A new friend, Dr. Steve Grcevich, recently asked me some questions about what I say in the book. Following (in bold) are my responses. I like that he makes me think.
You discussed your experience when your daughter (Jessica) was diagnosed with a chromosomal abnormality. How has your experience as Jessica’s father impacted your spiritual development? How has having Jessica impacted your family’s church participation and spiritual development? Is there any advice you’d offer to other couples after raising a child with disabilities?
I often tell people that Jessica has had an earth-shaking impact on me, Mary, and our children. Our appreciation for the rich grace of the Gospel deepened significantly and our faith in Christ (that is trusting, leaning heavily upon and surrendering to the goodness of God for us) was experienced at a whole new level. Jessica was born while we were serving on Young Life staff, reaching out to high school kids in Buffalo, N.Y. I was working on the presumption that God was lucky to have me “on His team.” Without realizing it, my life of faith was based largely on being good and pleasing God. Then . . . our first child is born with profound disabilities . . . and life was never the same.
Looking back, Mary and I went into a free fall spiritually. “How could God do this to us?” we asked without necessarily saying it out loud. But over the years, her quiet – indeed wordless – life spoke volumes to us about trusting God more fully. I wrote about her continuing impact recently here: https://mikebeates.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/silent-impact/
As far as church went, our church at the time (The Wesleyan Church of Hamburg) was a wonderful community – despite some people asking awkward questions like “Have you confessed the sinned that lead to this tragic situation?” Since then, as we moved from Buffalo to Philadelphia (Lansdale Presbyterian Church), and then to Florida (with a couple of churches over 20-something years), Jessica’s participation in our family life determined in strong ways where we would worship. I remember visiting a church when we dropped her off in her over-sized “stroller chair” the children’s worker asked, “You’re not leaving her with us, are you?” Needless to say, we did not go back. But then at another church, someone approached us, got down on a knee and introduced herself to Jessica, and volunteered to take her to a children’s program – we had a found a church home!
So I would give this advice to young families with children who live with disability: Ask God to lead you to an accepting church. When you visit a church, offer whatever simple instructions might be necessary to care for your child in the nursery or Children’s program and see how they respond. Are the teachable and accepting? Do they show the love of Christ to your child as much as to you? Are they willing to find ways to accommodate your family and enfold you into the congregational life? If so, thank God and settle in. Your child will have a ministry of “presence” that is hard to quantify
In the book, you state that “the church needs to reach out more effectively to those who live with disabilities.” What are some strategies you’d recommend to congregations who want to pursue kids and adults living with disabilities with no connection to a church? Since you’ve provided a “plausible apologetic,” can you suggest a plausible methodology?
THIS is a tough question. I have told people that my book, Disability and the Gospel, is a book that seeks to address “Why” a church should embrace those who live with disability. Many others have addressed pragmatic issues in helpful “how to” books – and they are better than I could write. But a simple answer may be this: Every family with disability is unique in their needs and in the gifts they bring. If a church seeks to enter this vital area of ministry, they should start with those whom God brings to them. Learn ways to help. Never say, “Call us if we can help.” Rather, suggest ways to help – in fact, better yet, tell a family “We will come over on such-and-such a day. Then we can learn how we might be able to serve you and walk with you.” Show up! Learn as you walk together. Then God will expand your reach. As soon as families learn they are welcome and your church will take a risk, learn and grow, more and more families will come. And your church will be blessed!
I liked your statement that “A successful measure of disability effectiveness in a local church would be that it would not need to have a disability ministry.” How might that be accomplished?
A sub-text of my thesis in the book is that we are all broken people. As we embrace that idea, as we see ourselves as “disabled” (whether spiritually, emotionally, or more outwardly physically), we can better walk with those who live more openly with disability. When this happens, brokenness becomes the norm, not the exception.
Now, I also recognize that some situations require special accommodation. I was speaking with someone recently who said a family in their church was struggling with how to enfold a family whose autistic child was so disruptive that the entire worshiping body was distracted. I remember times when my Jessica would become upset, cry, even scream, at times when it was necessary to find another setting for her (at least for a while). We knew we were in the right church when brothers and sisters in Christ would follow us out of the sanctuary and offer to stroll with her so we could return to and benefit from worship.
Such situations will always require special accommodation – we treat some weaker members with special modesty and care (see Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 12). But as much as possible, we seek to bring all people into worship, under the means of grace of preaching and sacrament – God will speak to all in ways only the Holy Spirit will know.