Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Trapped in Church: An Update of Sorts

Three weeks ago, I wrote a blog post documenting our experience visiting a church for the first time and feeling trapped in the middle of a row, wrestling Bo to keep the other attendees safe, with hairstyles intact. 

Since that time, I've written two other posts about special needs and church in general, and started the longest discussion ever on my Facebook wall between those with special needs in the church and those without. 

That conversation was exhausting to me and felt very much like a hamster wheel at times with repetitive questions of program how-tos, complaints of lack of volunteers, and admonishments to have more grace. One thing I tried to emphasize is that it's not about programming. Again, as my friend Ellen Stumbo says, "Ultimately, it's not about the ministry; it is about the willingness and the hearts of acceptance."

The next week, we went back to the new church only this time, I sent Shawn and Ellie to drop off the kids while I raced to the auditorium to secure seats near the back. I had to ask someone to move to the inside but, thankfully, it was someone I knew and they happily complied. We didn't end up needing to take Bo out, but we breathed much easier knowing that we could have. 

This week, Bo and I arrived early and walked up to the back row to find it empty with these signs on the chairs: 

At first, I wondered if maybe they were expecting a special group or something. I took one of the signs to an usher and asked him if just anyone with special needs could sit there. He looked amused as he answered affirmatively. Still not believing it, I asked, "Can we sit here with our son? He has Down syndrome and autism." He looked at Bo, smiled and said, "If you plan to keep him with you during the service, I think he fits the bill." I'm sure I said something inane as I thanked him profusely. 

Still a bit stunned, I moved the sign over and put our stuff down. When Shawn came in I showed him the sign and he was as blown away as I was. I admit to bawling through most of the worship service, tears streaming, mascara running, snot stringing. It was lovely. I felt like Sally Field in her famous Oscar speech, "You like me. You really like me!"

This is what acceptance feels like, I thought.

No programs or volunteers needed. Just some inexpensive laminated signs that let one family know they are welcome here and they matter. 

"Reserved: Special Needs Seating said to me: "No need to climb over people. We'll reserve you a spot for easy access in and out with your child. If caring for your challenging child has you running behind, don't stress! There will always be a place for you." I couldn't help but weep with gratitude.    

I had no idea why the signs seemed to suddenly appear. I didn't know if someone read my post and responded to the need or if it wasn't about us at all. There are two services at that church. I'm sure there are others with special needs among them. 

As we investigated, however, our friends later told us, "Oh, those signs have been there as long as we've been attending, at least a year." 


What? Why had we not noticed them before? How come that row had been filled in the previous weeks, excluding us from sitting there? 

Confusion replaced my elation. 

And then, slowly, reality dawned. We hadn't seen them because the signs had been ignored. People are parking in the handicapped spots. While the church leadership had attempted to welcome families like ours with those signs, church members decided we didn't matter. In fact, I'd watched on Sunday as several couples parked themselves in that row, picked up the signs and turned them over or put them in the pocket of the seat in front of them. At the time, I thought they just didn't understand what the signs were for because it was a new thing. But this information re-framed it for me. 

It wasn't that they didn't understand; it's that they didn't care.  

And, for the second time that day, I cried.