The Power of Encouragement

The Power of Encouragement

I practically bounced into church on a recent bright spring morning, so happy I was to be there, in the sanctuary,  as a family.  Just recently, Samantha sat through the entire Mass for the very first time.  I rejoiced and was overwhelmed with happiness to have Samantha, at 15 years old, be able to participate in the service without having to leave to sit in the “cry room” area because she was getting too restless or making too much noise.

So today I happily sat down with my husband and three children to enjoy church like “normal” families do.

Not that I wasn’t a little apprehensive, that never seems to go away completely.  Samantha’s autistic behaviors are sometimes difficult to predict, but I was cautiously optimistic, having had such a good experience a few weeks prior, that all would go well.

And it did go well, for almost the entire Mass.  We even made it through the homily with Samantha staying fairly calm and seeming to really enjoy her surroundings.  Then it was time to get up and receive communion.  We were sitting at the side of the church and proceeded up toward the Eucharistic Minister.  Samantha received communion but, as we made our way back to tour pew, she had a complete meltdown.  This included biting her hands, yelling, crying and jumping up and down.

My husband and I quickly surrounded her and tried to calm her down but she was inconsolable.  To make things worse, she wouldn’t leave either.  So we were faced with several minutes (it felt like an eternity) of enduring her distressing behavior.  As I prayed silently, I could feel the entire church, our pastor, our choir and all the members of the congregation looking at us.  It was just awful for everyone and I wanted to disappear.

Samantha did finally calm down however and we made it to the final blessing.  Of course, by this point, I was now crying.  Crying because I was frustrated that I couldn’t help Samantha; that I couldn’t even identify the reason why she was so upset and frustrated that we seem to take one step forward and two steps back in our ability to participate in corporate worship.

As the tears fell, my husband brought the kids outside while I attempted to regain my composure in the bathroom.

At home, I felt emotionally exhausted and the feeling of sadness, frustration, and yes, even embarrassment lingered throughout the day.  I did write a short email to our pastor trying to explain the situation.  He is very understanding and I knew he would be concerned about Samantha.  On Monday morning though, I received an email that made me cry again.  This time is was with tears of thankfulness.

A fellow parishioner, someone I knew well by sight but not by name, wrote the following:

Dear Karen,

I just wanted to tell you how loved and admired you are by our family and by so many other people at Blessed Sacrament.  We have enjoyed sitting with you in the cry room and the main church…We know today got rough for Samantha but we all love her and her wonderful mom and we pray for you both. 

See you next Sunday. “

This kind of encouragement is priceless to me.  Such kind words at a time when I really needed them.

As I typed back my response, I couldn’t’ help but let the tears flow again, knowing that someone had taken the time to track down my email and lift me up with love and support.

I have to admit, despite this wonderful email I did not want to attend Mass the next Sunday.  I tried all week not to think about it.

When Sunday morning did come, I still did not want to go.  I tried reasoning with myself and God. “No one would blame you if you took a week off”, “The boys are away at a baseball tournament, Samantha and I should just stay home and rest”.  But as I sat down to pray and read scripture that morning, God wouldn’t let me get away with my excuses.  After reading from 2 Corinthians, the words of the Bible commentary, summarizing the reading jumped out at me:  “To follow Christ is to follow him into suffering- but we can be encouraged that God comes beside us to comfort and console, to strengthen and to guide”. And so I got Samantha ready and we headed off to the 10:30 am Mass.

When we got into the church, I gave her the option of sitting in the cry room area of the church or going into the sanctuary.  I wish I could report that she opted to go into the sanctuary and we made it through the whole Mass- no problems.  But she chose to sit out in the cry room area and I was okay with that.  We were here at church and that was the important thing.

At the end of Mass my new friend found us.  She said “I was afraid you didn’t come today”.  I gave her a hug and realized that hearing those words too was a blessing, making our trip to church well worth it.  Acceptance, support, encouragement, community- This is what a faith community should be about.  I am so grateful to have found that at my church.  I am grateful to have people in my life that encourage and support me.

Too often, in my role as facilitator of a Christian support group for parents of children with special needs and as Director of Faith Inclusion Network, I have heard stories that reflect just the opposite of encouragement.  These stories are from parents who have been started at or even given “dirty looks” because of their child’s behavior.  Sometimes, parents have even been asked to leave the congregation because their child’s behavior was too disruptive.  These kinds of stories are just heart breaking and it needs to stop!

I believe I have a strong faith in God.  Chances are that, after the upsetting experience with Samantha at Mass, I would have made it back and I would be able to continue our efforts at church.  But God knew that I needed that little bit of love and encouragement.  The words from my fellow parishioner had a powerful impact on my day, on my feelings of acceptance at church and on my dedication to disability ministry.   I pray that everyone who has the opportunity to encourage an individual with a disability or their caregiver, find it in their hearts to follow through and share those encouraging words.  There is power there- God’s power of encouragement and love.