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Eye Contact and Churches Including Children with Disabilities

by Barbara J Newman, CLC Network

Eye Contact. The interpretation of direct and sustained eye contact can have quite a varied meaning from one country or culture to another. While some communities may consider sustained eye contact to be rude or disrespectful, other communities may interpret the lack of direct eye contact as rude or disrespectful. For the most part, making eye contact in western cultures is considered a sign of respect. It indicates that someone acknowledges your presence and wants to be friendly.

Eye contact is also one way I use to gauge the reaction that many churches in America have to including persons with disabilities. It is my joy to travel around the country and speak and exhibit at pastor’s conferences, church gatherings and large church resource meetings. As people walk past the display that CLC Network offers – books, materials and trainings that support churches as they include persons with disabilities – I notice three distinct reactions to the topic. One set of people focus quickly on the topic and are eager to speak to me directly. Others will walk past the table and pause. They glance quickly at the materials and then look confused. A third group of people hurry quickly past the table and avoid all eye contact with myself and the materials. It is clear they do not want to interact at all with the topic.

While many denominations have some sort of document in place that theologically affirms the desire to include persons with disabilities, the practices in the local church body vary greatly! The official document may say that Scripture affirms inclusion, but the individual or family attending the local church may not experience that kind of welcome. Let us examine, then, the three distinct reactions that churches seem to have to this issue: full eye contact and embracing, fleeting eye contact and questioning the topic, no eye contact and avoiding the topic. As we look at these areas, perhaps you will be able to clearly place your own church community in one of these categories.

Some denominations and individual churches embrace the opportunity to include children with disabilities. Not only do they see the importance to the individual with the disability, they see the gifts that person brings to all the others present. By including that individual, it enriches the whole community. They affirm the picture in I Corinthians 12: 15-20 where Paul says, “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body… But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.”

These communities not only embrace the Biblical vision, they also have practical supports to allow churches to best include children with physical, sensory, intellectual or other types of differences. Some, for example, have a person or a committee of people who help support inclusion. The Christian Reformed Church in North America has a full time, salaried pastor who heads up the Disability Concerns committee. This pastor has volunteer, regional overseers in many areas of the United States and Canada who then resource the local congregations as they include individuals with disabilities. Some individual churches have a paid or volunteer staff person who works to best use the gifts and support the needs of children with disabilities.

CLC Network is an organization that comes alongside church communities as they hope to include children and adults with disabilities. We offer many books and training opportunities that not only support individuals, but also the church community as a whole. One set of resources and trainings focus on preparing the entire community. Giving information to peers, leaders, volunteers, and the congregation can be very helpful. By equipping others to better understand Autism Spectrum Disorders or Down syndrome, the community seems to be better able to embrace God-designed differences. By better understanding Scripture’s perspective on inclusive community and the body of Christ, the whole congregation can be excited about the opportunities that await each one. I have written several books to help equip congregations such as Body Building: Devotions to Celebrate Inclusive CommunityHelping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities and Inclusion Awareness Kit. We also have supports to help congregations best plan for specific children and adults God may bring to that community. The G.L.U.E. Training Manual,Autism and Your Church and The Church Welcome Story are examples of supports for individuals. Many other resources are also included on our website at www.clcnetwork.org

These embracing churches know that one not only needs to have physical accessibility, but that there must also be liturgical accessibility. Each one present must be able to enter in to the conversation with God. While not everyone may be able to use spoken words to sing praise to God, others may be able to use sign language or wave streamers as an act of worship. This takes creative worship planners and hearts that are open to making the needed changes to allow each one a place at God’s table.

While those in this first category of response are a delight for me to speak with, the second category of people also shows great promise. Some church communities simply have not thought much about inclusion of persons with disabilities. Perhaps they have not been offered the opportunity, or they are surprised that there is a need to focus on this issue. Those individuals who are willing to stop and ask questions or at least look at the resources give an opportunity for the Church to become one of those embracing communities. So many times, people in the category believe that God wants us to include persons with disabilities, but they do not know HOW to do that. They are delighted to see books and resources that can give them the “how-to” ideas.

However, there are still churches that are unwilling to include persons with disabilities. They do not even want to look at the possibilities. It could be based out of fear or out of difficult and unsupported past experiences. “Try the church down the road.” “We do not have anything for you here.” “We just do not do it that way” are some of the responses families and individuals hear within individual congregations. These stories continue to motivate us to support church communities.

While speaking at a conference in Saint Louis, I met a pastor who just finished up a phone conversation with a family friend. He had been asked to fly to their community and lead the funeral service for their five-year-old child who had just died due to complications from several areas of disability. He had asked this family if their own local pastor would also be participating in the funeral service. The family admitted that they had no local church. They had tried eight churches within an hour driving distance from their home, and each one had said, “Sorry, we do not have anything for you here.” The church down the road, however, had agreed to host the funeral service. I looked that pastor in the eye and said, “It is amazing that the first time this child’s body will be welcome in church will be in a casket”.

As you examine your own church communities, may God open doors and hearts so that each one desiring a church home may have that opportunity. May our church communities be enriched as we embrace the presence and gifts that each person brings to the body of Christ.

Barbara J Newman is a church and school consultant for CLC Network. She is the author of Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities, The Easter Book, Autism and Your Church, Any Questions? – a Guidebook for Inclusive Education, Circle of Friends Training Manual and Body Building: Devotions to Celebrate Inclusive Community. She has written curriculum for Friendship Ministries, was a major contributing author of Special Needs SMART Pages for Joni and Friends, co-authored the G.L.U.E. Training Manual, and is a frequent national speaker at educational conferences and churches. In addition to writing and speaking, Barb enjoys working in her classroom at Zeeland Christian School.

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