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Making Church Inclusive for the Exceptional Family

By Meshell Baylor, MHS

"Inclusion is the celebration of diversity put into action"

 

As parents, we do our best to provide morals and principles to help see our children through life. We use the teachings and life lessons we have gathered from our faith and our prayers to guide us through the everyday cares of life. Church is a place of worship; it is a place where you can take shelter in times of trouble, anxiety, and unease in life. For some, church can be defined as the foundation on which people can lean when they are struggling. When a parent wants to attend mass, church, or any fellowship they choose, are the doors of the church receptive to your entire family? Are there provisions available to make the family feel welcome and safe? The biggest question is whether the church makes the family feel included.

 

Many families take shelter in their religious faith to get through the hardship of learning that their child has a physical or developmental disability. As parents go through many stages of grief when a child is diagnosed with a disability, there are times in which their faith is questioned. They attend church in hopes that a message of hope, inspiration, and empowerment can get them through the work/school week. Church is the backbone of the community, and all families know that we are all welcome. For the exceptional child, it can be difficult to sit for long periods, the music may be extremely loud, or even crowds of people may be too much to bear. The question we all must ask is how the church makes the family feel.

 

When my son was diagnosed with autism, navigating life was challenging, and church was our solitude from everything. Church seemed like a place where I could feel my son could be himself and not be judged. One unexpected Sunday, Justin was struggling. He eloped, began to make noises, and could not sit still. My spouse, my mother, and I would take turns taking him outside for a break, giving him a sensory-friendly toy to help him get through the service, and sometimes we would just make the notion to leave service early. On this day, a deacon made an atrocious statement about chastising my child. My jaw dropped, and my heart fell to the floor. A place of worship became a place of shame, so I picked up my son and left the church.

 

I took days away from the church to breathe and allow my emotions to subside so that I could take time to rationalize what was said to me and connect with the pastor to help educate a community that should know that all God's children come from different colors, shapes, sizes, abled and disabled we are all the same to him. I told members of the church about what autism is and how we should welcome all families with children with disabilities because we are all one body. I informed them that confusing bad behavior with a disability is not what autism is. I told that deacon to be mindful of what he says to a family coming to church, and, if he does not know what Autism is, not to pass down judgment on topics you may not comprehend. I left that church and began to receive a fellowship at another church that was aware of inclusion, but I did not leave until I helped them learn that inclusion means everyone is welcome.

 

According to the Banquet Network and US Census, 80% to 85% of churches don't have any level of special needs ministry. The church should be acceptable in inclusion for the handicapped if they need wheelchair accessibility and provide a ministry or services that may make all members feel welcome no matter where they are. If you have a church home that does not know how to be inclusive, here are some key tips

 

Communicate: Communicate with your church pastor, priest, or spiritual advisor about what a disability is and how they can provide a safe space for all members, disabled children, and adults to feel included.

 

Establish 2nd Service: Many churches can hold a special service for children and special needs families to feel included, such as low-level music so it is not too loud, reducing the lighting, and allowing the children to participate in church festivities.

 

Safety: Teach your staff how to be helpful to an

 child or family when attending church. Educate them on your child if they tend to elope or need help. Have a buddy system at church to support the child and family.

 

Participation: If the child wants to participate in church programs, allow them to. Just like an Individualized Education Program meeting, ensure all members, church associates, and directors are part of the team so that the child feels included. Give them an Easter speech or poem, or allow them to dance like all the other children do because the goal is to include, not exclude!

 

Create A Special Sunday: Hold a service in specific months to highlight various causes to raise awareness. Autism Awareness is in April. Create a service designed to acknowledge and highlight wonderful things happening in the autism community. Celebrate Down Syndrome Awareness and various other causes. The overall objective is to celebrate every individual proudly so everyone feels included, welcome, and celebrated.

 

There is a quote that says the doors of the church are always open. When we come together to worship, we must unite as a family, as one body, to be given words of encouragement, empowerment, and love to get us through the day. We must come as we are and remember that we are all human beings and we are loved. My biggest takeaway from church now is seeing the joyfulness of my son Justin walking through the doors with happiness because he knows that he is celebrated for who he is and that he is welcome.

 

Reference:

 

Meshell Baylor, MHS, is a mother of four children—two of whom are on the autism spectrum. She serves her community as a social worker and advocate in the Los Angeles area. She has a bachelor’s degree in human services from Springfield College and a Master's Degree in Human and Social Services. Meshell continues to volunteer and give within her local area while serving the special needs community.

Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities snnla.org/c-a-d-d/

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