American churches are failing to meet the needs of children with cognitive and conduct disorders, a study by the National Survey of Children’s Health found last year. In fact, children with autism are twice as likely to never attend religious services compared to kids with no chronic health conditions. As researcher Andrew Whitehead concluded, “This population is unseen because they never show up, or when they do, they have a negative experience and never return.”
It may come as a shock to you that churches are unable or unwilling to meet the needs of kids with developmental delays and learning disabilities — especially if you’re a parent of children without any significant differences. But for people like me — a parent of three adopted children and two who have Down syndrome — these revelations barely induce a yawn. This is a situation we’ve been wrestling with and tirelessly trying to improve for years.
Recently, I was at an evangelical church service to talk about my book, Scoot Over and Make Some Room, which explores the intricacies of my family life and the ways in which many of the systems in our society have yet to make room for my kids and others like them. The pastor who was interviewing me prefaced his first question by saying, “parents who have kids with disabilities such as Down syndrome, really wish their children didn’t have that, that they could take it away.”
I cringed inside. I was so shocked to hear this religious leader, standing before a sea of people who looked to him for spiritual guidance, casually degrade my son and daughter with Down syndrome, I didn’t even hear what the actual question was. I gently responded that I love my kids with Down syndrome and affirm that they are fully human like the rest of us: “Their Down syndrome is an important part of who they are and it is something I love about them. I wouldn’t change the fact that they have Down syndrome for anything in the world.”
As I’ve raised my kids and fought for an equitable space in this world for them, I have often found myself disappointed with the Church and its lack of inclusive practices. And I’m not alone. I’ve met countless other parents who have stopped going to church once they had a child with a different ability. The environment was just too difficult for their child to navigate and they did not feel welcomed anymore. Christian churches must do a better job.
Luckily for us, the Bible lays the groundwork for the task before us, beginning in the very first chapters of Genesis where we learn that every human being bears within them the image of God. This divine reflection is not only held by neuro-typical, able-bodied people. In fact, some theologians argue that it is more clearly glimpsed in those with atypical abilities and limiting health conditions. When my son or daughter with Down syndrome steps inside any church in the world, they should not be treated like compassion projects or objects of pity. They should be embraced as bearers of the image of Almighty God who are bursting with unique spiritual gifts.
Once my kids entered my life and I found myself immersed in the Down syndrome community, I began to see Scripture, the church, God, and all I had ever learned about these things through a new lens. As I fully embraced my children, understanding that God created them on purpose with Down syndrome, I began to notice all the other “different” people who I had been programmed to overlook or disregard. As I got to know the individuals that I had been prone to ignore, I began to see them as clearly worthy and necessary to the church as a collective whole.
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SOURCE: The Week