This poem by St. Thomas Aquinas, particularly the last line, touches my heart:
Because of my compassion the sun wanted to be near me all night,
And the earth deeded her fields to me, and all in heaven said,
“We have voted you our governor; tell us your divine mandate.”
And I did, and God will never revoke it:
Nothing in existence is turned away.
Can you imagine living in a world where nothing—no one—is turned away?
I must admit, it’s hard to picture in this day and age. Where the other is constantly pointed out and ridiculed, where wars erupt over differing religious beliefs, where immigrant children are taken from parents and jailed.
It’s been nearly thirty years since my then-5-year-old son was asked not to come back to Sunday School. Too many of us in the special needs community have experienced this trauma. We’ve heard the words—or felt the meaning in turned backs—Your child is not welcome here. We've watched as our children became the other in the one place in the world we knew as safe, the one place in the world—outside our homes—where we believed our children would be loved and accepted just as they are: the Church.
Thankfully, the tide is turning in many churches across the United States. Parents and advocates of children and adults with disabilities are rising up to plan and carry out training for Sunday school teachers and Christian education leaders, to set up buddy programs for Sunday schools and worship services, to educate the Body of Christ about what the scriptures have to say about inclusion. First Corinthians 12:12-27 is a good place to start). Key Ministry is a prime example!
I often say that my son Joel, who has autism, has been the greatest spiritual teacher of my life. The lessons haven’t always been easy, and sometimes they’re not clear until later. But year after year after year, Holy Spirit knowledge pours forth from this young man and blesses all whose eyes and ears are open and receptive. And that includes his church.
Joel teaches joy and abandonment in worship. He teaches patience and forbearance during manic episodes. He teaches unconditional love. I’ll never forget the day he stood up in front of our church with a microphone and whispered, just loud enough for everyone to hear, “I love my church.”
Three weeks ago the Oxford Vineyard held its very last service in the storefront building Wally, Joel, and I have known as church for nearly ten years. Change is hard for Joel, as it is for most people with autism—and for many of us without autism! The worship was exceptionally moving that last day, and Pastor John gave a great sermon. He thanked God for everything that had happened in this building. He prayed for our new building and the people that would be drawn there to know God, and ended by praying blessings over the new people that would occupy this building that had served us so well.
Kathy’s son Joel
He closed with an “Amen,” and set his microphone on the stage. People began greeting one another, praying for those who needed prayer, and grabbing more coffee and donuts.
Suddenly, I heard Joel’s voice over the mic. “Hey!” he said, standing near the stage. “Jesus loves me!” In a clear, strong voice he began to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”
Jesus loves me this I know/For the Bible tells me so/Little ones to Him belong/They are weak but He is strong/Yes, Jesus loves me/Yes, Jesus loves me/Yes, Jesus loves me/The Bible tells me so
Conversation stopped. Prayer teams stopped. Time stopped.
And then time started up again as everyone joined in, singing along. Joel beamed. When the song came to an end, he gave an emphatic, “Yeah!” The room erupted in applause.
There was hardly a dry eye in the church.
Our pastor’s wife, Kim, laughing and crying at the same time, said in wonderment, “We couldn’t have chosen better last words for this building, Joel! Thank you!”
Again, the words of St. Thomas of Aquinas:
Nothing in existence is turned away.
Seriously, we can’t afford to turn this kind of wisdom away just because it looks different, talks different, walks different, worships different.
I am going to paraphrase Galatians 3:29-29. See if you can find my addition to the text:
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female, non-disabled and disabled. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises. (The Message)
And in Isaiah 55:11 God says this:
I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work. For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think. Just as rain and snow descend from the skies and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth, Doing their work of making things grow and blossom, producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry, So will the words that come out of my mouth not come back empty-handed. They’ll do the work I sent them to do, they’ll complete the assignment I gave them. (The Message)
God’s assignment to us, The Church? To see that no one is turned away, to make sure everyone’s gifts are called out and celebrated. To say, your child is welcome here.
Kathleen Bolduc is the mother of three sons, the youngest of whom is an adult son with autism. Kathy is a spiritual director, co-founder of Cloudland, a contemplative retreat center, and the author of The Spiritual Art of Raising Children with Disabilities and Autism & Alleluias. She can be reached through her website: kathleenbolduc.com