On Sunday, our family took a huge step. With visual schedule in tow, Jude joined us in “big church” for the first half of the worship service and then attended children’s church for the remainder of the service. Most neuro-typical children find it difficult to sit still, remain reasonably quiet, and attend to the happenings of the typical worship service, but for an energy-filled child on the autism spectrum this can be an even greater challenge.
Thankfully, we have an outstanding church family. Many large churches fulfill the calling to love chosen families affected by hidden disabilities by creating special ministries and classrooms. Such an approach can be helpful, but many small to medium sized churches without the resources for disability ministries struggle to know how to help families like our own.
God has placed us in a relatively small church. In our children’s ministry, we have three classrooms for infants to 2 year olds and one children’s church class for both preschoolers and early elementary schoolers. We don’t have a large building or tons of money. Nonetheless, our church has embraced a gift named Jude with eagerness and flexibility. Below I list five characteristics of our church that have helped us enjoy gathering with them for worship despite the challenges involved:
1. Our church is a place free of judgment.
As a parent of a child with a hidden disability, you constantly feel judged by other people when your child doesn’t act “normally” in public. However, our church is a safe-place. When we are wrestling our little wild man in the fellowship hall and simultaneously trying to have a conversation, we never feel anyone’s eyes staring. Jude’s first time in “big church” didn’t go great. He didn’t want to sit. He didn’t know how to be quiet. He wanted to run down the aisle or crawl under the pew. Even so, we didn’t feel like anyone was saying, “Why don’t they do something with that child?!” Rather, we sensed the prayers of our brothers and sisters as they stood with us through this transition.
2. Our church has been flexible in classroom assignments.
Most children in our church leave the nursery and join the worship service and children’s church at 3 years old. Jude, however, turns 4 next month. He spent an extra year in the 2 year old class. He is a big boy who could pass for a first grader. You should have seen him towering over the other children! Still, no one pushed us to make the transition prematurely.
3. Our church has made classroom changes for Jude’s dietary restrictions.
On his gluten-free diet, Jude cannot have the typical nursery snack: Cheerios. Of course, he doesn’t know he can’t have Cheerios, and he thinks they look pretty appetizing. So Jude has his own snack table in the classroom, where he can eat his own snack free from Cheerio temptation.
4. Our church has demonstrated a willingness to learn.
Fortunately, we have a couple of women at our church who were formerly involved in special education, but even those who have no background in it whatsoever desire to learn about autism and about what makes Jude special. Furthermore, when leadership trains new volunteers, they take time to specifically discuss Jude and his needs.
5. Our church prays for us.
At certain times, our church has prayed corporately for our family. I cannot tell you how long we have gone fueled by that encouragement! Beyond those times, I know that many in our congregation pray regularly for us during their times of personal and family worship. Even when we suffer privately, like when the children of our church (many younger than Jude) sang Christmas songs for the congregation while we held him in the audience, we know that there are people who are sensitive to our sorrows and pray for us, even when they don’t say anything.
Love One Another
In summary, these five characteristics do not amount to anything revolutionary. We have been commanded to “love one another with brotherly affection” (Rom 12:10 ESV). Through these and other ways our church has loved our family specifically, and we cannot thank God enough for the love of Kenwood Baptist Church.