By Vangie Rodenbeck
As the designated facilitator of this networking lunch, I sought to engage each member at the table in the discussion. The topic was special needs ministry, and the specific issue of discussion was how to “name” a ministry to such persons. These ministers were asking questions like: What do we call this ministry? Should we use the term “handicapped” or “disabled?” If we use language like “persons with different abilities,” will people understand what this ministry is about?
But one man at the table sat quietly as the conversation whirled around him.
Soon there was a lull in the conversation, and this man saw his opportunity to make teary eye contact with me. I knew from a previous conversation that he was a volunteer leader in both the worship and children’s ministries at his church. He had also confided that he was the grandparent of a child with special needs. Swallowing his tears he quietly and humbly stated, “I don’t care what we call it. I just have to do it.” Then he told us his story.
As a member of the worship team, he had taken special notice of one family in the congregation. This family consisted of an elderly woman and her middle-aged son with cognitive disabilities. While he could not report the specifics of this man’s disability, he knew his name was George and that he loved to sing. As a matter of fact, George loved to sing loudly, off-key, and with his whole heart. The man smiled fondly as he recounted a conversation with George’s mother about how she teaches him to be a part of worship.
“She told me that when we introduce a new song, it is difficult for George at first. But she is able to teach him the song by learning it and then teaching it to him at home during the week. To teach George the song, she cups her hands around his ear and sings loudly, directly into George’s ear, until he can sing along. It isn’t uncommon to watch her do this in our worship service the first few times a new song is sung.”
As my new friend paused in his story, I noticed he had captured the attention of the whole group. Letting the tears freely flow down his face now, he closed with this statement: “I don’t care what we call it. What I want to know is, who will sing to George when his mother is gone?”
The question hung in the air, resounding like a bell, until one by one each member present took up its theme. Conversation turned from the “how” and “what” questions associated with ministry to “why” and “who.” It is a moment I will never forget, and I have pledged to tell this story as often as I can to anyone who will hear it.
My Question, Too
As the mother of a child with autism, the question of “Who will sing to George?” resonates strongly within my heart. At the end of each
day, the first thing I ask myself is, did I do enough that day to enable my son to be successful in a world he doesn’t understand? The second, more haunting, question is this: who will care for him when I am gone? At the end of my days, when I prepare to close my eyes in eternal rest, I will be wondering if anyone will ask himself or herself that first question ever again.
I have concluded that my hope for Noah when I am gone lies in the body of Christ. Of course, there are governmental agencies that will provide assistance with his physical care, perhaps even residential placement in a group home. And yes, he is even eligible to receive medical and financial benefits due to his disability. But my concern is deeper than if he will be fed or clothed. Who will sing to him?
The Bible records God’s desire to “rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). It is a tender picture much like that of a parent singing a child to sleep with a lullaby. Perhaps another picture that comes to mind is of a group gathered around a cake aflame with candles celebrating a birthday. Or the faithful love of the mother of a disabled adult, giving him the ability to worship his God—by singing faithfully in his ear.
The government will not host birthday parties for my son when I am gone. Who will chronicle his existence by celebrating his birth when I have died? While residential facilities are places of great ministry, I wonder where Noah will eat a Thanksgiving meal during the years following my death. Will there be a wrapped gift under anyone’s Christmas tree purchased especially for him?
I Am Not Alone
These are the thoughts the parent of a child with disabilities has in the hours when everyone else is sleeping. I am not alone. According to recent statistics, one in five children has a diagnosed disability. But a thoughtful glance into most children’s ministries will show a much different representation of this statistic.
Allow me to say that I am a servant of the church. I wish in no way to appear overly critical of the practices, policies, and mission statements of churches across our nation. However, I hope to address the sometimes neglected “why” and “who” questions, in addition to paralyzing related issues of “how” and “what.”
Who are they? Why consider ministering to the disabled?
In A Better Way, David Glover addresses this question succinctly. First he refers to people with disabilities as PURE: Perfectly created by a loving sovereign God; Unique in their own gifts; Receptive and responsive to our communication, touch, and acts of love; and Eternal, because there are no disabled souls in God’s eyes. Glover writes, “By simply observing the church in America and considering the numbers of PURE people, we can safely conclude that the vast majority (perhaps as high as 90 percent) of PURE people and their families are not attending any church with any regularity.”1
The potential for mission is high when we consider that, if the immediate family members of persons with disabilities are factored into this statistical picture, 25 to 30 percent of our entire population is affected by disabilities.2 The ministry is not only to and with persons diagnosed, but to their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and grandparents as well.
Start with Friendship
What should we do to prepare ourselves for this ministry? How can we get started?
It must be said that size of one’s church and available financial resources do not preclude this kind of ministry. Our church is small—and when I say “small” I mean “under 50 souls.” What has its approach been to ministry with my son? Simply stated, it is just friendship. No one has undergone extensive training to learn how to be Noah’s friend. (How much training does any one of us undergo when we elect to be friends with another?)
These church folk have simply learned of Noah’s interests and gotten to know him. For instance, a man from church who heard Noah wants to learn to fish is taking my son fishing this week. A second boy will also spend a day on the lake with them in fellowship with one another. Friendship of that sort is better than any therapy Noah could receive that day.
Rather than allowing ourselves to become panicked into believing we need intensive medical training so that we can anticipate every possible outcome in every potential situation, we can affirm the personhood of a disabled person through friendship. Benjamin Conner writes, “Friendship shows a way of relating to a person with developmental disabilities beyond the medical model of care—an etiology, signs and symptoms, or a technical solution to the ‘problem’ of disability.”3
Is there much more to say? Yes. Are there a myriad of other issues related to ministry to disabled persons? Yes. As a parent of a child with a disability, I am intimately acquainted with those issues. But before we can equip and resource church members to manage those issues, we must first teach them to sing. Let us learn to sing songs of rejoicing over people with disabilities.
Sing to them of a place to belong in community. Sing to them of a place where they are members. Sing to them friendship. Sing to them words of love, grace, and the gospel story.
Sing on, church. Noah and George are listening.
1David Zachariah Glover, A Better Way: Where Least Is Most (Bloomington: CrossBooks, 2013), 78.
3Benjamin T. Conner, Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2012), 40.
Vangie Rodenbeck works as a consultant for Standard Publishing. She is a regular contributor to HeartShaper Children’s Curriculum’s special needs newsletter and the host of a biweekly BlogTalkRadio show (www.blogtalkradio.com/cmconnect) sponsored by Standard Publishing and INCM (International Network of Children’s Ministry). Vangie served as a children’s minister for more than 12 years. She is the mother of an autistic child, Noah, and currently assists the worship and teaching ministry at Castle Christian Church in Cumming, Georgia. Learn more on her blog at www.vangierodenbeck.com.