Ministries are now taking steps to help church members with disabilities feel included and part of community.
Ellen Stumbo is a writer, national speaker, pastor’s wife and ministry leader. She’s also the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome and an adopted daughter with cerebral palsy.
While raising two children with special needs is a constant adventure, Ellen has found that some of the greatest challenges have come from the church.
“When my daughter was born with Down syndrome, one of my friends confessed she thought I deserved it. She said that I must have done something wrong for God to give me a child with a disability. Sadly, this is the message she had heard from her church, the same church I had attended growing up….”
This devastating and erroneous message comes from ignorance about what the Bible says, usually alongside a tragic lack of relationships with those who have a disability.
Not Feeling Welcome
Unfortunately, Ellen’s experience is not a singular one.
Andrew Whitehead, assistant professor of sociology at Clemson University and father of two boys with nonverbal autism, has devoted a great deal of his work to the response of social organizations to handicapped individuals.
“In a new study, as part of my work as a sociologist of religion, I analyzed three waves of nationally representative data on children in the United States. I found that the odds of children on the autism spectrum never attending religious services are almost double what they are for children without a chronic health condition.”
Part of this barrier is due to misunderstandings about God’s plans for people with disabilities. Jesus himself addressed this in the culture of his day.
“’Rabbi,’ his disciples asked him, ‘why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?’
“’It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,’ Jesus answered. ‘This happened so the power of God could be seen in him’” (John 9:2-3 NLT).
Jesus rebuked those who tried to attribute the man’s disability to divine punishment, pointing instead to how God would glorify himself through that individual. While he healed this particular man, he did not say that this was the only way God could demonstrate his power in the lives of those with disabilities.
Making Room Inside
World Challenge’s partner Best Friends Ministry was born out of a heart for helping those with disabilities become an integral part of church community in Colorado Springs.
Trained volunteers pick up members in vans and then bring them to church where some are partnered with buddies who can help them find a comfortable spot in the main sanctuary and whom they can talk to if they need anything.
The ministry has collaborated with the Springs Church to make sure that the handicap vans have dedicated parking space, that all major rooms are easily accessible for anyone with a walking aid and that room is made in the sanctuary for wheelchairs.
‘’If you have a friend that has special needs, Best Friends is the place for them,” Michael said, a participant in the ministry for over 15 years. “They’re kind and ready to help you however they can.”
For some members of Best Friends like Michael, their involvement has grown into helping others both inside and outside the ministry.
Becoming a Guard
Michael served in the Marine Corp for 15 years. Once he completed his service and returned to civilian life, he began attending a community day program for special-needs adults Monday through Thursday.
However, he wanted to be able to do more.
Over the years that Michael had been with Best Friends Ministry, his perspective on God changed until he began to see God as his father and a protective shepherd. As this internal transformation happened, his heart also began to long to help others.
Together with Best Friends’ ministry team, Michael approached the leadership of Springs Church to see what ways he could serve his church home.
After some training, they offered him a position on the church’s security team.
When asked what he likes most about being a part of Best Friends and volunteering at the church, Michael happily responded, “Interacting with the people. Helping others solve problems.”
His military background has taught him how to cope with stress and handle challenging situations well, so he feels like it’s his job to protect the flock, like Jesus.
When we open the church doors to every child of God, Michael and those in similar situations can be enormous blessings to us, demonstrating the blessing and power of God in their own lives. To see and learn more, please enjoy this video of the Best Friends Ministry.