Our daughter Carly turned 18 years old this past weekend. And she'll graduate from high school in just three weeks. For Carly this is a dramatically new 'season' and you might be surprised that there are some very unsettling things about this for her dad and me—things that are causing us some grief. I hope you won't mind that I share some personal reflections about it here because I believe God has something to say about this to each and every one who is reading today.
As other students head off to college, explore new jobs or take a 'gap' year to discover their true passions, Carly will begin a transition program a few miles from home in a building filled with several other young adults who, like her, experience significant developmental disabilities. While there will be plenty of important and enjoyable activities, a skilled and caring staff, and new friends among her classmates, there will be no typical students in that building. None. Unlike high school where Carly participated in the mainstream choir class and walked halls with typical teens, she will now be more isolated from 'normal' society than she has ever been before. Occasional school outings to places like the grocery store (to learn money skills), some family activities and church attendance will be the extent of her exposure the 'outside' world.
Typical high school graduates are seeing the world open up before them; opportunities and relationships are blossoming. But for Carly, becoming an adult and finishing high school means that life will be changing in very different ways. In contrast to Carly's peer experiences, her world is in high risk of shrinking. Unless somebody thinks creatively and takes initiative on her behalf, Carly's opportunities and relationships will immediately start narrowing after her last day of high school.
Carly is highly social. Yet she is fully dependent on others to bring her places and help translate her efforts to communicate and engage with others. Her social connections will continue to narrow unless her caregivers, church and community are intentional about optimizing connectedness for her. Carly also has gifts to share with her church and community. Yet she is fully dependent on others to make room for her and assist her in plugging in. Unfortunately, I see a world that is too naïve to notice and too busy to join us in exploring and embracing the possibilities. So I'm praying for a culture change. I'm also praying that God would give me fresh energy and vision to see the opportunities for Carly (and others like her) and show me how to facilitate connections and belonging for her in a world that doesn't really understand what God has said:
“Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts we think are less honorable we treat with special honor." 1 Corinthians 12:22-23
"God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another." 1 Peter 4:10
"Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these'" Matthew 19:14
How about you?
Have you noticed any adults in your congregation who have disabilities? If you have, you might praise God for the caregiver or group home staff who have been willing and energized enough to initiate that outing! You can greet these friends — BOTH the caregiver and the resident. You can thank group home staff for their supportiveness. You can greet these friends and ask questions about their day as you would with any other friend. The few moments you spend chatting with them may be among the very few 'outside world' interactions they have all week.
How can you help adults with special needs in your congregation find ways to serve and increase their sense of belonging in the community? The church is not complete without these friends. More than just being friendly with each other, we must think of each other as ministry partners and invest in helping each other share in the life of the church and in life with Christ.
Does it cross your mind that there are numerous adults in your community who are invisible to you? Perhaps they are there and you just aren't paying attention. Perhaps they are not there because nobody has made a place for them. There are a range of obstacles that keep people with special needs from attending church. Although building accessibility and transportation can be challenges, the more frequent issue is emotional. None of us wants to keep going where we aren't noticed, cared about or feel like we belong.