In my previous post, I introduced you to Fabiola and her son, Jeffrey. Jeffrey is an energetic boy with a big heart. He also happens to have autism. As the co-leader of the disability ministry at our church, I’ve had the privilege of watching Jeffrey grow over the last five years. Through my friendship with Jeffrey and his mom I have learned many things – allow me to share a few with you here.
- The team approach works – Three people in our disability ministry, including myself, rotate weekly to support Jeffrey as he is included in age-appropriate classes at church. Mickey, Debbie, and I leave notes in a binder so we’re all “on the same page.” His mom has always been helpful, supportive, and appreciative of all we do at church to assist him. Everything has come together beautifully, allowing Jeffery to participate in his current class. His teacher rejoices with us when he achieves a new milestone. He now writes out the memory verse just like all the other students. We have watched in wonder as he is able to say the memory verse aloud, communicate his wants and needs, and listen attentively to the Bible story.
- Individuals with a disability can learn spiritual concepts – Jeffrey has become a true prayer warrior! One day in Sunday School, his teacher asked, “Who would like to pray for our snack today?” For the first time, Jeffrey’s hand flew up and he prayed out loud. His mom says he now prays about everything; his cousin’s wrestling match, his mom’s cold, or for anyone who is in distress.
- Don’t put kids in a “Disability Box” – I’ve learned that I cannot be limited to what I’ve been taught about the characteristics of any given disability. Each child with a disability is unique. For example, I’ve historically operated out of the “knowledge” that kids with autism don’t display a lot of empathy. However, Mickey reported that on a recent Sunday two boys came into Jeffrey’s class crying. Both were afraid to come in. They sat near Jeffrey and Mickey and continued to cry. Jeffrey looked at Mickey and said “You need to take care of these guys. I’ll do my work.”
- Go out of your way to include, even if you’re not sure how it will work – I have never forgotten an article I read several years ago by Steve Bundy, the Senior Vice President of Integration at Joni and Friends. He shared a story of how he and his wife sat in church one Sunday waiting for the kids to come into the sanctuary to sing a song. They expected to see their son Caleb, who has developmental delays and autism, participating with his class. When the group filed onto the stage and Caleb wasn’t there, Steve went to check the classroom. His son was there with a volunteer who said, “I was told to stay here with him, because he didn’t need to participate.” How heartbreaking! This sad story came to mind a couple of months ago, when Jeffrey’s class was going to perform several songs in the sanctuary. I was a bit concerned—during kids’ worship, Jeffrey doesn’t participate much. Will he be able to handle being on stage in front of a crowd of onlookers? I knew we had to try. Much to my relief (and his mom’s ecstatic delight), Jeffrey wore a costume and stood confidently in the front row, singing his heart out!
I am so grateful for all that I have learned through my friendship with Jeffery. I believe many blessings come to the church that finds a way to include people of all abilities.
Susan Hewer is the co-leader along with her husband, Scott, of the special needs ministry at Calvary Chapel Oxnard, In His Image. Scott and Susan have enjoyed many years as special education teachers, but feel very blessed to be part of the growing field of disability ministry in their “retirement” years. They have been married for 36 years and have one daughter, Gina, who is involved in full-time ministry.