Ryan and John have been friends since first grade. As John’s mother, Barbara Newman, says: “They fit together like a puzzle.
“John is a pretty typical, developing ‘kiddo’ with his own gifts and needs,” Newman says. “And Ryan, who is a very loyal friend, is very forgiving and excited [about life], and also happens to have Down syndrome. . . . It’s been so neat to watch how John’s strengths complement Ryan’s weaknesses, and how Ryan’s strengths complement John’s weaknesses.”
When John turned 16 and earned a driver’s license, he asked his mom if he could borrow the car to pick up Ryan. Newman explains: “That’s a gift to Ryan, because Ryan doesn’t have a driver’s license and probably won’t be able to get one in his lifetime.” At the time, however, in her “panicked mother” state, Newman called Ryan’s mother in a frenzy.
But Newman was reminded of the gift that Ryan brought to the relationship. “Ryan will not go to bed at night without covering in prayer the people who are important to him,” his mother told Newman. “John may have the driver’s license, but Ryan’s got him covered in prayer.”
Newman points out that many people usually think of the value they bring to a person with a disability, but that it’s important to remember that the blessing is mutual.
Church for Everyone
Unfortunately, many churches struggle to accommodate children with special needs, and these stresses often lead to some families feeling unwelcome at church. Newman is a special-education teacher and director of church services for the Christian Learning Center (CLC) Network, an organization that trains schools and churches in North America to better “minister with” people with disabilities and their families.1 Newman explains that too often children with disabilities have to leave Sabbath school because the parents are told that the resources the church has are inadequate.
“That just breaks my heart!” Newman says. “It must break the heart of God as well. [Church] is one place where each should be valued for who they are, and welcomed as . . . important and honored members of the body of Christ.”
Tammy, mother of 17-year-old Morgan, who has autism, applauds this philosophy. She describes the church that she and her family attended for about 10 years as loving and caring, but as Morgan grew, the members didn’t know how to meet her needs. For a year Tammy and her husband held Sabbath school just for Morgan in the church office, but they began to realize that things had to change.
“Year after year I watched the children do special Sabbath programs while Morgan lay there beside me,” Tammy says. “It began to hurt so much that I finally just couldn’t go back. If there wasn’t a place there for Morgan to worship, then there wasn’t a place for me.”
Tammy prayed fervently for guidance and soon learned about a church in her community that had a “special kids” program.
“Morgan is able to be herself and still be a part of the group, an active part of the body of Christ,” Tammy explains. “And knowing she is included, I am able to serve and to worship.”
Terri Saelee, mother of an 8-year-old with Down syndrome, says that the most important thing for church members to have is the love of Jesus in their hearts, and the determination to make Sabbath school a meaningful experience for everyone there, whether they’re disabled or not.
“Sometimes people just stumble in the dark as to what the specific needs and abilities of the child are,” she says.
Saelee tags communication as key. People tend to hesitate when asking about a child with disabilities, she says, because they’re not sure how the parents will feel about talking about it.
“Personally, I’m grateful when people ask about [my daughter] Kayla’s disability,” Saelee says. “I feel cared about, I feel loved. . . . If you make a mistake, it’s better to be too interested and too caring than to be too indifferent.”
If for no other reason, we should reach out for the sake of the “salvation of the souls of these precious little children,” Saelee says.
Let the Children Come
Saelee cites comments she has heard that seem to indicate that a child with a mental disability may not be able to have a relationship with God, but says that she has found the opposite to be true. When her oldest son was preparing for baptism Kayla showed interest in being baptized as well. Having grown up in a pastor’s family, Kayla definitely has “awareness of good and bad and a relationship with Jesus,” Saelee explains. On the day of the baptism, Kayla approached her mom and asked her to explain what baptism was. Saelee replied, “Jeffrey loves Jesus and he wants to follow Him, so . . . Daddy is going to help him go under the water and back up, so he can have a new life in Jesus.” Kayla responded, “Oh. Me baptized!” She was only 7.
Saelee immediately started praying for direction and wisdom on how to handle the situation.
“She will never understand [baptism] the way I do, not at the same cognitive level maybe. But the commitment is there,” Saelee says.
While Saelee was praying, Kayla got herself ready to go to church and then went to her mother and said, “Me ready! Me ready baptized!”
There on the bank of the river, alongside her brother, Kayla pledged her commitment to Jesus.
“She didn’t understand all [the vows], but she understood that it meant she loved Jesus. . . . She came out of the water with the most beautiful smile; she was just beaming. . . . Her relationship with Jesus is real. It’s not perfect, but she loves Jesus.”
Saelee stresses that even little children with disabilities can have a real conversion experience.
“Nurture that relationship with Jesus,” she says, “so that you can see that child [grow] and enjoy the greater accomplishments in heaven.”
Building Each Other Up
Phyllis Washington, North American Division (NAD) director of children’s ministries, concurs.
“Just because someone is in a particular condition doesn’t mean they’re incapable of understanding,” she says.
Washington became acutely in tune with families who are struggling with disability and illness during her work as hospital chaplain at a children’s hospital. While there she began holding worship services on Sunday mornings for the children and their families.
“It didn’t matter if their heads were shaved or they had crisscrossed scars across it or they were bald because of the chemo or they had just had an amputation or they had been in the burn unit; it didn’t matter, because they were all there to get well,” Washington says.
The same can be applied to those who come to church every week, she notes. “The Bible says we’re supposed to build each other up; well, what better way to do that than to be supportive of these families. There is a whole area that we’re missing. These folk are under the radar.”
Washington shares a story of a church of which a young girl with severe disabilities was a member. Though the child drooled and couldn’t speak well, the pastor allowed her to come up front in her wheelchair during the worship service to read the Scripture.
“He got a lot of flack for that!” Washington recalls. “But what did that do for that young girl? It made her feel as though she was a part of things! All we need to do is make just a little bit of reasonable accommodation.”
What About Adventist Schools?
Historically Adventist schools have not been adequately equipped to educate students with learning differences, but NAD Office of Education associate Carol Campbell says that’s changing.
“There’s now a process in place for addressing learning differences and helping teachers identify characteristics and develop accommodations for these characteristics in four key areas: reading, writing, math, and behavior,” Campbell says.
The inclusion program is called REACH (Reaching to Educate All Children for Heaven).2 Its mission is to “create a culture in which students with a variety of learning styles and needs can succeed” and to “empower teachers to focus on each student’s strengths and abilities while problem solving, and creating accommodations for areas of weakness.” For students whose needs are particularly challenging to address, outside support from public schools and other local resources is solicited.
Southern Adventist University added a master’s degree program in inclusive education to their curriculum in 1996, and the Upper Columbia Conference K-12 board of education set up a committee that same year to study the issue and to help teachers work with special-needs students in a more compassionate and effective manner. Other conferences have since joined the ongoing initiative.
The success of integrating students with learning differences into a regular classroom setting “largely depends upon the resources, training, and ongoing support provided to the teacher,” Campbell says. “Handled in the right way, children are very accepting of differences in others.”
Rising to the Challenge
Newman suggests that a Christian’s “reason for inclusion is based on setting up our communities in a way that honors God’s pattern for community. Many times it is a leap of faith,” she says.
Washington describes this leap of faith as starting with a “renovation of thinking” and notes that NAD children’s ministries is actively targeting children who aren’t being brought to church.
“A lot of times a special needs kid is . . . not brought to Sabbath school or church because they can be disruptive,” she says. “We need to be trained and then just jump in” and do what it takes to make it work.
To help church members be better equipped, Washington has been working with the CLC Network to plan a training weekend in Crandall, Georgia, February 10-12, 2012. Newman, who will be a teacher at the seminar and has written numerous books on children with disabilities, encourages anyone involved with churches or schools to attend.
“We at the CLC Network have spent a lot of time packaging what we have learned since 1989 in the Christian school environment and offering that to churches,” she says.
When asked about the importance of raising this awareness, Newman emphasized the community of Christ.
“When churches say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have anything for you here,’ we miss out on the chance that God has intended as a gift for our community. He intends to arrange gifts in that person with autism or that adult with Down syndrome or that child with cerebral palsy that are intended to grow the community. [When we don’t include them], every person misses out on that blessing.”
1 As the CLC Network’s GLUE manual explains on page 4: “The GLUE process is a spectrum of techniques that will aid faith communities in doing ‘ministry with’ rather than ‘ministry to’ people with disabilities and their families.” To learn more about CLC, go to www.clcnetwork.org.
2 To learn more about the NAD education inclusion program or to download the REACH resource manual, go to www.nadeducation.org/reach/.
Addison Hudgins was a summer intern at Adventist Review last summer. She now studies at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. This article was published November 10, 2011.