Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Church Monster: The Mr. BlueShirts

This is the second installment in the "Church Monster" series... if you missed yesterday, you can click *HERE* to catch up.  Remember, the only thing I have to offer is experience, and the experience and issues I'm sharing are out of a heart to make sure even one more person isn't hurt.  Disclaimer over, on with the post...

You like a joke?  I love a good joke.  Here you go.  

So a family with a kid with severe autism walks in a church...

Oh, how I wish there was a punchline.  But the only ones I can think of just aren't funny.

We know, all of us who have a knowledge of the church at all, that this should be the most welcoming place on the face of the earth.  But to so many who are different, it's just not.  For those of you who attend, what would you do if you saw a scantily-clad woman walk in and plop down Sunday morning, right in front? Maybe a homeless person, whose presence you need not see to sense?  Possibly a young person with tons of piercings?  Someone covered in tattoos?  

Would you speak?  

Maybe you would speak, and it wouldn't be hard for you.  But what if you spoke, they liked you, and they wouldn't go away?  They were back the next week.  And the next.  Maybe you think their behavior, dress, and all-around demeanor will eventually change to fit your taste.  Maybe you eventually think it's time to try to call their differentness to their attention.  

Maybe you'd immediately shun them.  Maybe you can think of a thousand reasons to justify said shunning.  

Maybe you wouldn't be so passive.  Maybe you'd walk right up and politely show them the door.  Or maybe you'd even make friends with them, using the first available opportunity when you think you've earned the right to make suggestions,  maybe not so subtly.

There's always the chance that outer-differences don't bother you.  After all, these people can speak and you can learn their hearts relatively easily if you take some time.  Could be that they're pretty incredible people with incredible testimonies, forgetting for a moment that all our testimonies are miraculous.

Let's say you're in the set who can handle a different look about people.  Let's say you're completely understanding that you can't judge a book by its cover and never would!  But what happens when they don't just look differently than you?  What if they rock your boat a bit with maybe a touch more noise... maybe they raise their hands during singing, maybe move a little more than you're accustomed?  What if that sound was a hum, grunt, or moan?  The occasional random phrase uttered in a normal speaking voice?  What if they looked perfectly normal, but couldn't stop making a low-grade sound?  

What if your kids were watching, and you were having to tell them they couldn't act the same way? 

Nothing inherently wrong or unhealthy, just not the same.  What if they can't change?  What if they look a lot like you, dress like you, but tend to be very noisy, occasionally wiggling about and hitting themselves in the head or chest?  Let's say you introduce yourself, and said child doesn't look at you, but instead looks out the window and flaps his hands?  Worse yet, what if they say something loudly that is completely random?  What if you have to work to get to know them?

I know the differences in these things are pretty vast. There is a lot of ground between the people I mentioned first and people with disabilities.  But from my experience, there are a lot more far-reaching efforts to touch the lives of those who can eventually talk about it.  Who are capable of understanding and adopting our cultures.  

The heartbreaking, unfortunate truth is that people with special needs kids have been turned away from churches.  If not turned away point-blank, then almost studiously omitted until they get the hint.

What?  Not my church!  Surely not here.  We are so accepting!    

Find yourself asking that?  Find yourself thinking, "This wouldn't happen here?" Then finish that sentence.  What would you do? Really?  Now look around next Sunday.  Make a note to think about how someone like our Ryan would fit.  Or even start with a neurotypical noisy child.  I've come to learn that, in many situations, if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem.  I used to think that this didn't apply to special needs family ministry. But if you're thinking that you shouldn't have to, ever, be uncomfortable... or maybe that this is a pastoral problem, not a congregational problem, you might be part of the problem.  

The kicker is that it's not just a pastoral problem.  It's not just a congregational problem.  It's everyone's problem.  

Yup, you read that correctly.  The pastor is only one man.  Even if you have three pastors, that's only three men.  The deacons and elders are limited, too.  The heads of boards and committees are limited, too.  Having visited churches since I was in college to find which one to attend, I can tell you from a visitor's perspective that the people sitting around me always made more of a difference in whether or not I returned than the usher's grin as he handed me a program (or not).  That said, it does make a huge difference if the expectation in the leadership is steeped in the love and acceptance of the gospel.

We were recently visiting a church on vacation.  We've been there many times, and there is a well-established special needs ministry that runs, as far as we can tell, quite nicely!  During the service, Ryan never started to fuss.  He didn't scream out, or even yell "juicy red sucker" in a stage voice!  We thought he was doing well.  He stayed in his seat.  He was, however, saying "people train" and "play with trains" in a regular speaking voice.  Not loud.  Not demanding.  

The gentleman in front of us began turning around glaring at him every time he spoke.  

The first time, I let it go.  No big deal.  Maybe he was looking at the clock.  Could have been stretching.  No need to make assumptions. 

Then, over and over, this man made sure we knew, albeit silently, how disgusted he was with our child's behavior and our lack of ability to stop him.    

I wanted to cry.  Then I had the normal mama bear reaction, thinking of in just what terms I'd educate Mr. BlueShirt.  How I'd make sure he knew Ryan couldn't help it.  How I'd defend my sweet boy.  He was being so good!  How dare this man seek to scold my child and my parenting with his nasty glances?

When the service ended, and I mean before the last chord from the organ finished reverberating, he practically ran from his pew, down the aisle, and out the door.  When we were able to visit, everyone with us saw it.  

There are so many struggles involved in raising kids, but honestly, having a special needs child is an extreme form of parenting.  Whether the needs are medical, physical, emotional, mental, behavioral, or otherwise there is a crazy amount of stress and work than goes into our kids.  Having kids at all tends to take over one's life, but having a special needs child, well... the ups are higher and the downs are lower, and from our experience, they're closer together.  Eric and I have often noted to each other that this would be impossible without the grace and mercy of Christ.  So why would we not do what we can to share?  Shouldn't those who need this kind of loving embrace find it in the church?

Honestly, the attitude that this person exhibited hurts.  We're blessed to be deeply rooted in our faith, and believe strongly in teaching our children to be a part of the body.  As rooted as we are, we have had times when we didn't know how much longer we could handle the swim upstream that autism in church can be.  But thankfully, we feel compelled be in church somewhere.  Eric and I talked about that recent experience on the way home, and decided that the experience was an expression and reminder of many, many things.  The thing that was impressed upon me the most is the universal need for acceptance of this kind of thing.  Ryan looked old enough to know better, when in reality he can't help it.  No matter what you do, there will always be a Mr. BlueShirt.  But there are people out there, both believers and non-believers, who are getting hurt by churches and church-folk, and that in itself breaks my heart.  

The sad truth is that while there are a lot of great churches with great special needs programs, even in churches with healthy special needs programs with dollars and cents behind them.  In churches of all shapes and sizes, people are being hurt, judged, and in more severe cases, turned away due to invisible disabilities.  It happens.  There's got to be a better way.  

Stay Tuned. 

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