“Oh God, why did you do this to my child? Why did you do this to me?”
I have asked God those questions many times over the years, and I’m confident virtually every special needs parent, particularly of children more severely affected, has asked as well. It is completely natural to seek an explanation to what can be the most unexpected, and life changing, issue in our lives…carrying for a child with disabilities.
God will answer these questions, but before we can hear His answers, it is important to know what He has already told us about people with disabilities. When in doubt, first check the owner’s manual:
Psalm 139:13-16 (God designed everyone…)
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
Exodus 4:10-11 (…including those of us with disabilities.)
10 Moses said to the LORD, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” 11 The LORD said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD ?
John 9:1-3 (Thus disabilities are not punishment, but are to display God’s power…)
1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
1 Corinthians 12:21-26 (…and therefore should be treated with honor.)
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
These verses explain that all of us, including those of us with disabilities, were designed by God Himself with a specific plan for our lives. Given that we are all part of God’s plan, we are dependent on each other and should treat each other with respect.
For many people, the practice of their faith is a critically important part of their lives, often as important as home and family. Regardless of one’s particular faith, it is important for people and families with disabilities to be reinforced, affirmed, and supported in their walk. The benefits which come from engaging with fellow members of their faith are significant, such as better mental and physical health, gaining a sense of community and belonging, opportunities to learn about God and His plan for their lives, and the opportunity to engage with non-disabled friends in a safe environment.
Finding a church home can be very challenging, and as a result, people and families with disabilities are considered the most unchurched group in America. As my friend, songwriter, special needs dad, and Baptist pastor Dr. Jim Markle wrote in “The Satire Song”:
We’ve got ministry going on all over the place, we’ve got a committee position for you; but when it comes to special needs people, we haven’t got a clue. The pastor says everyone’s welcome, but you better not make too much noise; the special kids can stay in the nursery, but they better not chew on the toys. Yeah, we all know Jesus loves us, and he is coming back for sure. I just hope he doesn’t come in a wheelchair, because he won’t fit through the door.
Go into almost any public school Monday through Friday and you will find children with disabilities benefiting from a focused education. Go into many churches on Sunday and you will be hard pressed to find someone with a disability, though each pastor will say he or she wants to minister to all.
People with disabilities can be disruptive or require accommodations the church is not prepared to make. I’ve heard it said that for people with disabilities, the problem at church is not the stairs, but the stares.
Families with disabilities are always exhausted and the thought of going to a church, synagogue, or mosque for a likely disaster keeps them at home. That said, here’s an idea: instead of making them find a church, what if the church found them?
While federal legislation enabled people with disabilities to attend public schools, change in the church must come from within. Proactive ministry can effectively manifest in different ways. One church may create structured programs with physical infrastructure, while a church across the street may form life groups to wrap around families. Both efforts are great, because in lieu of doing nothing, there is no “right or wrong.” If a church member feels led to reach out to people and families with disabilities, here are five ideas to bring up with church leaders:
- Offer a “parents night out” evening. Caregivers are drawn to respite programs like politicians to a camera. It’s a great way to introduce a family to a new church in a giving way.
- Target the community with a focused outreach event. My family was introduced to one church through their annual Special Friends Dinner at Christmastime, an event that attracts everyone from families with small children to aging adults from local community homes.
- Provide support during worship services and bible study. Some people may simply need someone to sit with them during the service, while others may prefer a class designed specifically around their needs.
- Help people actually get to the church. Transportation is one of the biggest challenges many people face. Providing a way to meet that need can be a huge blessing.
- Provide heavily stressed caregivers with spiritual counseling or support groups. Many churches actively address social issues like divorce and addiction, yet families with disabilities may be able to avoid those traps altogether with early intervention.
While our houses of faith can improve their outreach, people and families with disabilities can do a few things as well to make this evolution easier. For example:
- Research churches in the area. Talk to friends, use social media, or just call churches and ask if they can accommodate your family. How the receptionist handles a simple phone call can be a window into the church’s soul.
- Tell a friend you would like to join them at their churchnext Sunday and see what happens. If the church does not have a special needs ministry, you may have just planted a seed that’s about to take root.
- Be reasonable. It’s unfair to church staff for parents of a child with severe behavior issues to suddenly show up on Sunday and expect the church to immediately accommodate their child. Even if a church has an established disability ministry, letting them know a few days in advance of your visit can be the difference between success and failure on Sunday.
- Balance providing advice versus over managing. This is extremely difficult for many special needs parents. When a church offers to help our children, we shouldn’t lose our cookies if everything is not done our way. If a church has volunteers willing to teach your special child for two or three hours every week, then don’t squabble over the minutiae.
- Give back. A church ministering to our special families deserves our time, talents, and gifts. For example, my wife enjoys serving the special needs ministry during vacation bible school and I pursue ministries that are not disability focused.
Those of us in the Christian faith are taught to follow the example of Christ. As Jesus constantly reached out to the hurting, outcast, and people with disabilities, we are called to do the same. Embracing uniquely challenged families can be a blessing for everyone involved. Fellowship can strengthen the foundation families need to face the day, while church members serving those with disabilities have the opportunity to share God’s grace and receive immediate gratification. Most important, the person with the disability can feel truly included in the heritage of his or her family and their faith community.