Photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via Flickr
This is part one of a two-part story about my recent church experience involving my son with special needs and what finally prompted us to leave the church. You can read part two here.
The preacher said it in his sermon this past Sunday, so briefly at first that I thought I must have imagined it. But he went on to expound upon his original statement and I knew I had not misheard.
“It is not the responsibility of the seeking individual to make sure he is included. It is not the responsibility of the lonely person to find a place to belong. It is the responsibility of the church. It is our job to accept those on the outside, to welcome them in, to give them a place of belonging and community.”
Tears welled in my eyes.
All this time, I had it wrong.
Years ago, as a young single woman, I was determined to find a church fellowship, a place to belong.
I visited churches, forcing myself to be amiable, outgoing and funny. One Sunday I attended the singles group at a megachurch in the area. Nervous but determined, I pushed outside my comfort zone and walked into the building.
Some people greeted me and after introductions, one man remarked, “Wow. I never would have come to this church by myself.”
His words stung. I knew no one. I had no friends in this town. Who could I bring along as my comrade or moral support? It was either go alone or not go. Instead of feeling commended for my bravery in choosing the prior, I felt ostracized and freakish. I didn’t fit in and his comment didn’t help. I didn’t go back.
Eventually I found a place of belonging. I was sure to do everything right. I was engaging and witty and brave. I performed as a confident actress recites her lines in the spotlight. And it worked. I was included.
Now all I had to do was keep up the performance.
Fast forward several years.
- A married mom of four
- Active, involved and committed to the church
- Wife of a deacon and Sunday School teacher
- I fit the Baptist church wife mold perfectly.
Church and Special Needs
It was my 14th wedding anniversary on the day the call came. I was on my way to meet Eric for a celebratory lunch date.
When I saw the caller ID, I hesitated. Then I reasoned that perhaps she was calling about the special needs ministry I had proposed. I was thrilled about moving the ministry forward, about meeting needs of special needs kids and their families, about doing what I knew God was calling me to do.
She hadn’t been excited about the idea and I never understood why.
So when I saw who the caller was, I tried to think positive. I hoped she was calling because she wanted to utilize me, wanted to get started on the ministry, wanted my help. “This could be God opening the door,” I thought.
Within the first few seconds, I realized it was not the news I’d hoped for.
No, it was one of those calls. If you are the parent of a special needs kid, you know what I mean. We live in dread of those calls. I’m convinced it’s because of those calls that I now cringe with anxiety every time the phone rings, just like one of Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell.
She told me that the Sunday evening programming wasn’t a good fit for my son because of his special needs. She informed me that he would no longer be able to participate. There had been some problems, she said, and she had decided this was the best solution.
I was shocked. Not that there had been problems, but that I was only now hearing about them. The last communication I’d received was that things were going well. I had personally made sure that my child had a “buddy” with him on Sunday nights so that he would be successful.
I asked if he had hit anyone or been aggressive.
“No, it’s not that,” she said. “He tore up another child’s paper. She was traumatized and her parents were upset.”
“Who was it?” I asked. I’d been a member of the church for 15 years. I knew almost everyone. I would go directly to the parents and apologize, work things out.
“You don’t know the family,” she said, “And I am not at liberty to tell you who it is.”
From there things unraveled. I was upset and she seemed shocked. Fuming over the phone, I told her that it wasn’t fair and that it wasn’t right and that it definitely was NOT okay.
In the days that followed, I tried to contact the other adults involved to find out what had actually happened.
- I called my child’s “buddy.” She refused to talk to me. She wouldn’t tell me what happened or who was involved.
- I called the teacher of the class twice and emailed her. She never responded.
- I talked to the director of the evening program, a personal friend of mine. She hemmed and hawed and said she didn’t really know what happened but that she was okay with the decision.
Communication shut down.
Well, actually, there was plenty of talking going on. It’s just that my husband and I were never included.
The decision was made and we were simply informed. We were never given a chance to work for a solution.
We went to the next rung of the ministerial staff.
He said he supported the children’s minister in her decision.
A decision that was made without ever consulting me or my husband? A decision that was made to exclude a child for the reason that he ruined another child’s paper?
It didn’t make sense. Surely my child wasn’t the first, special needs or not, to do such a thing. And what had prompted him to do it? Had the child said or done something to make him angry or upset? Why wouldn’t the teachers or the director or the children’s minister communicate clearly to us — his parents –about what had occurred?
Upset over the way the situation was handled, we went all the way to the top.
Much to our dismay, the senior pastor’s response was that he also supported the children’ minister in her decision.
And that was that.