Working with disabled children and adults was not something I strived to add to my list of things-to-do when my younger self dreamed of the future and all it would entail. I never said to myself, “Someday I want to be involved in a ministry to adults with intellectual disabilities”. But to my defense, I also never dreamed of having a child with disabilities when I was young and dreaming of my future days. Yet here I find myself immersed in the world of disabilities thanks to my sweet Ryan. I still think back to the day in the early 1990’s when I sat on my sister’s couch and spoke of the premonition (otherwise known as the Holy Spirit’s nudging) I had that I would have a disabled child. God was working on my heart all those years ago when I was a young 20-something, newly married girl. And here I am twenty-something years later teaching an adult special needs Sunday School class and organizing the medical part of a quarterly respite night for disabled children and their siblings so parents can have a three hour break.
Let me tell you, sometimes ministry is messy. And when you deal with adults with intellectual deficits, it can be equally amusing. These folks are the best of the best. They are genuine, sweet, loving, honest to a fault, God-seeking, accepting, occasionally manipulative, independent, friendly people who simply want to be everyone’s friend and be included in everything. I cannot imagine my life without them in it. There are days when I simply want to sleep in on a Sunday morning and stay in my pajamas watching Netflix movies, but instead I get up and get moving because I know they will be there waiting for me to show up. One calls me Big Mama, and Travis is Big Daddy. When he sees us, he comes running with a big hug and a “Big Mama! I missed you! How is your son Ryan?” I cannot even begin to tell you how the nickname started, but it stuck. Some of these people do not have any family so our little church family is all they have aside from their workers.
Every week in Sunday School, we go around the table and give everyone a chance to tell us their prayer requests. This usually turns into a show and tell (often their Special Olympics medals) and a time to tell us about their week. We write down their prayer requests then one of the other class participants prays for that person. This routine takes us 30-45 minutes each week depending on how much people have to share. There are often tears, and when one starts crying, it often sets off an emotional show of support with one or two others surrounding that person with hugs and words of encouragement. The rest of us could really learn a lot from our friends in how they support and encourage each other. It is the most genuine show of support I have ever experienced. There is one man who gives the same prayer request every week – to get a girlfriend, to get a new job, and for his eyesight to get better so he can drive (that will never happen but he is persistent in his prayers). Another man’s prayers are always dependent on which Husker team played that week with details of who won. Sometimes he will throw in another team but always reports on the Huskers. Others have a hard time verbalizing a prayer request, but all of them express the desire to be loved and included. Just this morning one of our most quiet classmates offered to pray for a friend. It was the first time she has every prayed in class, and for some reason, today was the day she found the courage to pray. I do not care what number is given to assign intellectual abilities, everyone deserves to be respected, loved and included, and this group knows how to do just that. They have the same wants and needs as the rest of us. They celebrate accomplishments and cry over hurts and disappointments just like everyone else as well.
One of my favorite things about this class is watching Travis teach the lesson. He has a way of engaging everyone with his humor that no one else can replicate. He is a master at including the class participants with acting out the Bible story and can keep their attention when distractions loom. His lessons are just plain fun. He is the best at throwing a dance party into his lesson too. The last one was a Toby Mac song to teach our friends about worship based on the Psalms. I often wonder if any of them are really getting the lesson, but then months or years later, one of them will talk about an old lesson we did. As I sometimes reflect over abstract concepts and how much of the Bible really sticks, God does an amazing thing in their retention of His word.
This morning was one of those Sundays when things were messy and did not go smoothly, when all you can do is take a deep breath and laugh so you do not cry. One attendee showed up with wet pants and needed to be taken home to change. Another had an upset stomach and had to get a change of clothing after an accident. Then while sitting in the church service after Sunday School, the one with the sour tummy sat crying with his head on my shoulder either unable or afraid to tell me he was having significant stomach pain. When I asked him if he was OK, he said yes and wiped away his tears with the hanky stuffed in his shirt pocket. Only after I pushed the subject did he start sobbing and admitted his stomach really hurt. One of the class volunteers took him out of the service and drove him home. He is so sweet because he did not want to miss out, even if it meant suffering through pain to stay in church. Another kept talking, not whispering, at the wrong time not realizing how loud she was being as she tried to share things that could wait until the service was over. It is a fragile balance between letting them be as independent as possible and prodding to make sure their needs are met. The teaching of manners and appropriate behaviors is a never-ending job.
Also during the service, one of the youth in our special needs children’s ministry suddenly ran across the front of our church and up the stairs to the balcony. He had several people chasing after him and was finally contained at the top of the balcony. Several minutes later, he ran up onto the stage and was running all over while the worship pastor and team were trying to lead the congregation in a song. He then stood right next to the worship pastor and started speaking into the microphone. It was awkward but amusing at the same time. His mom and one of our class volunteers came onto the stage to try to convince him to leave the sanctuary. After a couple minutes, they were successful, and he did not make a third run into the church service. This is the messy side of ministry to both adults and children with special needs. They simply want to express their independence and do things their way. And that means a teenage boy with autism is going to escape from his class then run into and around the sanctuary at the wrong time. It means sometimes our adult friends clap and laugh at inappropriate times during the church service. It means one of our friends stands when everyone else sits and then refuses to sit down. It means some of the other church attendees learn to befriend these beautiful broken bodies while others stay as far away as possible. And no matter where people land on that spectrum of acceptance, it is OK. It is acceptable to be uncomfortable when one of our friends runs over for a hug and asks how they are doing. Learning to understand and accept and friend an adult with special needs does not come easy for some. But those who have learned the names of our friends, who extend the hug and ask how their week has been are so very blessed by the genuine love and concern of our friends with disabilities.
I cannot say this ministry is easy because sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is exhausting. Sometimes the drama is abundant and the appreciation is lacking. Sometimes trying to find a lesson they will understand is exasperating and takes hours. Sometimes we deal with messy pants and convincing them why they cannot pick their nose in church. Sometimes they interrupt repeatedly during the lesson and will not stop talking about how much they miss having a dog. Sometimes they have melt downs and are difficult to console.
Most of the time, though, the love is abundant, the laughter is contagious, the friendships are priceless, the stories are humorous, and the passion for everything in God’s Word is genuine. You should see these friends worship. It is an experience I would not miss for anything. They dance, they lift their hands in worship, they sing their hearts out, they play the air guitar and air drums. Sometimes they do not know the words because some of them cannot read, but they try their hardest even in their loud, off-key voices. I would not trade these experiences and friendships for anything. This class, these people, the ministry as a whole – it is the real deal. It is acceptance. It is love in action.