By DeAnna Gibson
As COVID-19 makes its way around our globe, our everyday patterns are in upheaval. The assurances of a few weeks ago have given way to questions of preparedness. Painful dilemmas we now face include school closings and paychecks. Social media is in full flourish with complainers, fear mongers, conspiracy theorists and toilet paper hoarders.
Hearing the term “social distancing” as an autism mom, I laughingly thought, “These are the days in which many are living like autism families.” Within a week, our church was streaming online. Sunday felt incredibly different for me, but for some of my dear friends it felt familiar. For many special needs families it may have felt like a fairly normal Sunday — home alone, behind a screen, looking in from the “socially distant” outside.
And, it made me sad.
Do not get me wrong. I am so thankful for online streaming. It keeps us all connected by the preaching of the Word of God. We know that God’s Spirit works through the declaration of His Word, and is not encumbered by digital waves or technical connections. However, for many in the church sitting at home behind screens on Sunday morning, we are presented with the unfamiliar question: Can you get enough “church” from the online service? The answer is no.
If we are not gathering regularly, we miss face to face greetings, hugs after a tough week, smiles in the hallways. We miss our kids’ coloring sheets or summaries of Bible lessons learned (if they can articulate it). We miss singing praises together, seeing a brother in Christ who cares for his ailing wife as we sing of Christ’s worthiness and tender mercies. We miss lifting hands with our sister in Christ who is facing her new diagnosis, yet tearfully exclaiming “God, You alone are faithful.” We miss the hand on our back as those down from our pews slide down to pray for us about our lost job, family hardship, or lingering test results. We miss being on our knees together as we plead with God together to give clarity and direction for our church leaders. We miss the togetherness of declaring “Just as God is with us, I am with you.” Yes, we get the sermon, but is that enough “church”?
While some special needs families may not ever be able to attend a physical service because of a medically fragile child or because the aggression level of a child with autism is more than a particular congregation can manage without specialized help, many others are waiting for minimal accommodations and a personal invitation!
So here is my challenge:
As we sit at home longing to meet back together with the body of believers, let’s remember those on the outside looking in who also long to be among us. Let us cast off the temporary self-soothing of telling ourselves “this is only temporary.” Instead, let’s allow ourselves to be discontent so we might embrace the weightiness of our separation during this time and gain wisdom.
Let us not fear to be burdened for our believing special needs families, and let us take on the condition of our brothers and sisters who feel there is no place for them in our churches. Let us feel uncomfortable and grieve that we could do more to make our churches more accessible. Let us give deep consideration to those who would like to come but cannot because of lack of classroom supports, sensory spaces, or just plain ol’ compassion!
Let us turn our loneliness and isolation into the greatest opportunity our churches have seen to embrace those with special needs. Let us dream together about creative possibilities and solutions. Let’s reach out with newfound understanding and empathy to humbly let them know, “While we may not have seen you before, we see you now …”
Practically, where do we begin? When I wrote a blog “Special “Needs Surrounding the Church,” I introduced a few of these questions. I am not sure of the answers, but these additional questions may get us to see the gaps around us and where a good starting place might be:
(1) Are there in-home small groups that can “adopt” a special needs family and begin to connect this family to the bigger body as a whole?
(2) Is there a virtual way for special needs families to connect to others during the worship services or Sunday school classes that are interactive and in real time?
(3) Have you talked to a special needs family to find out their hesitancies for engaging further? If so, then ask the hard question, “If you helped us work towards an appropriate solution, would you come?”
Maybe, by God’s grace, COVID-19 will provide us with a more loving and unique perspective. Perhaps He has longed for such awareness among our churches so that we may emerge physically healthy and spiritually healthy, ready to look out beyond our walls to say, “There is no need for you to social distance from the church – we want you here with us.”
May God bless, protect, and grow us all during these next months! B&R — Gibson is an autism mom and a blogger. Her husband, Brett, is the worship pastor at First Baptist Church, Powell. They have three sons. Her blogs are available at deannagibsonwrites.wordpress.com.