn. I learn from the families: they care the most for their children; they are passionate advocates; they tell the funniest stories and often weep the heaviest tears. I also learn from the staff and the other volunteers. Then, I try to bring it home and fit it into our ordinary church. Now I find myself looking around our community for families affected by disability.
Another way to begin to consider disability in the context of the church is through the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14. Jesus prefaces the parable with an instruction: “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Then Jesus tells the story of a man who gave a great banquet. When those invited turn down his hospitality, the man instructs his servant to bring in the poor, crippled, blind, and lame that his house might be filled.
It is poor exegesis to think we will invite everyone who is suffering from “spiritual” disabilities, but not people with physical or intellectual disabilities. Jesus saw people with disabilities. He did more than notice them; he filled his house with them. He instructs us to do the same.
So where do you start? Joni and Friends provides many free resources at irresistiblechurch.org/library. These booklets are available to download for free. The booklet “Start with Hello” has a host of practical suggestions, a few of which I have adapted here:
First: Pray. Ask for wisdom in helping families with disabilities. Recognize that families are often exhausted and may have been hurt elsewhere.
Second: Saying hello is always a good start. We are, after all, commanded to greet one another. Doesn’t the command say there is to be a holy kiss? Well … hugs are good too! We need to greet people. Remember the warning in Matthew 5:47: “And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
Third: Ask families what would be helpful. They know their child well. Be gentle and wise. Don’t ask, “What’s wrong with her?” Ask, “How can we be of help today?”
Fourth: Be patient. There might be noise. You won’t die. You might be drooled on. Fret not.
Fifth: Remember Jesus’s compassion in Matthew 19:14: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ ”
We all have much to learn. I have much to learn. Lakeview Orthodox Presbyterian Church has much to learn. We thank God for the precious gifts he has given us in these individuals with disabilities. More and more we understand that they are indispensable to the body of Christ.
The author is pastor of Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine. New Horizons, July 2019.