We got the diagnosis of autism when our son was 5. We had seen signs for a long time, so when it became official there were moments of fear and sadness but also a sense of urgency. What were we going to do next? Therapy was lined up, but our family had drifted from church as we focused on what seemed like an overwhelming situation. Aside from the therapy and endless IEP’s at school, day to day activities posed challenges they hadn’t before. Going to the market, birthday parties, and theme parks required prep work now – as did going to church.
My husband and I knew we needed God more than ever. After praying, most nights literally on my knees, we decided to step out in faith and go to church. We agreed that we could not attend a church that was unwilling to include ALL of our children. We wanted our children to be involved with and form friendships with other kids. We wanted our son with special needs to be considered part of the church community.
On our first Sunday trying a new church we were introduced to a volunteer who was kind and more than willing to attend the preschool class with our son. So, we decided to see how it went. My husband and I sat in the main service, and while he loved the teaching, I had no idea what the message was about. All I could think was, “When will my pager go off, alerting me that there is a problem?” I feared that if unexpected behavior occurred from my son our family would be judged or excluded. After the sermon my husband said confidently, “this church is our home.” So, I determined that we could make it “our home.”
I continued praying diligently for our son – that he would have relationship with Jesus and be accepted among fellow believers. My God-sized prayer was, “I wouldn’t change my son for the world, but I would change the world for him. God, I know how truly incapable of this I am, but all things are possible with you. For your purpose you put together every detail that made up my son. How can I serve? How can you use me to create even a small change? God I need you to create a place for my son at church and change how the world sees people like my son.”
I began to dream and get excited about a ministry that could make a difference – a ministry that could come alongside families like mine. A ministry that could affect the culture of an entire church. A ministry that would say “you’re not only accepted and included here, you are wanted here – you complete our church.”
Our church leadership blessed my desire to start an inclusive special needs ministry. With six children and a handful of volunteers the Sidekick Ministry was born! Two years later God has brought us twenty individuals touched by special needs and provided even more Sidekicks to serve.
God has taken my mustard-seed-sized faith and done something that brings me tears of joy. Not only has my family found a place at church, but many other families have as well. Our friends with special needs truly feel like part of the church as the typical kids show them the love of Christ. I have watched this ministry influence and continue to influence each person that encounters it. If you are thinking “this couldn’t happen at my church,” let me remind you that – God is bigger than that!
Marisa Altamirano is the Joni and Friends Church Relations Representative for the Inland Empire near Corona, California. She also serves as the director of the special needs ministry at VantagePoint Church. Marisa is a wife and mom to three wonderful boys, one of whom has autism.