Families with special needs often count on faith communities to be safe spaces of acceptance and connection, but sometimes the struggle for inclusion feels so challenging that they walk away from congregations where true acceptance doesn’t seem possible. Searching for an alternate place of worship with an existing special needs program might be tempting, but Linda Martin, founder and president of Miracle 139 International, encourages families not to give up on their current place of worship.
“It can be discouraging to hear there are no resources to meet your family’s needs,” says Martin, whose San Diego-based organization equips churches worldwide to offer effective special needs ministries. “But parents who keep asking [leadership for help] build bridges by raising awareness of special needs and getting those needs met.”
So, what can you do if special needs support is needed in your faith community?
Start by raising awareness. Maria Nagy-Medved, parent facilitator for the Exceptional Families Ministry at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Coronado, describes a scene familiar to many families. “My son experiences autism and needs to move around during mass. He might whisper too loudly, ‘How much longer will this last?’ The disapproving looks and heavy sighs can be hurtful. Hearing someone say, ‘If that were my child…’ is the worst! But what a great indication that people often simply don’t understand.”
When Nagy-Medved learned that nearly 1 in 8 experience disability, she went to her pastor. “I asked why we aren’t seeing that when we look out at the pews. Where are they going? In a place that’s supposed to be welcoming, could it be possible that people don’t know this is a problem? We need to make them aware.”
Approach leadership with empathy. Families with disabilities need compassion and understanding, as do pastors, who are often stretched to capacity.
“When a parent comes to me, I want to help,” says Aasim Billoo, Youth and Young Adults Program Director at the Islamic Center of San Diego. “I just may not have the resources or volunteers to provide the services a child needs. The most helpful conversations are when parents come not just with problems, but with possible solutions we can make happen together.”
According to Martin, clarifying your goals and being specific about what you’d like your child to experience within the faith community is helpful. “Figure out exactly what’s needed, then make a direct ask,” she says. “When you get specific, it’s easier to find volunteers and solutions. The more families are vocal about specific needs; the more leadership can get creative.”
Help equip volunteers. Many are willing to help and even gifted to work with your child. They may just need training, and perhaps you’re the perfect person to provide that.
“This might feel like a big ask for families already stretched to the limit,” says Martin. “But the power and momentum to bring about real change lie in the hands of those most passionate.” Don’t offer to do more than you can handle, but a spirit of support and willingness to be available will go a long way in getting the results you hope for.
Aim for a healthy balance. Faith communities where individuals with special needs thrive find a balance between inclusion and accommodation.
Accommodation provides access to worship spaces. Parents can help by considering how best to prepare a child for navigating crowded spaces and loud noises or bringing in an ABA therapist or aide to assist. Share your child’s specific diagnosis with ministry volunteers and ways to comfort him if he gets anxious.
Inclusion goes beyond simply allowing someone to worship with a congregation. It embraces and enfolds that someone into the family of faith, providing the fundamental sense of acceptance, love and respect that are hallmarks of healthy faith communities. That’s why Nagy-Medved encourages parents to make inclusion and connection to the whole faith community the ultimate goal.
“Putting all special needs families together is a club, not inclusion,” she says. “Keep asking, how can we connect with the rest of the church?”
Build lasting relationships. “We spend a lot of time trying to integrate our kids when they’re young. But it’s important to think about helping them invest in relationships that will carry them into the future,” says Nagy-Medved.
Building lasting relationships takes commitment. “If you want to make connections that will last, you can’t just wait for them to come to you,” says Nagy-Medved. “We do a lot of asking and inviting to our activities because when those outside our group spend time with us, suddenly the lights come on. We discover we all have things in common, and new friendships are born. We keep inviting and hope those we’ve included will return the volley.”
Stick with it. While therapies, classrooms, aids and IEPs are constantly changing, belonging to a vibrant faith community never ages out for people.
“We belong in the faith communities where we are,” says Moira Allbritton, program specialist with the Exceptional Family Resource Center. “Yes, it takes a certain kind of stubbornness to hold onto those spaces. But the security and sense of belonging that come from being fully embraced by our faith communities is a great reason for staying put.”
Miracle 139 International
Sacred Heart Exceptional Families Ministry
Hope on the Hard Road
San Diego Faith Inclusion Directory
Friendship Circle of San Diego
Southern California Disability Ministry Conference
Jody Lee Cates is a local mom and award-winning writer who blogs about healthy relationships at www.jodyleecates.com.