There's really just two things I want from the church we attend: I want them to keep James safe and I want them to love him.
We visited a new church last weekend for the first time. We had communicated with the pastor and the children's director in the week leading up to our visit. They didn't have a specific special-needs ministry, but they wanted to know what to do to help our son (who is nine years old with level 3 autism). We said he wouldn't be able to sit in the service with us. That he would need a one-on-one buddy at least for our first visit. They said no problem and they would see us on Sunday.
When we walked in on Sunday morning, the pastor and children's director walked right up to us. "We're so glad you're here and we don't want you to worry about James at all," the pastor said as he shook our hands. We walked to the children's area with the children's director and since she would be his buddy that morning, I told her a few of his habits (like putting things in his mouth and obsessively wanting all the doors closed). She smiled and said to enjoy the service as we walked back down the hall.
I sat down in the pew, exhaled, and thought, he will be safe and he will be loved.
That's all I really want. We've visited churches with amazing special-needs ministries. With sensory rooms and iPads and PECS schedules. And we've visited churches with no special-needs ministries. Our hope for churches of any size is the same—that James will be safe and loved.
Keeping children with disabilities safe is different for each child. For James it means they keep him from putting things in his mouth and make sure he doesn't elope (run away). For a child who has seizures, it means posting instructions on what to do to help if one happens while she's at church. For children with allergies it's taking certain snacks out of the room before they get there. But if parents communicate honestly with the church they attend, adjustments can be made to keep the child as safe as possible.
James can sense if he's being tolerated or if he's welcomed. And I can tell too. We don't want to feel like a burden or hassle. When we pick him up, we can tell how they reacted to him. We like to hear, "He's so cute! His smile lights up the room!" or "He had so much fun on the swings" or "Snack time was his favorite part." It's much harder for us to want to return when we pick him up and don't hear any feedback. Just, "Here he is. Have a great day," as they quickly move on to something else. James can't tell us what he did or if he had fun (or even if he hurt himself or was scared). Feeling like he was loved and appreciated means a lot to us!
Churches don't have to have the latest and greatest resources. They don't have to have certified therapists volunteering or all the answers for every possible scenario. What special-needs families really want is what all parents want when they go to church—safety and love.
Sandra Peoples is a pastor’s wife and mom to two boys. She’s the author of Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family.