By Barb Stanley
I stood in the church, surrounded on all sides by people just like me. No one said it out loud, but we all knew that everyone in this room was just a bit different from many of the others who sipped coffee right down the hall. That was because each of us, lining the walls of our church’s Sensory Resource Room, has been part of a family affected by disability. Our personal stories were unique, some had children with Autism, some had children who are medically fragile, and some had experienced other challenges. As for me, I am not currently living with disability at the center of my family life, but I spent my entire childhood there. And though our stories were different, what we all had in common was that each of us understood what life was like when challenges, the kind that other people never even know exist, are just another part of daily life. In other words, we all had stories - including stories about church.
Most of the families that were gathered in this room with me were visiting for the afternoon. They had been invited by friends to attend an event hosted by our disability ministry. Most were actively looking for a church they could call home, one that would meet their families' needs right where they were. Some had been searching for years (let that sink in for a moment). Others had tried church a few times in the past. Still others, attended church faithfully, but spent most of the service roaming the halls with children who didn’t quite fit into regular children’s programming. None of these stories were new. We all have heard about families who have felt excluded by the church because their circumstances were too complicated. Truthfully, there were no unusual stories here. Except for the one that was happening right down the hall from us at that very moment.
You see, friends, I think it’s time that we write a new church story for families affected by disability. And I think it can look a little like this:
While a few team members and I talked to the community families in our Sensory Resource Room, our church foyer was lined with tables full of other people. People, who came out on a Sunday afternoon to drink coffee at 4pm (when no one really wants coffee) and support our mission. Many of these people are not part of a family affected by disability. Many have never known the anxiety of dropping off a child somewhere new and knowing that he won’t be able to communicate like everyone else. Most will never have to decide if trying to go to church is worth the risk of a public meltdown, or wonder if they will be welcomed back after it happens. Many of the people who gave their afternoon to us - who listened to the stories of our families, who partnered in prayer with our ministry, who signed up (or are already serving) as the hands and feet of Christ by supporting our kiddos who have disabilities on Sundays, - most of these people will never be personally impacted by significant disability. But they were with us anyway.
And that is so important, that I am going to say it twice. Many of the people who came to our event to help champion our disability ministry will never need disability ministry themselves. But because they believe that a church family means all families, they champion this mission, anyway. Church, this is the new story that we can write for families affected by disability - Finding disability support at church isn't a family's mission, instead it is a church family's mission.
Because when we stop seeing disability as a family's issue and start seeing it as a church family's issue, then we realize that we are all in this together. And this, friends, is something beautiful. In fact, its more than beautiful, it's Biblical: Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2. Fulfilling the law of Christ means we support each other, especially when some people who could use that support already have challenges that many of us will never even know about. This is the new story that I want to start telling. What about you?
So how do you write a church story like that?
Well, I believe it starts something like this:
If you are part of a church -
Love the people you don’t understand - anyway.
Serve in ministries that you will never need - anyway.
Pray for people that you will never know - anyway.
Give generously, even when it’s tempting not to - anyway.
Stretch yourself on things that feel hard - anyway.
Know that a leap of faith is required and take it - anyway.
And remember that as a church we are called to come together to reach all people for Christ. In fact, we are not just called to do that, anyway. We are called to do that in any way that will open the church doors to those who want to walk through them. This includes creating accessible environments for families affected by disability. And to do this effectively, the church must come together, supporting each other.
So, to my church family today (and the church I grew up in back in the day) thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for knowing that what is more important than understanding someone who is different from you, is simply just wanting to understand them better. To the families in our church who have children with disabilities, thank you for taking the risk to be part of our church family. Our church would not be complete without you. To our ministry team members and church leaders, those who have experience with disability and those who just care about those who do, thank you for making our ministry possible. And to those families who I met in a Sensory Resource Room at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon. Thank you for not giving up on church. Remember, that even if your church story started out tough, there are always new chapters left to write.
And most of all for each of you reading this now. The next time you meet someone who has challenges that you have never even thought about, I hope you will remember this. How you respond just may change the story that is being written in that person’s life. And even when we are different, we are better together, anyway.
And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Col 3:14
If you would like help supporting families affected by disability at your church, please visit wonderfulworks.net and sign up for free consulting.
If you believe that we can write a new story about disability and the church then please share this post with the hashtag #anyway