Category Archives: Family

Lead with Love

If you have a disability or are the parent or guardian of someone with a disability, then you are very familiar with assessments for eligibility of services. These assessments are designed to identify whether  or not an individual requires support of some kind which would then lead to the kinds of intervention or available services. Assessments can be just a few minutes long or take hours and hours and require you to answer hundreds of questions.

As the parent of a young adult with severe autism, I have sat through my fair share of assessments and can assure you that they usually are not fun. This is mainly because the whole reason for the questions is to determine what my child can not do, what her weaknesses are, and why she needs support for daily living, etc.

No one wants to have to spend time focusing solely on their child’s weaknesses, because, despite the truth off all the information, this does not define our child, it is just a part of who they are. Unfortunately, it is the only part that is usually relevant during an assessment.

Recently, this idea of assessments came to mind when consulting with a local small church. I met with a very kind group of people who wanted to discuss how best to support a young person with severe autism. This is the kind of situation I get calls and emails about most frequently as Director of FIN. Due to the challenging behaviors, people leading religious education programs, Sunday schools and other children-focused ministries in churches and synagogues are often at a loss as to how best to include children with autism.

Discussing the situation of inclusion for a young child with autism always brings me back to when my daughter was nine years old. We had just started attending a new church and I was working with the director of the religious education program on how to understand and include Samantha. Even though this was over 10 years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. Do you know what sticks out most in my mind? The initial response from the director of RE. She didn’t ask about all the challenges and how we were going to accomplish including Samantha into Sunday school classses, she just said, “We will figure it out” and asssured me that the church would help. She asked me what Samantha liked to do and what she was like at home. I felt that Samantha was going to be loved and appreciated because of those questions, and I was right.  

The small group I was asked to join was assembled to address and develop strategies to include the child with autism. I have no doubt that they too want what is best for this child and family, as well as the congregation as a whole. I arrived with a small stack of books, resources from some of my favorite authors like Barb Newman, Jolene Philo and Shelly Christensen who have detailed suggestions as to how best to develop support and develop a positive inclusive environment. I brought along some Joni and Friends resources too and I threw in David Morstad’s latest book, “Whole Community” for a big picture look at the importance of developing inclusion.

It was an informal meeting and the group leader jumped right in with some ideas they had been thinking about and the conversation they wanted to have with the parents. As I listened to all their suggestions, it occurred to me that this well-intentioned meeting felt like a group that was assessing and solving a problem, much like the assessments I go through with my daughter to receive services.

Eventually, I chimed in with the suggestion that we back up to the initial talk with the child’s parents. How would I feel if members of my church started a conversation about my daughter with questions about her weaknesses, about the challenges and how to address them in the Sunday school class? I am pretty sure it would feel like an assessment. What is wrong? What are the weaknesses? How do we fix it or what do we provide to make this work?

I made the suggestion that perhaps they could start by asking the parents what their child’s strengths were? What does he do well? What does he like? Yes, the challenging behaviors do exist and need to be discussed to find a way to best support and include the child, but this young person is first and foremost a child of God, with their own set of gifts to offer the community.

The suggestion was noted and appreciated, I think. The group was a well-educated, smart and loving group of people who are all interested in what is best for this individual child, family and the rest of their children in the congregation too. I was glad to be a part of the conversation and hopefully had some good suggestions and helpful resources.

But what I came away with personally was an important reminder of what I believe we all must remember as we go about the work of developing supports and inclusion in our faith communities for people with disabilities or special needs. In addition to learning and utilizing best practice strategies to help our children be included in congregational activities, which very often means religious education classes, we must always start by seeing the person as a precious child of God, a person that brings their own gifts, talents, and special qualities to the table…and we must keep in mind how loved that individual is by their family and by God. We must lead with love.

 

In Pursuit of Self-Care: One Caregiver’s Summer Journey to a Healthier Place

FIN is just getting started on planning a new event in May 2019 that will focus on supporting caregivers. So many of our families affected by disability include caregivers who need support as they manage taking care of family members affected by disability, other children, marriages and jobs. There is often not enough time to ensure they are taking care of themselves as well. In the following article, Karen Jackson shares her own experience as a caregiver and some strategies for moving toward a healthier lifestyle. 

In Pursuit of Self-Care: One Caregiver’s Summer Journey to a Healthier Place

I am writing this article for that mom or caregiver out there struggling to take care of herself, overwhelmed with the responsibilities of taking care of multiple children, maybe some with special needs and some just at a challenging age. He or she also takes care of her home, her spouse and probably holds down a job.

Everyone tells her how important “self-care” is, but she can’t seem to get a grasp on truly putting herself ahead of all the other people and responsibilities in her life. If that is you, I hope you will read on. If its not, then I am guessing you know someone like this; caregivers who need your love and support…And the encouragement and opportunity to take care of themselves as well.

As a 23-year veteran parent with one out of the house, one high school-er and an adult child with special needs, (not to mention recently having turned 50!) the self-care dilemma had come to the forefront of my life. Facing pre-diabetes, high cholesterol and a multitude of other issues, I had to admit, I wasn’t taking very good care of myself…and I needed a plan.

This past summer I embarked on a little project I called “A Healthier Me”. My project included self-care aspects regarding my physical, emotional and mental well-being.  Ironically, it was also an extremely stressful summer caring for my daughter, Samantha who had been struggling with extreme anxiety. Somehow, with a combination of stubbornness (I have plenty of that), faith and a good plan, I made it through this summer and can honestly say I am now in a healthier place. I may not be exactly where I want to be ultimately, but I have made progress.

The following is an outline of my experience. I pray it is helpful for you and might inspire you to get to a healthier place too.

  1. Faith

Before I even began setting goals, I prayed for God to bless this experience and help me find the time, energy and resources I needed to make it happen. In mid-May, He led me to a local personal trainer business called Fitness Together.  One of the owners just happened to be a recent author of a faith and fitness book called 365 Power Diet, How to Overcome Obesity and Strengthen Your Faith with New Habits that Last a Lifetime by Marti Carrier. I took it as a sign and not only purchased the book but registered for my evaluation and first ever personal fitness training session.

  1. Support and Encouragement

I started a secret Facebook page (did you know that was a thing?) and invited ten of my most encouraging friends. You know, the ones who build you up and keep you going. I am blessed with a lot of those kind of people in my life but really you only need one or two.

On my secret page I posted about food, exercising and a lot about my personal training experience. I also tried to be honest about my emotional challenges. I had lots of great comments and feedback from my friends.

My husband was also very encouraging and, despite the extra cost associated with the personal training and healthier food, encouraged me to do it. He was also up extra early in the morning sometimes if I was out exercising helping take care of our daughter. I am very blessed to have his support and I also enjoyed sharing my little successes along the way with him.

  1. Goals

I am a goal setter and this was a prime opportunity. I set some specific goals, like working with a trainer, finding a nutritional plan that would work for me and running a 5K. Posting my goals, even if only for a few friends, helped me to stay focused and motivated.

  1. Emotional Eating Issues

I am the textbook definition of an emotional eater which is one of the reasons I was so overweight. A bad day teaching? Not enough sleep? Medical problems with my daughter? My answer was usually comfort food at some point in the evening.

My biggest prayer in the beginning of the summer was to find the self-control and strength to fight the urge to de-stress with food. I relied heavily on my faith here and as I made this issue a daily prayer focus, I could feel myself developing more self-control. Of course, I had relapses, but I have made big strides.

  1. Nutrition Plan

There are more diets and nutritional plans out there than anyone can count. I think I have tried most of them. For me, a lower carbohydrate, higher protein diet has helped me stabilize my blood sugar. I have done Whole 30 in the past but currently consider my diet Paleo. Whatever you choose, make sure you check in with a doctor to ensure it is a healthy plan for you.

  1. Exercise

Mandy, Personal Trainer at Fitness Together

I delved into personal training 3X/week for most of the summer. The time of day that had the least impact on my family and caregiving responsibilities was 5:30 AM. With my daughter getting very little sleep (and therefore getting very little sleep myself) there were mornings I barely could get out of bed. I had an awesome trainer though. She became an great personal support and didn’t even mind when I had the occasional breakdown because of my lack of sleep. Thank you, Mandy!

I also began getting more cardio exercise. I used to love to run but had injuries that kept me from running and sometimes from even walking for exercise. The strength training helped build up my back and core enough to get my body in a better place to be able to run.  Yesterday I registered for a 5K race. Even if I come in dead last, I will consider running the race a victory.

  1. Emotional and Mental Health

Taking care of someone who has special needs, not to mention if they are going through a particularly difficult season, is not just physically draining, its mentally and emotionally draining as well. I wish I had the answer for everyone here, but some things I found that helped me were developing my prayer time and finding ways to physically relax. In the past I have gone to counseling, which I highly recommend, but did not pursue this summer.

I have long been in the habit of taking time in the morning to read the Bible, pray and journal. Lately, however, I felt like I was in a bit of a rut. My journaling had become more complaining than anything else. So, I began to use my journal time to ask God questions. “What should I do about this or that?” “Should we try a new medication for our daughter?”, “Who should I call for help on Sat. night?” etc.…And then, I just waited and I listened. Miraculously, my stress level came down as I handed over questions to God and was urged one way or another with answers to my questions.

Physically relaxing also became a pursuit for me. Since I love being in water, (and summer is a good time for that) I tried to get to a pool or the ocean as much as I could. Toward the end of the summer, as my daughter was feeling better, she came along too. Between a little more time in the water, a few professional massages and more quality prayer time, I began to see a reduction in my stress level.

Moving Ahead

Author, out for a run in early September

The summer is over and I am very glad to have taken the time to make some significant changes in my self-care strategies. I am hopeful to continue to take better care of myself and get to an even healthier place. My “A Healthier Me” project gave me the focus I needed to jump start a transition to healthier habits.

An important, unintended result of my summer endeavor was realizing that I could focus on taking care of myself, even during difficult times and even as a mom to a child with special needs. I felt like God wanted me to know that He not only loves and cares for me, but He wants to help me be the best I can be. It is not selfish to take care of myself, rather it is an important part of my journey. I am blessed to be able to keep learning and hope you too will be inspired to put self-care on the top of your list as you continue to be the best caregiver and person you can be.

 

Essay Contest: Blog #3 Colleen Stefanowich

I have known Colleen and her parents through Young Life Capernaum and then The Chosen Ministry for many years and have always appreciated her quick smile and willingness to help.  Colleen is a friend to many, including myself and  my daughter Samantha who has autism.  Whenever we visit Church of the Holy Family‘s Chosen Ministry events and run into Colleen, I can be guaranteed a huge hug and that she will go out of her way to say hello to Samantha, understanding that Samantha cannot respond in kind but accepting and so loving all the same.  

It doesn’t surprise me then, that Colleen is so involved at her church and that she has an incredibly positive attitude. Thank you Colleen for submitting this essay and allowing us learn a bit about you. -K. Jackson

MY INVISIBLE DISABILITY

BY COLLEEN STEFONOWICH

“That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in   persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10)

Growing up with a disability wasn’t easy but having two siblings that I am close to helped even though they couldn’t take it all away. But them listening to me helped me growing up.  I felt bad for them, but I also thought they had it made.  I felt bad for them because they didn’t choose to have a sibling with a disability but they got one anyways. They also had to watch struggle with things that came easy to them. I also had to do things a bit differently than they did growing up. They never treated me any differently because of it.

I thought they had it made because in school, they were able to be in classes with other normal kids. They also got to do some rites of passages in life I never got to do. Things like get their licenses and go to a university.

I have a disability called dyscalculia, which is not a very well known or a very common disability, not very many people have heard of it. Dyscalculia is a math disability, so everything that has to do with math isn’t easy. For example, things like telling time (unless it’s a digital clock), making change, counting money, doing math , reading music. Reading certain numbers will actually overwhelm my brain because it’s way too many numbers, and my brain will   actually shut down because its way too many numbers too look at.

I was recently diagnosed with a vision problem called keratoconus.Basically, that’s just a big fancy word  for cone shaped cornea, which causes major vision problems, and potential blindness. I actually had a procedure done on November 15,2017 to help salvage the vision left in my right eye.

My church family is nothing short of amazing!! I sing in the choir, help with children’s church, and sometimes Sunday school by being a buddy for other students with disabilities. There have been some choir members   who give me rides home from church and practice. I have another choir member who so graciously helps me up and down the stairs from the choir loft for communion. I also have another choir member who has typed up the words to the songs in a bigger font so I am   able to see the words better due to my low vision. They have all done this without anyone asking them to do these things. All of these things have made it possible for me to feel an important part of the choir.

I love my Church of the Holy Family!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Essay Contest Blog Series-Blog #2-Jenny the Jewel

I have known this next author for many years through the social ministry first called Young Life Capernaum and then The Chosen Ministry. I have always been a bit in awe of her confident faith and am so grateful to call her friend.  Thank you “Jenny the Jewel” for your strong words of faith and for being such a kind and loving friend. -K. Jackson

 

What My Faith Means to Me

My faith means EVERYTHING to me! When I was in high school, the kids on the school bus were very mean to me and and called me all kinds of bad names. They told me I was a mistake! When I got home I would be crying. My Mom met me at the door every day and we would talk and pray. She told me that people called Jesus bad names too and that He understand exactly how I felt. She told me that real truth is only found in God’s Word and not in what other people say about you. My Mom told me that if I could find anywhere in the Bible where God calls me bad names or said I was a mistake, she would pay me $5,000. I read the Bible to see what God said about me. All the Scriptures I found said just the opposite! Some of my favorite Scriptures are Psalm 139:14 where God says I am fearfully and wonderfully made. In Psalm 17 God tells me that I am the apple of His eye. In Deuteronomy 7:6 God tells me that I am His treasured possession. In Phil 4:8 God tells me to think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure and lovely. I like to think about the truth that God tells me and spend my time thinking about what God says is true. The last Scripture that means a lot to me is Psa. 119:114, that says “You are my refuge and my shield. I have put my hope in Your Word.” My confidence and hope and trust is in God. I love to memorize Scripture and fill my mind with the truth of who God says I am. Doing this has made all the difference in my life!  Now I know that God has a plan for my life and He created me just the way I am for His special purpose!  I love my life!  I love to share God’s love with other people and tell them about Jesus and to pray for them. This fills my heart with great joy!  I am so thankful that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, and that I will live with Him forever!

He is my very best friend. I don’t make any decisions without asking Jesus first. I want what God wants for my life. I want to please Him in everything I do. My passion and desire is to serve Him. He is my reason for living, and He gives my life meaning. My favorite part of the day is the evening when I have my quiet time with the Lord. I LOVE to read in God’s word and to listen to Him, and write down what He says to me in my journal. I LOVE to pray, it makes me feel so close to God. I LOVE to copy Scriptures in my journal. I like to meditate on the Scriptures and see what God is going to say to me. I LOVE to be in God’s presence and to listen to worship music. I LOVE to rest in His Almighty arms. Jesus fills my heart with joy and excitement.

I LOVE God with all of my heart and I want my life to bring glory to His name. I can’t even imagine my life without God!

Jenny The Jewel

Author Jenny Jenson (far right) with mom Cherry behind her and friends Mika Fox, Karen Fox and Katie Mann at FIN’s Gifts of the Heart Gala-2018

The Parking Lot

I was excited when Virginia Pilot journalist Denise Watson replied to my email about doing a story on Faith Inclusion Network and our upcoming Gifts of the Heart Gala.  I always love to share about FIN and the work we do. After Denise and I talked on the phone, we decided to meet up at my church, Blessed Sacrament Catholic in Norfolk, VA one weekend before Mass to have a picture taken of my daughter Samantha participating at church, a shining example of inclusion as a person severely affected by autism but very much part of our church family.

I knew our Pastor, Fr. Joe Metzger would be fine with the plan, he has always been supportive of our efforts to include Samantha and the various cameras and reporters in the past coming in to film or take photos.  I should have known it would not be that easy this time around though.  Samantha’s anxiety, built up over the last few weeks for what is as of yet undetermined causes, kicked into high gear and she refused to get out of our van when we got to the church parking lot.

Samantha with Fr. Joe, Pastor at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in June, 2017

“Really Samantha?” I thought, “Here we are, trying to share about our wonderful inclusion experience and you won’t even get out of the car!” I dashed inside the church to tell Fr. Joe that Samantha was super stressed and not willing to come inside the church building.  He followed me outside to talk with her himself.  Samantha absolutely adores Fr. Joe so I thought he might convince her to get out of the van.

There in the parking lot we all gathered around Samantha.  Denise, the journalist and Bill, the photographer, could not have been nicer or more understanding. While Denise and I chatted, Bill snapped a few photos of Fr. Joe talking through the window to Samantha.

It wasn’t until the next day that I could organize my thoughts over this whole experience. On the one hand, I was sad and disappointed.  In addition to being worried about what is wrong with Samantha, I felt frustrated. We have worked so hard to get Samantha comfortable at church over the years and it has seemed to pay off. We generally sit together as a family in the sanctuary now and she is usually relaxed and happy, often wanting to linger after Mass. Her current behavior is unusual and a mystery. It is hard on all of us when we do not know what is wrong.

But another part of me realized that I was also very grateful.  I appreciate the people who meet us where we are, even if it is in the church parking lot.  And isn’t that what we really need to do when it comes to our families affected by disability? We need to meet them wherever they are, give support and encouragement through the challenges and let them know that they are not forgotten, even if unusual circumstances make attending church difficult or impossible.

So today I choose to be grateful. I am thankful for all those who love and support Samantha and our family, especially those connected through our church family.

I am sure Samantha will get through this period and we will be back in the pews soon. For now, I pray that this experience is used to touch someone else and be a reminder that sometimes, when you can’t go to church, church has to come to you, even if that is in the parking lot.

Amen.

Karen and Samantha Jackson

My New Ramp

For the last ten years I have been a public advocate in the disability community, learning about inclusion and sharing that information with faith communities, hopefully raising awareness about the need to be more welcoming to individuals and families affected by disability. During the course of this work, I have made many friends, some of them very close friends now, who use wheelchairs.  For the last few years, I have made sure that I borrowed or rented a ramp in December so that I could invite my friends who use wheelchairs to a Christmas open-house party in my home.

A few weeks ago, faced with preparations for this year’s open house, I made a decision.  I just went ahead and purchased a ramp. It is not a huge one, as you can see in the photo, but it serves its purpose. I was so excited about my new ramp, that I invited one of my best friends to come to dinner to try it out.

I was thrilled that my friend could come over-just a simple supper with my kids and I. We took advantage of the time to catch up and share family stories. It was a wonderful evening.

Before you think, “isn’t that a nice thing to do”, let me confess that I am actually pretty embarrassed and disappointed in myself.  I am embarrassed that as someone who helps advocate for persons affected by disability it took me so long to ensure that my own home was accessible, at least to the degree that someone in a wheelchair could get into my home.

Even though it is hard to admit all this, I am sharing this story because I have made an important realization. Being a person that has full use of my legs, I take for granted that I can go pretty much wherever I want I can get in and out of all buildings, public and private. There are no barriers for me.  These statements are obvious, I know. Yet despite my years getting to know all kinds of people affected by disability, it is still hard to remember that something as simple as a ramp can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

My friends that need to use a wheelchair to get around-they live in a world full of barriers. One of their frustrations is probably not being able to do something as common as visit a friend in their home.  While I cannot make up for the years it took me to wake up and realize I needed to purchase my own ramp, I am rejoicing today. My spirit is soaring, truth be told, for the joy I felt being able to welcome my good friend into my home for dinner.  And the thought that we will share many more dinners in the future.

As I write this story on my porch with my recently purchased ramp in front of me, I wonder…what if every single building, from public building to private homes, where automatically built with wheelchair ramps? What if, having struck up a friendship with someone who uses a wheelchair, you didn’t have to think twice about inviting them over to you house? What if the terminology “accessibility” became obsolete because every place was easily accessed for persons who use wheelchairs or need some other kind of accommodation? Big dreams, I know. But maybe someone reading this, someone like me, will decide they want to get a ramp too. That would be a good start…

Happy Birthday to the Happy Hour Class

Today I had the privilege of attending worship service at Wesley Grace United Methodist Church, http://www.wmumcnor.org/ a small congregation in the Wards Corner area of Norfolk, VA that is known locally for a lot of community outreach, impacting the local area in many positive ways.

I was invited by my friend, Gray Puryear, who is not only a longstanding member of the congregation but also serves as a lay speaker among the many responsibilities he holds at Wesley Grace.

Gray, who I have known for 10 years as he is a founding board member of Faith Inclusion Network, invited me to this service because they were planning to celebrate an exciting milestone, the 50th anniversary of a ministry for adults with intellectual disabilities they call “Happy Hour Class”.

An excerpt from a description in the bulletin about the ministry reads, “In 1967, several parents attending a church t Wards Corner in Norfolk asked the church leadership to start a Sunday School class for their adult children with intellectual disabilities. No one in the church had any training or experience with working with this special population in an educational setting, but a few members of the laity gave it a try…Today, 50 years later, that class is recognized by the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church as the oldest continuous class for adults with intellectual disabilities in Virginia.”

I was unexpectedly emotional during the service and have tried to piece together why that might be.  Part of it, I expect, was the very familiar setting of the UMC. I was raised in a small Methodist church, much like this one and the warm memories of a close-knit community were close to the surface.  But it was more than that.

The congregation had a special air of welcoming as they began this celebratory time of worship.  Quite a few people greeted my daughter Samantha and I warmly, recognizing she has a disability.  I felt like members of the congregation were especially aware, on this day set aside to recognize the Happy Hour Class Ministry, that a person they did not know who has a disability was visiting for the first time. It was very welcoming and even encouraging.

The service was full of evidence that this was an important day; a large banner was dedicated to commemorating the 50th anniversary and every part of the service included members of the Happy Hour Class from the greeters, to acolytes and musicians. The theme of celebration was obvious and happily contagious.

Gray Puryear, Lay Speaker at Wesley Grace UMC and one of leaders of the Happy Hour Class

I was also quite moved by my friend Gray’s sermons both to the children and the adults.  His basket of different kinds of apples, an illustration of how people are all different yet still all apples, was simple yet effective for the children. His message in the sermon was equally clear. Referencing Exodus and the story of Moses telling God that he was “slow of speech” so he couldn’t possibly be God’s spokesperson, Gray pointed out an important point.  Just as God provided an accommodation in appointing Moses’ brother Aaron to help Moses, we too are called to provide accommodations to help each other. As Gray put it, “when we provide an accommodation for a person with a disability, we are acting in the image of God.

The beautiful service, complete not only with some contemporary worship music but also a song I have not sung since childhood, Jesus Loves Me, was thoughtfully organized. Even their special guest from Richmond, Ms. Cheryl Edley-Worford, Director of Inclusivity and Lay Leadership Excellence in the Virginia Conference of the UMC https://vaumc.org/LayLeadership was on hand to offer her congratulations and gifts to the congregation.

As Samantha and I left Wesley Grace UMC today, I was reminded that it is the small, thoughtful efforts that sometimes add up to make a big impact for the congregation and their visitors. Listening devices, a screen with large print of all songs and prayers, friends helping friends with walkers and wheelchairs, a clear message from the leadership preaching inclusion and acceptance and the inclusion of persons affected by disability in all parts of the services, make for a welcoming environment. In my eyes, these accommodations and attitudes of acceptance all added up to Faith Inclusion Network’s vision to Accept, Include, and Celebrate all persons affected by disability in our faith communities.

Congratulations and thank you to members of Wesley Grace UMC, Gray Puryear, and Pastor, Scott Beck on this special anniversary.

God Bless!

What does it take to be a welcoming faith community?

This morning, my daughter Samantha and I attended Second Presbyterian Church, http://www.spcnorfolk.org/ , a small congregation near the Naval Base in Norfolk. I am well acquainted with the church as they generously house Faith Inclusion Network’s office and I count both Pastor Craig Wansink and Assoc. Pastor Catherine Monroe as personal friends. 
This was only the second time I have worshipped with the Second Presbyterian congregation and the first time I have taken Samantha along with me. I was invited to not only share the song “Let’s Share a Journey”,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-OmcOXxO_s&t=42s but also had the opportunity to sing and play flute along with their small praise band.
I was excited about participating in the worship Sunday morning but also a bit apprehensive. When I woke up Samantha, who has autism and is quite echolalic at times, I said “It’s time to get ready for church.” She spent the next few minutes repeating, “time for church, time for church” and my anxiety started to kick in. I was not sure how to prepare her to go to a different church. Although I had many words explaining how I was going to sing and play flute, I was just not sure if it was sinking in.
Our four-minute drive to Second Pres was over quickly and when I opened the door, Samantha took a moment to process the situation. She realized we were not at her church. For a few seconds, I thought maybe she wouldn’t get out of the van, but then she hopped out and in we headed for a short rehearsal before the service.
As I sang and played in rehearsal, Samantha seemed quite at ease. Quite a few people approached her to say hello. Of course, being non-verbal she didn’t respond, but no one seemed that confused or shocked. I began to relax.
Since I was up front performing most of the service, Samantha sat up in the first pew with the Associate Pastor Catherine Monroe’s’ family Again, any anxiety I had about how Samantha would do in this unfamiliar setting dissolved. I felt like I could relax and enjoy the worship time.
I have always enjoyed hearing Pastor Craig speak and his sermon this morning was no exception. The reading and topic of the day, taken from the Gospel of Luke, was the well-known parable of the Great Banquet. (Luke 14:15-24) In simple terms, Pastor Craig made sure the children up front understood: we shouldn’t just be inviting the wealthy or those who can pay us back. We need to invite the commonly overlooked, commonly excluded, the people on the fringes of society.
The service flew by and I very much enjoyed the chance to share the song “Let’s Share a Journey” as well as a short story about how that song came about.
But the real impact of the experience came at home after I had time to digest the whole morning.
Just a few years ago, I would NEVER had tried to bring Samantha to an unfamiliar church, especially when I couldn’t sit right by her. But with maturity, positive experiences in her own church, (Blessed Sacrament Catholic), and a welcoming atmosphere, she can now adapt to a different church and worship setting. This is so huge and exciting for us!
So why did we feel so welcomed at this church? Here are a few reasons:
1. The friendliness and acceptance of the church’s leadership and members of the congregation. We were intentionally welcomed with both formal introductions from the pulpit and informal greetings from the time we stepped into the church until we left.
2. Accommodations
I needed someone to sit with Samantha while I was up front performing and the Associate Pastor and her family were happy to help. In fact, Catherine’s response when I asked her was an enthusiastic, “Absolutely, thanks for asking!”. This meant a lot because she understood that there was a possibility that some autistic behaviors could kick in and things could not go well, but she wanted to help anyway.

3. Acknowledgement of importance of inclusion
I realize most people are not affected by disability in a personal way. Hearing a message of inclusion from the Pastor is extremely welcoming to people and families affected by disability.

Does this church have a disability ministry or program? No, and I don’t think that this is necessarily a prerequisite to being welcoming, even to people affected by disability, (although disability ministries can bring even more awareness and support to families affected by disability and are wonderful parts of many faith communities). What is a requirement, however, is leadership committed to the call of acceptance and members of a congregation open to embracing people that are different. It takes love and understanding and an inclusive attitude.

Thank you to Second Presbyterian Church and to all who are working diligently in their own houses of worship to be more inclusive and welcoming. God Bless.