Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Making Church Safe for Special Needs Families

Dear Readers,

This blogpost has been floating around in my head since last Sunday, and every time I've thought of it the word "safe" has come along with it. With the word "safe", I've thought of this quote from Narnia:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” 

That has absolutely zero relevance to the rest of this post, but I love that quote. I love Aslan and all that he represents. But that's a post for another day...

Today I want to tell you a story.

Last Sunday I was enjoying my time in the sensory room for kids with special needs. We have Sunday School, games, snacks, and the occasional craft in that room. There's a lot of laughter and a lot of singing and a lot of smiles. The Special Ministries at our church is so welcoming; and although my brothers don't need to attend their classes, the fact that they were even offered was the biggest reason we chose to attend there. We loved that this church valued its members and families with special needs and went out of their way to make them welcome. Special Ministries is truly an amazing place. 

Sometimes the walk into the classroom isn't so amazing, though. I sometimes feel like special needs families experience life through a bubble, looking out on the world of civilians. It's hard when they have to step out of their bubble, because most of the civilians just don't understand. 

Last Sunday one of our dads (whose daughter is one of my favorite students) walked into the classroom with a sigh. He explained that his daughter had had a meltdown just feet from the door, but that they were working to get her in as soon as possible. I hesitated in my ball-throwing for a moment before stepping out after him. I didn't really have a game plan, I just thought I'd see if a different face could capture her interest enough to get her up off the ground. I felt the bubble pop as I walked toward this family, with their daughter laying on the ground with her shirt covering her face. 

She was unimpressed with my excitement over all the fun things we had planned in class that day. We got her up, and she bolted. Right into a family. I only looked at the woman she ran into for a split second before racing after her, but that split second was enough that the tears came hot in my eyes. If they fell they dried quickly, though, because I was running and reaching and trying to stop her from getting hit by a car as she rushed into the road. Her dad intercepted us and we formed a barrier around her as they tried to locate their car. The whole time, I could hear her mom behind us,  explaining, apologizing,"She has Autism". 

When I walked back up from their car, I looked around kind of stunned. There were probably five men working as "greeters" and traffic control in the area we had just raced through--yet none of them assisted. I have a feeling one or more of them asked what was wrong, hence the mom's constant explanations. 

But still.

If you saw a five year old running out into the road about to get hit by a car, would you wait to ask permission before running after it? 

No. You would run. You would want to protect that little one.

This student is my age and size, so it didn't make sense to the viewers that she was running. They stared and gasped and asked if everything was alright, but they didn't jump in and meet the need. Their stares and questions made it worse. 

This family needed someone to sprint after their daughter and hold her from running farther. There were five men standing around.

Yet it was left to an 18 year old in heels to make the attempt, and fail. 

If her dad hadn't of been there she would have gone farther.

The look on that woman's face that brought me to tears? There was no concern. It was anger. Her expression was that of hot red anger, the kind of anger someone giving you the finger on the freeway might display. 

This is so far from being okay. 

The special needs families aren't the ones who created the bubble--the civilians did. They pushed these families into their bubble by their lack of compassion, unwillingness to educate themselves, and their fear. 

I don't think they did it maliciously. No one standing around that Sunday understood what was going on--they weren't making a hate statement against Autism. The problem isn't the civilians themselves, it's the lack of education. 

I'm so heartbroken that my church offers this beautiful safe haven for these families, yet one step outside that door and they are met with ignorance and misunderstanding. 

Want to know how to make your church accessible to special needs families? Don't just create another bubble for them; educate the general populace of your church. Teach a class on disabilities and how to serve these members of our church, our world. Require everyone who becomes a member to spend one Sunday in the Special Ministries classroom. Make pamphlets with one sentence blurbs of information about the five most common disabilities in your church. Don't want to put that much energy into it? Get pamphlets from Joni and Friends. 

Maybe if these resources were in place, one of the greeters would have recognized this student from his one Sunday in the classroom and chased after her. Another might recall that one-sentence fact about Autism and realize he could help. 

And maybe we just need to wake up to the needs of people (with and without special needs) in general. Are we all so self-focused (even on our way to church), that we don't see the need right before our faces? Angry-eyed woman walked right into us--this dear student didn't have to go far to run into her. She was right behind me, with my butt in the air as I bent over and tried to get my friend off the ground. This student's whole family surrounded her, I honestly have no idea how angry-eyed missed it. 

When you go to church next Sunday, walk around with your eyes wide open. You don't even have to step inside the Special Ministries classroom or chase after a student to make a puncture in the bubble--just smile. Wave. Ask how they're doing. Life can be hard for these families, and many of them leave the church due to the lack of understanding and compassion. Please don't be one of the ones who sends them away. 

You can make it safe. Your Blogger,


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