I remember it like it was yesterday. On a rainy Sunday in 2001, I rushed inside the local Catholic church, dragging my children behind me. My husband, whose work often had him out of town, was not there to help so I had made the valiant effort to attend Mass by myself. We snuck into the church and made our way to an open pew, but things began to deteriorate rapidly.
My four-year-old-daughter, Samantha, diagnosed with autism at three, could not sit still. As those around us eyed her behavior, loud organ music accompanying the opening hymn started and Samantha began to scream. As is typical of many people with autism, she cannot tolerate loud sounds. I escorted us all out of the sanctuary quickly to the large gathering room, where we could hear through speakers but could not see the Mass.
Soaked from the rain, with tears in my eyes, I put our coats back on and left. There was no place for us here. I felt left out, helpless and discouraged. I had no idea how to make church work for my family and no energy left after a challenging week to figure it out.
I would like to say that the above story is unusual. Unfortunately, the stories I hear from other parents raising children with special needs are not only similar, some are much worse in terms of the feelings of exclusion. Many in our community and around the country feel that trying to include a family member with a disability into the life of a faith community is too challenging. Barriers of attitude especially hinder their participation, and many families end up missing out on the support, encouragement, and joy that can come with being a part of a faith community.
In 2006, many years after the incident described above, I inquired about religious education for my three children at a different church, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Norfolk. With patience and a big learning curve, I worked with the staff to help include my daughter at our church. Since then, Samantha, who is essentially non-verbal and exhibits many challenging autistic behaviors, received both the Sacrament of First Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Confirmation. You probably do not need to be the parent of a child with a disability to understand how amazing this was for our family!
The experience working with our church led to the development of Faith Inclusion Network (FIN) of Hampton Roads. FIN is a non-profit, all-volunteer, interfaith organization devoted to the better inclusion of people with disabilities into faith communities. We hold workshops and conferences to help educate faith communities on best practices in the area of faith and disability inclusion, maintain a website with a growing list of welcoming and inclusive faith communities, (www.faithinclusionnetwork.org), and consult with individuals locally and nationally on resources and the development of disability ministries.
On March 20, 2015, we will hold a conference at Lynnhaven United Methodist Church called “That All May Worship—2015, Embracing Inclusion.” This is by far our most ambitious conference yet with sixteen leaders of the national faith and disability community coming to Virginia Beach to share their expertise. The morning session will be a succession of five-minute “TED-like” talks from thirteen leaders. The rest of the day will include breakout sessions, a networking luncheon and plenty of opportunities to share. The conference will bring our community together as we embrace the goal of true inclusion for ALL people in our faith communities.
For information or to register for the conference, go to https://finconference2015.eventbrite.com.