Ten years ago, we sat in child-sized chairs in a storage room/office at the elementary school across the street from where we lived in Pennsylvania and heard these words from a psychologist, “We believe your son has autism.” We had walked in that morning knowing something was different about James, and we walked out with a diagnosis, a binder of resources, and the promise someone would call with our next steps.
I wasn’t new to the world of disability—my big sister has Down syndrome. But my experiences as a sibling and my experiences as a mom were different. Honestly, everything was different after that day. How we spent our time was different. We now had therapy appointments to go to and books to read. How we spent our money was different as we paid for behavioral therapy and occupational therapy. Our relationships with friends changed, as their kids grew and matured through stages James wouldn’t reach in the same way. Our relationships with family members changed, requiring them to adjust their plans around his needs. My plans to homeschool James changed as his preschool teacher held his hand and walked him into the big elementary school when he was just three.
Changes to our church
One more thing had to change—the church my husband pastored. Even though I had grown up in a church that welcomed my family and many other special needs families in our small town in Oklahoma, making accommodations and having a culture of inclusion, it hadn’t occurred to me that our church at the time of James’s diagnosis wasn’t ready to welcome special needs families. I looked around and didn’t see kids or teens on the autism spectrum, with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or any other disability. In most school districts, 13% of their student population is in special education. But that number wasn’t reflected at our church.
In the parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14, we hear Jesus speak of another time a portion of the community was excluded. The master of the house invited many friends and neighbors to his banquet, but they had excuses about why they couldn’t come. So he instructed his servant to “‘bring in here the poor, maimed, blind, and lame.’ ‘Master,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, and there’s still room’” (vv. 21b-22, CSB).
The master may have looked around his home, his table, and noticed who was missing, much like I did when I looked around our sanctuary the Sunday after James’ diagnosis. Kids like James were missing. Adults like my sister were missing. And our mission was clear—invite them in, and make them welcome. Then, we’ll experience the truth of what the servant told his master—when we make room for those who need accommodations, those who are often neglected, ignored, or ostracized, we realize there is room for everyone. When James pulls up a seat at the table and joins them at the banquet—when they actually see him—the entire church culture can change in miraculous ways.
When our church sees James, they see the image of God in him, and they learn to see the image of God in everyone they meet. We once had an older church member tell us, “I was at the grocery store and saw a boy flapping like I’ve seen James do, and I knew why!” They learn, like the disciples did in John 9, that disabilities aren’t the result of sin on the part of the parents or the person with a disability. Jesus said, “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him” (v. 3b). They see the work of God through the life of James, the life of every member that makes up our church body, and the life of every person they meet in our community and beyond.
When our church sees James participate in corporate worship time and group Bible study because of the accommodations we’ve made for him, they make room for other children and teens with autism, with sensory processing disorder, and with obsessive-compulsive disorder. And as they meet his needs—as they make the gospel accessible to him—they know they can meet the needs of the 6-year-old with ADHD, the 9-year-old with visual impairment, the 15-year-old with Down syndrome, the 32-year-old with social anxiety, and the 73-year-old with dementia.
When our church sees James use his gifts to build up the body, they know they are needed and valued too. They see the truth in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 and step into their place of service, “Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different activities, but the same God works all of them in each person.” They know it isn’t just the pastor on the stage or the teachers in the classrooms who are equipped to serve, but that everyone has a role.
And when our church takes these steps, they are able to see themselves more clearly. They don’t have to say they are doing fine Sunday after Sunday, because they see that perfection isn’t a prerequisite for belonging in our church family. They see strength, perseverance, and faith lived out right in front of them, and they ask God to produce those qualities in themselves as well. They see their need for the good news of the gospel each and every day.
I’m so thankful for how our church in Pennsylvania responded to James’ needs after his diagnosis. I’m thankful for how our church here in Texas welcomed him and our family a few years ago when my husband became the pastor, and overnight they had to build a special needs ministry. I’m thankful for the churches I communicate with each week in my role as the special needs ministry consultant for the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention. And I’m praying for the day that people with disabilities have a seat at the banquet table in every church in our world and that their absence is noticed and missed. Because when my church sees James and your church sees members with disabilities, we reflect God’s purpose for the church and the beauty of heaven.