Reverently, she entered the sanctuary with her child in tow, along with her Bible and a tote bag filled with all the essentials for her little one—a change of clothes, snacks, and a favorite toy. Finding a seat for her son and herself, she sat down. Finally, she could relax and enjoy the service before having to face the realities of life once again. She had been sensing the need for worship and a spiritual home to call her own. Perhaps this might be the answer to her prayer.
The service began with an inspiring congregational reading; everything seemed perfect so far.
At the end of the song, one member made her way to where the visiting mother and son were sitting. She gave a smile toward the mother’s child, who seemed to be enjoying the singing as much as his mom, waving his arms to the rhythm of the music and making an effort to vocalize the words as if singing along with the rest of the congregation. Then the member said to her, “How old is your son?”
The mother smiled and said, “Oh, my son Joey is twelve years old.”
Then the member offered, “We have a mother’s room in the back of the church. Perhaps you’d feel more comfortable with him there. Your disabled child is making some of the others here feel a bit uneasy.”
Quietly, the mother got up, left, and never returned.
What more needs to be said?
Though societies through the ages have not been kind to the disabled, we as a church can, and must, do better. What follow are some practical suggestions on how this can be done.
Preparing the ground
I have had the privilege of becoming acquainted with and ministering to members of the disabled community and their families, as well as their caregivers. Blessings and opportunities for spiritual growth await a congregation willing to prayerfully minister with Christian love and acceptance to the disabled.
When we make an effort to invite the disabled community to become members of the church and serve in meaningful ways according to their individual abilities, the results can be life-changing. In order for that to happen, however, pastors must help their congregations prepare to receive all that the disabled community, by God’s grace, can uniquely provide.
Over the years, the one thing I have learned when ministering to individuals with disabilities, both seen and unseen, congenital as well as medical (such as autism, cerebral palsy, paralysis, seizure disorder, cognitive challenges, Down’s syndrome, blindness, deafness, being nonverbal, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and mobility challenges), is that we are all similar in that we all are challenged by the disability of sin and in need of healing by Jesus, our Great Physician. And for that to happen for the disabled, we sometimes have to adapt our methodology.
Finding a leader
First, when introducing a congregation to the possibility of intentionally ministering to the disabled, prayerfully begin by choosing someone to serve as the disabilities leader who has a passion for such a ministry. Encourage and empower them to brainstorm various possibilities. Help them present any disabilities ministry projects they have to the church board. The goal is to help raise a level of comfort and awareness in the church for it to become more compassionate to the needs of the disabled and realize how much we are all alike.
Knowing the field
Survey the local community for organizations and agencies that specifically serve the disabled in order to learn of the resources they can provide along with their needs and opportunities for service that the church can provide. I try to contact them and even visit their facilities.
Working the plan
With the help of the disabilities leader, include a Disabilities Awareness Sabbath in the church calendar. This is a time when the Sabbath service is designed to help the members become acquainted with the disabled community and see them as individuals who love Jesus and who have a testimony to share and a desire to worship the Lord. This opens up the congregation to an awareness that motivates them to look for ways to minister to the disabled both inside and outside the church.
A fellowship dinner and afternoon workshop on disabilities awareness can generate further discussion. Time can be set aside for a question-and-answer session. A special vespers program or concert to raise funds to benefit a local group home might also end the day.
Reaping the results
The Lord has provided some amazing guest speakers to worship with us for our various Disabilities Awareness Sabbaths. Each individual had different forms of disability, but through each one’s disability, the Lord blessed our members and edified them, making them aware of the needs of the disabled.
One of our most amazing worship experiences was with a guest speaker who was uniquely disabled. She was not only deaf and nonverbal but also blind. She used the voice and skills of a little child who was proficient in sign language to interpret for her as she presented an incredibly inspiring message.
There was also a lady whom I invited to speak on several occasions. She had contracted joint-deforming rheumatoid arthritis and was dependent on a wheelchair. She was, by profession, an advisor at an agency serving the disabled. She was also an active leader in her church and a gifted speaker. With her effervescent personality and high energy, she spoke of Jesus and His love for humankind, no matter their disability. As she preached, it was almost as if the wheelchair in which she sat and pushed herself around the platform vanished. To watch her and listen to her speak was a spiritual experience in itself.
Then there was the event we held in a particular church where we wanted to help raise funds to benefit a nearby group home.
I approached the directors of the home and shared with them what we were going to be doing, and I wanted to invite one or two of the directors to come and tell us more about their group home and the work they do. They were so appreciative and grateful for our interest. Then they asked me something I was not expecting. They told me that they had a dance troupe that performed, representing their home; would I like them to come and be part of the service? Dancing in a Seventh-day Adventist Church!
Something, though, spoke to my heart to graciously accept their offer. And I am so glad I did because, when the day arrived and the ladies in the “dance troupe” came with their director, they were so excited to be part of the program.
When it was time for them to perform, the dance troupe, comprising eight middle-aged ladies with Down’s syndrome, got up and proudly made their way to the front of the church, all dressed in uniform clothing, each looking like a princess. The congregation sat spellbound as they watched our disabled guests express their witness to the Lord, exhibiting pure angelic innocence and unconditional love. On their faces were expressions of focus and determination to move in unison and display their ability to follow directions. When they had finished, they showered each other with encouraging hugs, smiles, and childlike giggles as they experienced the joy of having the opportunity to share their gifts. When they ended their performance with this childlike excitement, there was not a dry eye in the sanctuary.
Blessing the church
As pastors, we sometimes struggle with how to inspire our congregations to work together and in harmony with each other. On that particular Sabbath, the Lord brought us the answer that we needed. It was vividly illustrated for us by eight middle-aged ladies with Down’s syndrome living in the neighborhood group home down the street who, despite their disability, acted in a way that all pastors would wish their members would emulate toward themselves and others. We received as much, if not more, than we gave.
I would suggest such a disability ministry for your church as well. It takes prayerful planning and a willingness on the part of the church, but—with God’s help and the efforts of the local pastor—it can be a fruitful and blessed area for ministry and intentional missional outreach.1
1 In October 2019, the Seventh-day Adventist church embraced the term “Possibilities Ministries, previously known as Special Needs Ministries.” https://news.adventist.org/en/all-news/news/go/2019 -10-13/sharing-our-mission-sabbath-at-annual-council/