BALTIMORE—Until Nicole Huggins, a children’s and youth leader, had a child of her own with special needs, it had never occurred to her there might be a people group in America “right under our noses who, by and large, do not have accessibility and are not included or welcomed into the church.”
“I’m embarrassed to tell you that ministry to those with disability was just really not on my radar until the Lord blessed us with our son Ezra” who has severe autism, she told participants at the April 28 “Indispensable: Equipping the Body of Christ to Engage Disability” Special Needs Conference at Freedom Church in Baltimore.
This is the third annual special needs conference sponsored by the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware and The Banquet Network.
As her family has walked this road themselves, she said it’s significantly opened her eyes and her heart. The past eight years have taught her a lot of lessons, including what churches should not do when ministering to families affected by disabilities.
“You should not welcome my special needs child to your church if you believe that the Holy Spirit is only able to work in the hearts of some people.”
Noting any good churchgoer would hear this and would immediately say, “Oh no, of course, I believe that the Holy Spirit can work in everyone’s hearts, and I would never limit what God can do!” she countered, “We, the church, say one thing and we believe it, but our actions just do not hold up.”
She pointed to churches who say they minister to the disabled, but asked, “Instead of preparing a Bible story for them on Sunday mornings, do they just place them in the nursery setting and give them a toy and some movies to watch?”
She pleaded, “As the parent of a child with special needs, I beg you, please do not predetermine who is able to be reached by the Holy Spirit… [Y]our job as an ambassador of Jesus Christ is to prepare and teach to the very best of your ability and then to just trust that the Holy Spirit is going to do exactly what He promises to do.”
Pointing to John 14:26, which says the Holy Spirit will teach all things, Huggins said, “You do not have to be a special education teacher to share Jesus with others, disability or not. You don’t have to offer sensory-based activities or ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy or speech therapy or occupational therapy. You don’t have to do all of those things. Your job is to present a sacrifice of your time and preparation, your love for others, and your love for Jesus Christ and just share.”
She suggested telling these children a Bible story, that Jesus loves them with an unconditional love, and that God has a very specific plan and purpose for their lives.
“Why on Earth would the church want to miss out on the incredible opportunity of sharing Jesus with these people” who are oftentimes excluded, overlooked or laughed at, she said, urging her listeners to not miss this opportunity. “For those of you who are ministering to those with disabilities, and you do prepare a lesson: Thank you.”
Believing God’s Word does not return void (Isaiah 55:11), Huggins reminded, “They are listening. They may not be making eye contact with you. They may be singing, spitting … but they are listening.”
It is not man’s job to determine who can be reached by God’s holy Word, she added. His word is for everyone, and His love is all encompassing.
“You should not welcome my special needs child to your church if you believe that church is not a place for the messy.”
Sharing that her heart breaks for the church that has lost sight of its God-given mission, she said, “This I know: Jesus knew how to get messy. He placed His hands into the wounds of the heart. He surrounded himself with the unclean. He reached out to the least of these, He went to the broken and hurting, and He washed the dirty feet of the disciples.”
Acknowledging special needs ministry is messy, too, Huggins said, “There’s nothing really cute about changing an eight-year-old’s poopy diaper. There’s nothing real glamorous about washing soiled clothes.”
She also admitted that her son would not sit quietly during an Easter program, and he will most likely hurl his Thomas the train up on the stage during a sermon.
She shared her experience at a new church where she and her family mustered the courage to attend a special Christmas Eve service. Upon arrival, they realized there were accessibility issues. Once they figured out a way in, Ezra felt compelled to share a new word he had recently learned, “Help.”
“He was so proud, and he knew that he could get a reaction,” Huggins explained. “And so just as the pastor’s beginning to offer his beautiful Christmas prayer, my son decides he wants to share his new gift with world.”
Unable to quiet him, Huggins’ husband decided to take their son out of the sanctuary. But there wasn’t space to turn around so he had to do “the backwards ‘Walk of Shame’ with the wheelchair.”
He decided to take their son to the children’s wing, accessible by stairs or through another entrance outside in the wintry weather. For them, there was no choice but the awkward, outdoor option.
“If you can envision this: There’s a little boy in a wheelchair with a grown man running with him and the little boy saying, ‘Help, help….’
“All that to say is, if you’re welcoming those with special needs into your congregation, you are going to have to think about points of accessibility, and it’s going to be louder, and it will require more volunteers. It will cost your church money, and it will be messy.”
But it’s so worth it.
“What if we have it all wrong? And what if the church was the place that was a haven for those who are often overlooked and who are outcasts?” she asked.
“You should not welcome my special needs child to your church if you do not recognize special needs as a mission field.”
Pointing to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), Huggins said, “As the church, it is our mission to go and share about the unconditional love and grace of our Savior…. But did you realize that there’s a huge unreached mission field right here in America?”
She shared a recent statistic she had read, “Almost 90 percent of special needs families do not attend church!”
She explained why: “It is so hard! … If a special needs family actually does make it to your church on any given Sunday, they have had much less sleep than you. They have fought probably some pretty big battles just to get there, and they’re hanging on a prayer that this whole church thing works today.”
She explained further. Children with special needs often panic in public places. Children’s workers stress when they see you coming. Parents wonder if workers will merely tolerate their child, or worse, if they will treat them harshly.
“It’s worrying about the safety of my nonverbal child who cannot tell me how he was treated while he was away from me,” she said.
“If your church should accept the mission to minister to special needs families like mine, it will be a continuous labor of love,” she said, “but I beg you also not to claim to have a special needs ministry at your church, if it’s not the true conviction and heartbeat of your church. Because I also know what it’s like to be a guest of a church where it just was not the passion of the pastor or the congregation.”
Special needs parents and those with disabilities quickly pick up on how genuine the ministry is, and for many of them, it’s their very first and very last time to ever try church.
“You should not welcome my special needs child to your church if you believe that God does not specially call every member of the body of Christ to serve (1 Corinthians 12:27).”
“We’ve all been gifted with different abilities and talents, and the church is supposed to function as a body of believers with all of its different members serving through those different gifts and talents,” she explained.
“I’m not a super gifted person, but even I have a few strengths … They were not suddenly zapped out of my system when I birthed a special needs child,” she said.
But the truth is many times special needs parents have no place to serve.
“We’re so desperately searching for a church that would look on us with value… Even more than that, we are desperately searching for a church that would assign that same value and worth to my special needs son,” she said, stressing, “If the church does not find a way to include special needs families and those with disabilities, it will hinder any possibility of these people being able to contribute to the body of Christ within the church. It will make it very hard for us to be able to do the very thing that God has charged us to do.”
Huggins pressed, “If the body of Christ does not become the hands and feet of Jesus to the special needs community, if we do not cultivate a true heart for the least of these, if we are not willing to pour ourselves out for those who are disabled, then I truly fear that we have lost sight of the purpose of the church.”
Huggins also shared three things she typically looks for when she visits churches.
First is safety. Do you have locks on your doors? Do you have enough volunteers per adult and child in a classroom? Is there a plan in place or am I dropping my child off for one hour of insanity and chaos and survival?
Second is concern. Ask me about my child, his abilities, what sets him off and what soothes and calms him down, and how you can best minister to him while he’s in your care.
Third is Jesus. What is it that separates the church from every other Institution? Jesus! “Invite Jesus Christ into every moment of your ministry because this will give your workers purpose, … your ministry momentum, and most importantly, you will be sharing Jesus Christ with a people group who desperately is looking for unconditional love.”
In conclusion, Huggins shared the benefit of ministering to families with special needs.
“It will transform the heart of your church, … because it is oftentimes in our discomfort and our awkward obedience to Christ that His most beautiful and most magnificent plans take shape.”
View conference materials at https://bcmd.org/resource/special-needs-conference-2018 and conference photos on Flickr.