Friday, October 24, 2008

LRE Catch-22

A couple Falls ago, we- that is, my sons and I- started attending church. We gave a couple of churches around a try, and had a lot of trouble the minute the word “autism” was uttered- local churches, particularly Sunday School teachers- wanted no parts of it. Some of you may want to drawl on about how Sunday School teachers are volunteers, they have no special education training, they aren’t prepared to deal with special needs, yadda, yadda, yadda. And I say to you: this is supposed to be a Christian community. Joey is part of that community. I’m happy to help and talk with you and even be in the classroom to support him; but you have to welcome him in. We were turned away.

So we ended up in one of the big downtown churches, mostly because when I mentioned that Joey was autistic, the Sunday School supervisor said “OK.” And when I asked to meet with her and with his teachers, they all said, “Wonderful.” And then we met, and talked, and it may not have been a perfect world of support and understanding, but everyone did their best and the teachers loved Joey just as they loved all the other kids in their class, and stressed that we’re all God’s children and He loves us all just as we are- including Joey. Some of the kids liked him, and were friendly; some of the kids didn’t, and weren’t, and it was funny how this was mirrored in their parents’ reaction to meeting him or seeing him. We were glad to have a place where Joey could be an active participant in his community among his peers.

Then we moved on a year, and the next teacher wasn’t interested in meeting, and it was a little less successful a year, and the supervisor that was so willing to listen left. That’s the way Sunday Schools go. Some people stick it out forever, some folks come and go. Andy’s Sunday School teachers had been at it for fifty years.

And then we signed up for Vacation Bible School. I would call that moderate success. We had some incidents, but overall, he had a good time, and all was OK, even though I had to be there with him instead of letting him be on his own a little. The new supervisor of Sunday School mentioned there were plans for a special needs class in the Sunday school, and would I like to get into the discussions about it? There was a problem where the upper-levels (second grade and up) do “Rotation Sunday School.” This means that the kids have rotating themes throughout the year- and they move from room to room for different activities. We had a couple of the older set that couldn’t handle all that change so quickly (Sunday School is only about an hour, remember). So I said I’d be glad to help, and heard nothing more about it.

I’ve been working on a lot of Sundays. The Fall is the busy season for one of my jobs, and as it also has a slow season, I like to try to build up some cash now to tide over the slower months (although it usually ends up making money to play catch-up from being through the slower months). We finally got a chance to go to Sunday School last week, as my work was cancelled for the day. So we went to introduce the guys to their new rooms: Andy to the preschool-4’s (the teachers Joey had his first year), and Joey to the First Grade room.

So I arrive and take Andy to his room, and one of the ladies pulls me aside and asks me about Joey. How is he doing? Where am I taking him?

We got guided not to the First Grade room, but to a new class- the Disabilities class, which currently consists of those two older kids, and now Joey. They have two people who “alternate” covering the class, and they are both special educators in their real lives. (How is “alternating” the teacher going to help kids with trouble with transitions and change?)

In other words, for Sunday School, Joey just got put in the self-contained classroom. And I find myself in a bit of a Catch-22.

Apparently, the first grade teacher doesn’t want Joey in her room, because she had one of the now-older kids, and didn’t know what to do with him. In other words, she was not properly supported before, and has no desire to be left in the cold twice. That may be reasonable enough, but where does that leave Joey? Isolated and closeted in a self-contained environment- a class that I am being given the strong impression was created specifically for him and these two other kids, one of which isn’t showing up regularly, either. He will get one-on-one (or nearly so, if the other kid shows up) attention for reading the little weekly reader things and the week’s Bible lesson. But he’ll be shut away from his friends, from his peers, and they are shut away from him.

I appreciate the effort and thought of trying to support people with special needs, but what about supporting them in the least restrictive environment?

What is more important? Learning Bible stories, or being included in the community of his peers? You probably have figured out my answer to that. If you haven’t, please note nowhere else in this post have I said anything about Bible stories.

That may seem strange to some folks, but we’re Methodists. The Bible stories themselves aren’t nearly as important as the lessons they teach- love, acceptance, honor, respect, living a life that spreads God’s grace in love through positive action and attitude. What good is memorizing The Good Samaritan if you keep passing by on the other side of the road every time you see someone in need? Teach the kid to help the person in need. They can read the Bible story later.

So we are left with a Sunday dilemma. Do we go back? Do we leave Joey in the self-contained room, or do we fight to have him in a room where the teacher doesn’t want to deal with him? Should we be looking for a new church home?


Mandie said...

Oh, how I wish you lived near me (Illinois). I go to a fantastic church that is striving to do its best with disabilities ministry. We have sign language every other Sunday (this is a new thing we are trying out), students with special needs included in regular classes with a one-on-one aide assigned to them, valet parking for our special needs adults, and a task force who meets regularly to address needs like your sons. I wish you could come to my church!

Good luck with a very tough decision you have to make. I personally would share your concerns (again) with the church and let them know the impact it is having on your family then wait it out for a couple of months to see if things change, but that' just me.

My co-blogger has a son with Prader-Willi Syndrome, so special needs ministry is an area that I'm becoming increasingly aware of.

bigwhitehat said...

What ever your choice, remember,"I can do ALL THINGS through Him that strengthens me."

This church doesn't even seem to know what Joey's "special needs" actually are. This problem is exacerbated by infrequent attendance. In short, this is a real tough problem.

There is a good possibility that you could make this church a good church home for Joey. But, do you really want to? Is this a good justification for leaving a congregation you don't care for anyway?

I ask those questions earnestly. This comes down to figuring out if you are happy there in the first place.

If you do want to stay, have a meeting with the church leadership about this whole affair. Have in mind, what you would like to see happen. I have a feeling the leadership will be asking you to come up with the solution. You will also have to be willing to assist with implementing that solution.

Lastly, I would like to suggest a little outside help. You should contact Joni and Friends. They are full of all kinds of good information that is very helpful to churches. Joni Eareckson Tada may well be the foremost authority on equipping churches to disciple and evangelize disabled people.

I hope that helps.

I took special time to pray about your dilemma tonight. Please know that I truly care about this problem. I have had similar problems lately too. You are not alone.

Joeymom said...

Thanks for the suggestion, BWH! (I was wondering where you were- your blog isn't loading for me). WE really appreciate your prayers.

kristi said...

The church I have attended for years is very small. There is no classroom for the kids during the church service. TC tends to get loud and I have to place all of my focus on him anyway...let me just say I haven't gone in a long time. It is hard, because my church is very understanding but I don't like that TC is so disruptive.

JoyMama said...

Don't know if it will be helpful (either at the church you're attending now or another one yet to be found) but our congregation has had quite a bit of success with lining up volunteers to give one-on-one support to kids on the spectrum so they can attend the Sunday school classes. Granted it does mean a different aide each week of the month (which for my daughter actually works OK), but on the plus side it ends up putting her in the same environment with her peers and with a consistent regular Sunday-school teacher.

Parents of kids with special needs in our church have also been invited to give presentations to the adult Sunday school class, with follow-ups about every 2 or 3 years. We just gave our first presentation last month...

It can work, but it does take a congregation that is open to the possibilities, and the blessings, of including everyone regardless of ability.

KittyKate said...

BWH has a new web address :