One Sunday morning, I came downstairs, collected my Bible, purse and keys, and left for church . . . alone. This wasn't my idea of a perfect Sunday morning, but I just felt too tired to drag my family to church with me.
Caring for my 19-year-old daughter, Mary Addison, who has special needs, takes a lot of effort. She is mentally and physically challenged and has an active seizure disorder. Feeding, dressing, bathing and medicating her each morning is a big deal.
Don't get me wrong — life with Mary Addison has been a marvelous blessing to our family. Her innocence and joy have enlightened us. Her courage and perseverance have inspired us. Her weakness and dependence have taught us how to love each other with deep, sacrificial love.
But, how many times have we gone to the effort of preparing for church, only to be called out of the service because Mary Addison is having a problem (or the Sunday school teacher is having a problem with Mary Addison)? It's exhausting and, sometimes, embarrassing.
So, why fight it? Quite frankly, I was glad to go to church alone that Sunday morning.
As the greeter handed me a program, he asked, "Where's Mary Addison?"
"She's at home taking it easy," I said.
"I hope she's feeling OK. You know I love that kid. Seeing her each Sunday makes my week."
"I'll tell her you said so."
The lights dimmed, and the music began. The song spoke of God being drawn to weakness and humility and loving those who are broken. Tears flowed as the words penetrated my heart. It was the perfect segue into the pastor's message from 1 Corinthians. He talked about how we all have different gifts and how all the parts of the body are necessary, but the weakest parts are the most important.
As we filed out, I noticed one man waiting to speak to me. I had seen his face before but didn't know his name. He introduced himself and said, "After today's sermon, I just had to tell you what your family means to me. I watch you, and I can only imagine how hard it must be. Sometimes, when things get hard for me, I think of you. I think of Mary Addison and, well . . . " He choked up. We embraced.
Those of us who have children with special needs can use a reminder that our entire family is essential to the faith community. The extra effort it takes to participate is worth it. And by remaining in community, we can receive encouragement and affirmation — and even inspire those around us.
Ways to Connect
Here are some ideas to help you more fully participate in your faith community if you have a child with special needs.
Meet with your pastor or family ministry director.
Help him understand your child's particular challenges, needs, personality and abilities. Share information on organizations that can assist the church with program development and accessibility issues. One excellent resource is JoniAndFriends.org.
Arrange for reserved seating.
Knowing that you will have access to convenient seating arrangements when you arrive can relieve stress on your family. It may also help those willing to assist during the service to know where to sit.
Seek involvement from youth ministry.
Young people are usually thrilled to be included in meeting a need. Responsible teens make excellent "buddies" for kids with special needs.
Connect with other caregivers.
Find out whether your church offers Bible studies or support groups that focus on topics relevant to caring for children with special needs. Receiving support from others who understand your circumstances will remind you that you're not alone.
Allow your family to be profiled in church communications.
Churches often feature families and exceptional individuals in newsletters or on websites. Give others the opportunity to grow from and understand your experiences as they get to know your family.