“Please join me in congratulating the graduates of 2013!” These words will be echoed across gymnasiums, stadiums, and lawns all across the United States in the next few weeks as yet another class of students walk across the stage to receive their high school diplomas. Graduation is typically a day to reflect on a great accomplishment and all the memories the graduates have made over the last twelve years together. Some of these memories will be remembered for a lifetime, while other memories will be forgotten as new ones are created in the next phase of these students’ lives.
Up to this point, I have described a very common scenario for most high school graduates, but what if college, work, or military are not options for your child because of a disability? What emotions begin to grip a parent as they realize their child’s best years are coming to an end? Is the day of graduation a day of celebration or a day of distress for families affected by disability?
Tomorrow night I will be sitting in a gymnasium full of people who will be wiping away tears from their eyes as they ponder those very questions. All eight of the graduates at the school where I am employed will receive a Certificate of Attainment, rather than a traditional High School Diploma. All of them have diverse disabilities that make it difficult for them to be successful in both vocational and independent living environments. The structure and support systems they have been acquainted with for so many years will soon come to an end.
I believe the equipping of parents, sense of community, and partnership between the school and parents mirror the relationship the church should seek to have with families with disabilities. I know there are ministries reaching out to families with disabilities; however, much work still needs to be done. The government has made great strides and advancements in seeking to meet many of these needs, but the body of Christ ought to be the ones leading the pack. John writes in 1 John 3:16: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” We say we follow Jesus’ example, but I would contend we are more like Adam with the way we seek our own selfish desires.
I know firsthand, as a bi-vocational school teacher/associate pastor, the public schools are doing a better job in meeting the needs of people with disabilities than the church. This is a very sad and disheartening reality. How can we continue to allow secular institutions to out love those whom Christ has laid down his life for? Churches need to think through the issue of meeting the daily needs of families affected by disabilities. Equally as important, Christians in general need to step up to the plate and begin to reach out to these families. When the church recognizes the need to make disciples of all nations and have a sense of outward focus, more community needs will organically be met.
The fact that parents are anxious about the next steps after graduation speaks volumes about local church ministries for people with disabilities. I find it a bit troubling that Christian families affected by disability seek public supports more than church supports. One may ask, “What needs to be done to tighten the gap between church ministries and people with disabilities?” By raising up a generation of Christians who seek to meet others’ needs before their own more people affected by disabilities will begin to look to the church for help, rather than public institutions.
I will certainly shed some tears tomorrow evening; however, I will celebrate with these students. I will remember their loud laughs, bizarre fictitious stories, kicking stampedes, scarring scratches, and most importantly the way they image God despite their disability. God has used these students time and time again to teach me how to love others the way God would love. I hope 1 John 3:17-18 (“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”) pushes Christians and the church as a whole to repent of their shortcomings and begin meeting the needs of families affected by disability. If this occurs, parents and families of individuals with disabilities will no longer be anxious about what comes after graduation, but will be eagerly anticipating the next chapter of their child’s life.
Throughout the upcoming year, I hope to provide practical ways for the church to begin to meet some of these needs, but we must start with love.