Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Step 24: A Church to call home.

Matthew 19:13-15
Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.


I would further elaborate that scripture to include Jesus saying, “Let all the little children come to me, and do not hinder them….”

I am the parent of a child who has autism. Brandon is non-verbal and is developmentally delayed. He is a blessing in my life, but until finding Graceview Baptist Church and their JOY Ministry – a disability ministry for children, youth, and adults, - my family seemed to be the only ones who thought of him as a blessing. Much like many other parents in the disability community have learned, we quickly learned that society is still not very ‘accepting’ of the differences people have.  And… gasp… even the church!  Whether it be race, religion, or disability, – there are still barriers to be broken down and comfort zones to step out from. I don’t mean that in a negative way – but rather in a way that reflects the “fear of the unknown" and how that must be conquered.

Way back before living in Texas as we do now, as new parents living in Oklahoma, my husband and I considered ourselves “strong” Christians. We loved the Lord deeply and enjoyed being part of a church family in our town. We had two young brown-eyed boys. Life was going well.

And then due to my husband’s job, we moved to Texas.

We found ourselves in a new state with no family or friends, --and no church home. It was also during this time when our youngest son was diagnosed with autism, which further isolated us and necessitated for us to find a church home for the prayers and support of other believers!

When our lives calmed down from those initial challenges we were facing, we did visit various churches. We felt like Goldilocks and the three bears in a story that at first had no fairytale ending.  At one church where we felt welcome and had found a class that seemed right for us to be a part of -- when we asked if we could join them we were told that they were at their "friendship max" and we should find another class to join instead. At another church we were welcomed, the Pastor there even bought us a book about autism which I'll never forget, but the church was simply too far away.  At other churches we felt a clear vibe that our son with autism was simply not welcome, they had no way to meet his needs nor anyone willing to try.  “Tag-Teaming” got old, so we eventually just stayed home. At least that was something we could do together!

One day by chance, a friend mentioned that she heard of a church in the area that provided a free respite night for people in the community who have special needs children. I thought, “Could it be true?” The words “free” and “respite” in the same sentence? So I called the number. I think my internal conversation went something like, "Do I care what kind of church this is? I'm Christian, what if it's a Buddhist church?" But then in sheer desperation to take someone up on their offer, I decided I didn't care what kind of church!  If it was a church, it meant they had to be good people, right?  The lady on the other end of the phone asked which month we would attend, I replied, "All of them!"  We brought our son to the church and then left to go enjoy our first night out in many, many months. Now mind you, it had been so long since we had a night to ourselves, that we didn’t know what to do! I'll never forget how we drove down the street to the Home Depot parking lot and sat there in our car trying to decide what to do. Besides, we were sure that they would be calling us any moment to ask us to pick up our son because he was too much for them to handle. But they never called. And eventually we decided on a first dinner out in months.

Later, when we went into the church to pick up our son (ok fine, we actually came back early and snuck in the church sure to find him locked in some closet or being sacrificed to some god they worshiped! Trusting others with our son was not our strong point by that time.) we found him in the church’s gym playing on the phone. A man was standing beside our son, patiently handing the phone back and forth to my son, (who had a slight obsession with phones). My husband and I stood there in awe and just watched. It overwhelmed us to see the various church members playing with children of all disabilities as if it was something they’ve always done!  No torturing, no being locked in a closet, no sacrificing or exorcisms!  Just laughter, joy, dignity, respect, and care.

The man playing with our son we later learned, was the Pastor. That changed our lives. That a “Pastor” was humble enough to spend his Friday night playing with my son truly gave us hope that maybe, just maybe, we had found a place to call our church home.

And indeed we did.

Over the next several months as our son attended Sunday School through the JOY Ministry, we witnessed the walls of disability being broken down by the brave church members who would volunteer each week. Church members who had no specialized training in working with children with disabilities – except for a love for God’s children and a humble desire to serve. They truly lived out the scripture that says, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” I remember in particular one big ole tough truck driving Texan named Vernon who would squeeze into a little bitty Little Tikes playhouse with my son to play hide and seek with him.

If we were not already Christians – the simple act of love and acceptance in those volunteers being the “hands and feet” of Jesus would have hooked us! More than any sermon we heard over that first year – just knowing that we found a church for us, for Brandon, was enough to make my husband and I cry tears of joy each Sunday as we sat together in church.

I can see where some churches would have a fear of starting such a ministry. Perhaps they see the great need of a family who has a child with a disability, and aren’t quite sure if they can do anything to help. But when we were searching for a church for Brandon, we didn’t want anything but to be loved and accepted and have a place to fellowship together with other believers. Anything else was icing on the cake! I didn’t want to find a church that could heal my child – I simply wanted to belong to a church so that my heart that was broken by autism would be healed. Refreshed. Revived.

It has been many years since we’ve found that church for Brandon. Even today, after over a decade of being members of Graceview Baptist Church – we still appreciate it as if it were those first days of sitting in that front row soaking up the blessing of worshiping in God’s house with other believers.  I have to remind myself of that when I let things get too out of perspective, when I fall into the worldly trap as I have unfortunately done a time or two in finding more wrong with churches in general than right. When that happens, I simply have to remember that there was a time we couldn't even go to church.  And now we can.  No matter what we may feel our church or any church does wrong, we know that by doing all they can in making their church a church our family could call home, --- was right.  And that is what counts.

There are many things in life that my son does not know. But each Sunday as we pull into the church parking lot – he knows where we are, he knows where his class is, and he knows that when he gets there he’s gonna get lotsa hugs and he’s gonna learn about that man called Jesus...

Actually not... 

He doesn't learn about him, he experiences him through the volunteers who faithfully serve in the disability ministry.

I think children, youth, and adult Sunday School classes should adopt field trips as part of their lessons.  I would bet that spending a week or two in a class around children, youth, and adults who have disabilities would teach them the best Sunday School lesson they ever experienced.  One they would truly never forget.

Those volunteers will never, ever, ever, ever know just how truly thankful we are to them.  There are simply no words to convey that deep a gratitude for how our church welcomes who society often rejects.

I can't think of a better way to close this step of our journey than with a Miss Millie Bass quote as a long-time volunteer in the JOY Ministry of Graceview:

"They teach me more about God than I'll ever be able to teach them."

And a Miss Pam poem... Miss Pam is a former volunteer in the Joy Ministry who was very deeply touched by serving Brandon.

Brandon's Light

Brandon's light shines strong and bright
Warming hearts to God's delight
Brown eyes that smile with love received
Assure me he's there and I'm relieved
The questioning wonder in that gaze
His eyes on mine, I give God praise

Please let me know what to do or say
To make this day his best of days
His hug is more than I deserve

But thank you, God, for this chance to serve
Just help him feel your love thru me
Send peace within, clear thoughts, and glee
Please let my touch soothe a restless spirit
This treasured child, your blessing merits
Brandon's light shines strong and bright
In Jesus' arms, he fights the good fight