Ministering to People with Disabilities
by Dr. Daniel M. Forbes, EdD, LMHC, NCC, CFLE
Reverently she entered the sanctuary with her child in tow, her hands filled with her Bible and a bag with items for her child, such as a change of clothes, snacks, and a favorite toy to help calm him should he become fretful during the service. Making her way to an empty seat, she was anxious to find a place to sit and relax among God’s people and enjoy the service, even if only for a while before she would have to leave and once again face the realities of life awaiting her outside the church’s doors.
As a single mom, it seemed like the church was becoming one of the few places she hoped to find rest from her stressful week. She had recently sensed the need to attend church with her family and had been searching for a spiritual home she could call her own. Perhaps this might be the one she had been hoping to find. The service began with a hymn that was upbeat and inspiring. It was just what she needed to hear.
At the end of the song, one of the saints in the church made her way to where the young mother was sitting. The church member smiled encouragingly toward her child, who seemed to enjoy the singing just as much as his mom, waving his arms to the rhythm of the music and making sounds as if joining in and singing along with the congregation.
As the member made her way to that single mom, she sat down beside her and whispered, “How old is your son?” The young mother smiled and said, “Oh, my son Joey is twelve years old.” Then the member smiled and said to her, “We have a mother’s room in the back of the church. Perhaps you’ll feel more comfortable there with him. Your handicapped child seems to be making some of the other members here feel a little uncomfortable with his odd behaviors and loud noises.”
The mother, along with her disabled son, quietly got up. Gathering their belongings from the pew where they had been sitting, along with their first impressions of the church, they left, never to return again.
What a needless tragedy, the loss of an opportunity to witness to and be uniquely blessed by those of the disabled community with a blessing only they can bring.
How do you and your church minister to people with disabilities? What impressions do they leave with after having visited your congregation? How truly accepted are they? How included do families with disabled loved ones feel who happen to be members of your church already? A historical study of the subject reveals that life for disabled individuals and their families has not always been an easy path.
In my years of ministry, I have had the honor to become acquainted with and minister to many in the disabled community, their families, and caregivers. I have been able to minister to individuals with disabilities that are both seen and unseen, congenital and medical (i.e., Autism, cerebral palsy, paralysis, seizure disorder, cognitively challenged, Down syndrome, blind, deaf, non-verbal, depression, bipolar, personality disorder, mobility challenged, and others). Some have been members of the congregations I have served. Some I have had the privilege of helping to become members through baptism or professions of faith. And because of those experiences, I have found countless blessings and opportunities for spiritual growth that await individuals and congregations who are willing to make an intentional missional effort to reach out with acceptance, Christian love, and service to those with disabilities. In return, they receive all that the disabled community, by God’s grace, can uniquely offer and teach us.
I have also learned that we are all similar in that we are all challenged by the disability of sin and in need of healing by the Great Physician. We all have a soul to be saved and a Heaven-ordained purpose to fulfill. Sometimes we have to adapt our methodology to meet the needs of disabled individuals and our biblical objective in a meaningful way, but it can be done.
This point was illustrated in one church where I served. We had a special Sabbath service where six motorcycle organizations were represented to help us raise funds for a local group home. When I told the leaders of this particular home what we were planning, they gratefully offered to have their dance troupe of ladies from the home come and perform. With trepidations, I agreed.
On the day of the program, when it was time for them to perform, the director and eight middle-aged ladies with Down Syndrome made their way to the front of the church, all dressed in matching costumes, each looking like a princess.
The congregation sat spellbound as we watched our disabled guests express their witness for the Lord, exhibiting angelic innocence and an unconditional love for each other. On their faces were expressions of focus and determination to move in unison and follow directions. When they were finished, they showered each other with encouraging and heartfelt hugs and smiles along with school girl giggles as they experienced the joy of having an opportunity to share their gifts among God’s people.
When they sat down, I dare say there was not a dry eye in the sanctuary. What a perfect testimony and example of how we should all be toward each other when we, too, give service for God. I encourage you to look for opportunities to interact with people with disabilities who live among us. I am sure you will find that with their God-given gifts, they are more than capable of inspiring you in ways you never thought possible.