Special Needs: A Place in the Church
If the doors to the church were open, my parents were there; I have the collection of Sunday School perfect attendance pins to prove it! In addition to being regular churchgoers, my parents were Sunday School teachers, served on numerous boards, led youth groups, and my mom sang in the choir and taught Vacation Bible School. Church was the wheel around which our lives turned. It was all good until my brother with special needs could no longer be mainstreamed into regular Sunday School classes and there was nowhere for him to go on Sunday mornings, no programs to meet his needs. The lack of programs for him brought the entire family’s church life in jeopardy. The one place he should have been loved and accepted became closed to him and therefore the rest of us.
Be impressed, my collection of Sunday School perfect attendance pins!
My history with the church’s lack of response to individuals with special needs left a bitter taste in my mouth, but a local church’s actions have gone a long way into sweetening that taste. Two years ago, my brother and I attended our first Night to Shine sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation and organized and run by The Assembly in Broken Arrow. In 2018 the event was at full capacity, with 450 attendees and about 700 volunteers! Night to Shine is a prom for individuals with special needs, but that description is about as adequate as saying Niagara Falls is a waterfall. I had major hesitations about taking my brother because of his level of disability and his occasional issue with crowds and noise. My husband and I decided we would stay in case he had problems; the evening exceeded all our expectations by a mile. From the minute he walked in he was treated like royalty, complete with the red carpet introduction and a crown placed on his head, which made him whoop with excitement! He strutted off, arms linked with his assigned volunteer for the evening and never looked back. Meanwhile, the parents (or in my case, sister and brother-in-law) were treated to a wonderful dinner in the same hotel so we could be close in case we were needed. This event was about so much more than an evening of fun and dancing. My brother was given the chance to feel like part of the crowd, the opportunity to feel special, truly a “night to shine." As for me, the sister/guardian, it was a step towards believing there are churches that are not just providing lip service but bringing back the phrase “what would Jesus do” and putting it into action! It may be just one evening, but the impact lingers!
Night to Shine is a magical evening for individuals with special needs! Registration (it’s free!) will open at the end of October, and they fill up fast!
In addition to Night to Shine, The Assembly also has begun a program called Champions, which is a church service that runs concurrent with the regular service but is geared towards individuals of all ages that have special needs. This not only ministers to the people that attend the Champions service but allows the parents the opportunity to attend church services.
Kirk of the Hills in Tulsa is another church that has responded to the needs of families with special needs. They have a program for Sunday mornings called Special Buds where an individual of any age can have a buddy to go with them to Sunday school or have the option of going to a class with fewer students and more one-on-one care. Kirk of the Hills also has Faithful Buds, which is a Sunday evening program for adults with developmental disabilities that includes a Bible study, a meal and a social activity. They also sponsor Pathways, a weekday program for adults with developmental disabilities. For more information on the programs click the link above or call 918-494-8859.
I’m very happy to see churches beginning to have classes and programs for individuals with special needs. The church has a history of marginalizing those with disabilities. It wasn’t too long ago that many religions believed intellectual and physical disabilities were a consequence of sin, believing the disability was God’s punishment for the sin of the parents. When my brother was growing up in the 1960s, that belief was no longer spoken but still alive and evidenced in the marginalized inclusion of the disabled in churches. It’s a great relief to see churches reaching out to those with disabilities. Those with disabilities need the community of church to grow in their spiritual journey, and the families of the disabled need the church as a social support system. I can only dream of how much it would have meant to our family to have been able to find this type of support when it was desperately needed.
Do you know of other churches that offer programs for individuals with special needs? Please share if you have information!
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. --Mahatma Gandhi