We can’t find a church. Our problem is NOT usual. Statistics show that church membership is down and fewer and fewer Americans are attending church. Churches have resorted to mailers, advertisements on media, varied service times to attract busy families, and recreational and small groups—anything to make the church look more appealing. I actually find it disheartening that we have to “sell” church, but nonetheless, this has become the new norm.
Now that said, I do acknowledge that some folks can’t find a church because they can’t accept one that is not a philosophical match or they make excuses about why they can’t attend (time is the number one reason).
This is NOT our issue.
We can’t find one because we can’t find one that will accept both us AND our intellectually and physically disabled child.
Ironically when I consulted both my own personal Bible and the Internet, I could find no references to a church turning away someone, only references to someone turning away from God.
So, what happens if a church has turned you away, in fact, turned you away before you have ever even darkened its doors? It’s happened to us, three times. Even in the tradition of Judaism, if you knock three times you will be accepted.
My husband and I are Christians, life long Methodists. However, we are open to any denomination —so long as they are inclusive to all marginalized individuals and we have the opportunity to engage in a Christian community and be part of that ever- important corporal prayer. We do a lot of personal Bible reading and prayer. You have to when you have a kid and a life like ours.
Because if you didn’t have faith and purpose, you’d curl up in a ball and die.
There is very little literature and even fewer studies (too few) about parents of children with disabilities or individuals with disabilities and church attendance or inclusivity.
Out of the University of Kentucky and Vanderbilt, author Eric Carter (2013), in his study titled “Supporting Inclusion and Flourishing in the Religious and Spiritual Lives of People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” He explains that out of the 416 parents surveyed, only 43% felt that the religious community was supportive, a third had changed their church because the church had not welcomed their child, and more than half didn’t even have their child participate or attend the church at all because the church wasn’t supportive or welcoming.
Doesn’t the Bible say we are all one in Jesus Christ? It doesn’t feel like that to us and to many families of children with disabilities.
The first church we attended with Will had a very welcoming Pastor family. They were very supportive and had worked with other families like ours. But the church is more than a Pastor, it is also its people. And the people, well, they were NOT interested in Will participating in children’s church or Sunday school and Will’s cries during church were “tolerated” with many unfriendly looks.
The second church seemed ideal as they actually had one of the few disability ministries around (note that I live in the 13th largest city in the country), yet the church itself was not welcoming to women preaching, to individuals who identified as LGBTQ, and it was large with a Joel Olsteen kind of cult feel. My husband and I are intellectuals, we like and can handle real preaching, not a sermon of clichés, smoke (literally smoke during every song), and outreach that fell way short of actually working with the marginalized individuals in the community. And Will was being babysat, not engaged.
I reached out and called the third church and was assured that they wanted us and would help us. We were encouraged to attend and try it out. We set a date. We were told we would be welcomed by the Associate Pastor after the service. We came. No one noticed us (How do you not notice a large and sometimes loud child in a green wheelchair wearing shooter style blue headphones to keep noise cancelled?). No one greeted us. No one came to talk with us after even though we waited in the designated spot until most of the church had left. And no on ever followed up with a phone call even though I completed the visitor registry explaining we were new and requesting more information.
I reached out to the fourth church, a newer Methodist church in the area, and left a detailed email AND phone call with the minister explaining our situation and how we had been turned away and to please only call us if he could help us find a way to attend church WITH our son. We didn’t want to once again attend and be met with false hope. No return call and no return email.
Turned away. Again.
So, we remain churchless. We have been churchless most of Will’s 13 years. I don’t worry about his soul. The Bible assures us that those who can’t ask for salvation, but are pure in heart will be accepted. And I have always described Will as part angel/part boy as he has lived in both worlds.
He was born dead and came back to life and came close to death again two other times on a surgery table. He often looks over and past us and makes eye contact with and verbalizes noises. I am confident that he is surrounded by angels, and the he communicates with them. He is really not fully of this world because he was born into a different one.
But I miss a church family. I miss the feeling of corporal prayer, of an entire church lifting up and speaking together. I miss the simple things too like food and fellowship. I miss being able to talk with a Pastor or an Elder or a Deacon when times get tough, and I need some perspective and I can’t find the message I need on my own in a Bible. I miss the church.
As I write this, I am crying. And I don’t cry easily. I know my God feels my pain, and I know he has a plan. I will never lose faith in him and his son as I would never lose faith in my own, but I am beginning to lose my faith in the church and its people.
I know what Jesus would do. I love Jesus because he sat, listened, cried, prayed, and healed everyone he encountered. He remains my example. Jesus is my model for my own social activism and desire for social justice. He was with those who were poor in spirit, who mourned, who were weakened, who where hungry, who sought righteousness, who were rich, who were sinners, who were merciful, who were peacemakers, and who were persecuted.
My favorite Bible verse is from First Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession before many witnesses.” I will. My husband will. We will continue to fight the good fight for Will and for the opportunity to someday, be included and part of a church family. And one that loves us unconditionally.