Conference sought to help churches minister to individuals and families with special needs
By Shannon Baker
This special day was the fruit of over a decade in prayer.
Since coming to grips with the fact that his son Jimmy had a severe form of autism, Tom Stolle has dreamed of the day when churches everywhere would accept and reach individuals and families affected by disabilities.
For over ten years, Stolle painstakingly prayed, sharing his passion every chance he could. As chief financial officer for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D), he soon realized many churches felt inadequate or ill equipped for such a ministry. Many were just plain afraid.
So Stolle began connecting with the international disability ministry, Joni and Friends. Maryland native Joni Eareckson Tada started Joni and Friends over 35 years ago to communicate the Gospel and to equip Christ-honoring churches worldwide to evangelize and disciple people affected by disabilities.
As a result, Joni and Friends New England’s Shauna Amick shared during a breakout session held at the annual meeting of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware this past November.
And on March 1, 2016, Amick and other colleagues joined over 125 people from 40 churches who gathered at South Columbia Baptist Church in Columbia, Md., to learn how to minister to families and individuals affected by disabilities.
The all-day event, “Include Like Jesus: Christ’s Call to Serve Families with Special Needs,” featured testimonies and explored practical ways churches can make a difference.
Christopher Duffley, a 14- year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist who is blind and has autism, led worship, encouraging the crowd to “stand tall” in spite of their circumstances.
“Even if we have difficult days or your heart may be sad or broken, we can stand up tall and Jesus can heal our hearts,” he shared, his youthful energy and genuine smile leading many to tears.
His adoptive mother, Christine, explained Christopher’s journey of being born prematurely with cocaine in his system, of becoming blind and being diagnosed with autism. She also related her discovery of Christopher’s innate ability with music, which their family has nurtured. As a result, Christopher performs through Know Greater Love Ministries (www.kglm.org) on all kinds of stages, from local church events to large stadiums, such as Boston’s Fenway Park.
“God’s hand on Christopher’s life has brought both our family and so many in his audiences to better know, love, and serve the Lord Jesus,” Christine said.
In his testimony, Stolle noted how Jesus was quick to minister to disabled people.
“Jesus did this routinely, and He didn’t label it as anything out of the ordinary,” he said, pointing to Luke 9:14-27, where a dad asks Jesus to heal his son after the disciples were unable to do so.
Stolle explained the father’s likely perspective: he had probably experienced a long list of letdowns; he felt his situation was hopeless, and his son would never be well.
“Another crushing blow for a dad who desperately loves his son,” he said.
Jesus was concerned. He didn’t just love the boy; He loved the father, too. He understood his unrelenting, all consuming pain.
“These families are all over your neighborhood, and they are in that kind of pain. They just want to know that somebody loves them… and that they are accepted by someone.”
Stolle said, “If we don’t embrace these families, we basically say, ‘Go to hell with my blessing!’ We can’t do that!”
If a soul is priceless, then being inconvenienced is a small price to play, compared to the cost of that soul, he said, comparing scars he received when his son repeatedly attacked him as a result of his autism to the scars of Jesus.
“I don’t look badly upon my son for these scars, and I don’t think Jesus looks badly upon us for the scars He endured,” he said.
In her testimony, Amick noted many of the emotions faced by families overwhelmed by special needs. Fear. Isolation. Loneliness. Doubt. Confusion. Loss. Loss and death of your dreams. Difficult, suffocating circumstances. Desperation. Hopelessness. Helplessness. Rejection. Exhaustion.
“Put yourself in the place of a family impacted by disability,” she directed, her voice bearing authority as she shared the pain she experienced when she learned her third child, Sarah Hope, would be born with a serious heart defect and Down Syndrome.
Amick shared how the Holy Spirit had spoken to her at Sarah’s birth. God made Sarah for His purposes. She was made in His image.
Still, feeling lost, afraid and alone, Amick and her husband lived on what they called “the island of disability” for about 1.5 years, when Amick was invited to attend a Joni and Friends support group for moms.
“For the first time since Sarah’s birth, I felt like I was in a community of people who understood how challenging our lives had become,” she said.
It was several years, however, before the Amicks found a church where Sarah was accepted for who she was.
Finally, visiting a church suggested by a friend, a Sunday school teacher, in tears, shared how much she loved Sarah. She expressed her hope that Sarah would come back.
And they did. In fact, “when Sarah is not in church, the body is not complete,” Amick said.
In a separate presentation, Sib Nafziger Charles, community and church relations manager for Joni and Friends Eastern Pennsylvania, shared “Disability Ministry 101,” practical ways churches can minister to families with special needs.
Charles cited a Joni and Friends study, indicating that only 11 percent of evangelical churches have an active disability ministry. That means 89 percent do not have an active disability ministry, she said.
And even worse—90 percent of individuals with a significant disability are unchurched, she added.
In a panel discussion, Charlie Arnold, pastor of Seaside Church, where the Stolles attend, said he came to the conference to learn how to minister to families affected by disabilities. “Instead, I was ministered to by Christopher Duffley,” he said, emotionally. He shared how much Tom’s son Jimmy is missed when he is not in church.
Erin McPate, who has Down Syndrome, was tall in power as she opened and closed the day in humble, gratitude-focused prayer. McPate attends Grace Baptist Church of Sunset Beach in Pasadena, Md.