Did that headline catch your attention? I hope it did, and I hope it shocked and surprised you! Surely in this day and age there can’t be anyone who would stop children with additional needs or disabilities, and their families, from being able to access church; anyone who would exclude them from all that church offers; anyone who would prevent them from belonging to the church community, can there? But sadly, this does happen all too often and some of the people responsible might surprise you!
People in church leadership, including children’s and youth workers, can be responsible for deliberately or unwittingly excluding children with additional needs or disabilities from their church. Deliberate acts could be saying to families with a disabled child that, “This might not be the church for you.” or suggesting that they look after their child in a separate room of the church building away from everyone else; the not too subtle point being made that any different behaviour or communication that a disabled child might express is of little value to the church or to God, and is a distraction and annoyance to everyone else.
Jesus didn’t say “Let the little children come to me… except that one who can sometimes find things harder to follow and so needs extra support, can often struggle with lots of people and noise so needs help to cope, and can occasionally find it all overwhelming and so needs understanding at these times… that one isn’t invited…” Jesus didn’t say that at all, in fact, as he rebuked the disciples, he said “…and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” All of them, no exceptions…
So why, for the love of God, did I receive this message a while ago from a friend who shared the experience she and her family had at their church that morning (I’ve anonymised it, but it doesn’t take away any of the impact…)
“Hi Mark, I wanted to share with you what happened to my family today because I want you to know how much your work is so badly needed and I hope as a result of what you are doing that this never happens to anyone else. I always keep my children in the service with me as they don’t enjoy Sunday School at all. I take them myself as my husband is ill with depression and has not been to church with us for over two years.
Today one of the workers came over and asked my daughter if she would like to come to Sunday School as they were making cards. (She) said no but (my son) got off his seat and went through with the other kids. As I went to sign him in I was told by the Sunday School leader that he was not welcome in Sunday School and they would not take him. I had to try and explain to him why every other child in the church is welcome but he isn’t and try and get him back out the room and into the church service without a meltdown. That was a huge challenge.
I was delighted at (my son) finally wanting to go to Sunday School and while I understand he requires more support than others, I feel that the whole situation was dealt with badly and has put me off going back to church. This is an (denomination mentioned) church who have actively tried to include (my daughter) in things such as welcoming duties and taking up the offering. It sure seems they are happy for (my daughter) to be there but don’t want (my son). Sorry for venting but today more than ever I am so grateful for the work you are doing in churches and hope it prevents other parents being told their child is not welcome. Thanks for listening…”
I trust that you are now, like me, furious about how this family was treated, how utterly wrong the Sunday School leader was, and how much damage has been done as a result. Most of our human feelings and emotions come from a place of either ‘fear’ or ‘love’, and I realise that often reactions such as that displayed by the Sunday School leader come from a place of fear; fear of not being able to manage if things unravel, fear of not being able to cope and provide the support and help needed. I’m a children’s worker, I understand that fear, I recognise it, I see it often; it is a human fear born out of thinking that it is all on their shoulders, all their fault if it goes wrong… But it doesn’t have to be that way, we need to be better than this.
Unwitting acts might be failing to lead culture change in the church to become inclusive, or not protecting families who are verbally, or even physically, bullied by members of the congregation (yes, this does happen!!) It can be as simple as not following up with a family that haven’t been seen in church for a few weeks, or continuing to say “Let’s stand to worship!” when there is a child who is a wheelchair user just in front of them (by the way, a great phrase to use is “We’re going to worship now, please stay seated, or stand, as you prefer. God really doesn’t mind!”)
Members of Church Congregations
I’ve written before about the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of church congregational bullying of families that have a child with additional needs or disabilities, but it is worth reminding ourselves of them again:
The ‘Tut’ – A sound that is so short, but which can leave a lasting impact. People tut when they disapprove of something, or someone; when they wish to show distaste or dislike. A ‘tut’ can be like a dagger to the heart of a family of a child with additional needs. It condemns, it judges, it articulates opinion in a cruel and harsh way. When trying to support a child who is overwhelmed and having a meltdown, the ‘tut’ says to parents “You have failed to control your child and now you are inflicting their issues on me, and I disapprove…” That simple sound can be so hurtful… but it is often accompanied by…
The ‘Look’ – A harsh stare often follows the ‘tut’; a glowering, accusatory, frowning, purse lipped look that makes families with children with additional needs want to hide from the glare. It reinforces the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that the family will be feeling as they try to help and support their child, just at a time when what they really need is kindness and understanding. But then often the third part of the bullying ‘triple whammy’ comes swiftly along…
The ‘Loud Comment’ – After the ‘tut’ and the ‘look’ often comes the loud comment, ostensibly aimed at someone nearby, but made loudly enough to be heard by the family (and probably most of the church congregation!) It can frequently start with “Well…” and continues with something like “if they can’t control their child they shouldn’t bring him into church…” (control is just about the last thing possible during a meltdown), or “I wouldn’t put up with bad behaviour like that if she was my child” (this isn’t bad behaviour, it’s could be a response to sensory overload).
I could add many other examples here, perhaps including the ‘Smug Smile’ when the family drag their distressed child out of the church so that they aren’t subjected to any further abuse. Many of us have seen people do one or all of these things in our churches, seen the impact it has had on families and their children; we can see how our churches, our churches for goodness sake, might add to the stark statistic that at least 60% of children with additional needs are bullied… Does it break your heart? It certainly breaks mine…
We need to be better than this, to model a better way to the rest of the world, to make a positive difference to that statistic rather than adding to it. It needs change; change to come from the top, from those with positions of responsibility in our churches. Good practice needs to be preached, and poor congregational behaviour needs to be challenged.
We need to see the ‘tuts’ turned to offers of support and help, the ‘look’ to become one of friendship and encouragement, the ‘loud comment’ to be “how can we help you?”
“What?” You might be crying? “Why would parents stop their own children from being included in church?” Well, and I speak here as a parent of a disabled child myself, we can sometimes be our own worst enemies… Parents can and do exclude themselves, and their children, from church for a variety of reasons, including but not restricted to these:
Assumptions about lack of inclusion
Sometimes parents can make assumptions about the lack of provision at a church before even trying it out. Perhaps it is because so often inclusion is something that has to be battled for, we end up assuming the worst so that we aren’t constantly disappointed. An ex-boss of mine had a variety of favourite phrases, but one of them was “Assume makes an ‘Ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” Sometimes he was right, and in the case of parents making assumptions about the inclusion provision in churches, sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised. There are excellent churches out there that take accessibility, inclusion and belonging for all seriously and do a great job in enabling this to be the experience for everyone. We’re building a list and map of these churches on the Additional Needs Alliance website, you can see it here: http://additionalneedsalliance.org.uk/inclusive-churches/ If you would like to add a church to the list, the link to do it is here: http://additionalneedsalliance.org.uk/inclusive-church-signup/
Fear of being judged
Perhaps it’s not a surprise, from the examples given earlier about how church leadership and church congregations can behave towards families with a child with additional needs or a disability, that they can feel judged and so exclude themselves, but some parents can do so even before giving a church a chance. Perhaps they have heard a bad story from someone who tried a church somewhere else and so the belief that “They are all the same.” forms. The reality, though, is that churches are not all the same, as the links in the paragraph above show. Church can be a place of belonging for all, a safe place where no-one is judged and where everyone can be who they are without fear.
Jesus was bullied, was ridiculed, was treated harshly, so he understands what families with children with additional needs can go through. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that he reminded us of those verses in Leviticus 19:9-18 which he summarised as “…and love your neighbour as yourself.” (It’s worth reading the whole Leviticus passage, it’s good thought-provoking stuff…) Loving our neighbour as ourselves talks about fairness, justice, generosity, righteousness, forgiveness, and honest to goodness loving…
So, let’s follow this teaching and let it change us, change our church leadership, change our congregations, change our churches, and change the experience for many families with children with additional needs and disabilities…
First, and most importantly, this isn’t all down to us… The same Jesus Christ who said “Let the little children come to me…” longs to help us, to give us the same love to share that he has for each of us. To give us the skills and ability to cope and give unconditional love to each child in our care, whatever their needs. He does rather like to be asked… and we all too often don’t.
Secondly, he puts people around us to help… We don’t go on this journey alone. It is so important to learn from others who are a bit further down the road from us. They may be in the same church (parents/carers, people working in education or healthcare, etc.), they may be in a nearby church (other children’s/youth workers)… we rarely seem to connect with the other churches in our area to see what they are doing, but there may be a wealth of knowledge and support there just waiting to be tapped into.
Thirdly, there is wider support out there! My friend mentioned the work I do, but there are others who share the same passion to make a difference, to equip children’s and youth workers with the skills to enable them to accept, include and create places of belonging for everyone! Have a look at the ‘Partners’ tab of www.additionalneedsalliance.org.uk for a few examples of the services we offer, or search for ‘Additional Needs Alliance’ in Facebook.
We can do better, we must do better… Jesus didn’t just say important things, he did them; he modelled them in his life so that we could follow his example. He included everyone, no one was left out; in fact he actively accepted and included many that the world rejected… and so should we…
As Jesus himself said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)
20th September 2018
Bible passage used in this blog post: Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Image rights: © Collage created by the author