Follow by Email

Monday, May 19, 2008

Whatever it takes?

In the United Methodist Church, we talk a lot about "open doors." We want to share the message that people who don't look like us, who don't have all the religious questions sorted out for themselves, who may find other doors and tables closed to them, and who speak other languages and are from many parts of the world are welcome. It's a statement that we seek to live into, recognizing that on any given day (not just Sunday), we are evaluated by our openness.

So I was struck by the recent situation in Bertha, Minnesota where an autistic boy (granted, a large 200+ pound, 6 foot boy) has disturbed worship and whose mother was legally restrained from attending church with him yesterday.

I never trust the press in reporting these stories so I have no idea how much the church and its leadership worked with the family. It does sound like his disruption was pretty extreme (spitting and urinating, threatening elderly and children).

But with the increase in autism in our society, I don't think it's a situation that couldn't happen to any one of our churches.

I can't help but think about the ministry that was started at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas which its pastor, Adam Hamilton, often tells as an example of a church that would do "whatever it took" to reach out to people in their need. They had a family with special needs and they developed a ministry for that individual family and then of course it's grown to include many families in the community. I do know that it's pretty labor-intensive, but as a result love-intensive.

So as clergy or laity, what would you do in a situation like this? What measures would you put into effect? Would that family be welcome at your church?



ironic1 said...

I had a situation in a church where I was the Associate Pastor. We numerous reports of one of the youth bullying the other youth. When we spoke to him or his parents they said it was the other way around. The incidents always happened when there were no adults nearby to verify it. Finally we had a report of him pulling a knife in the restroom. Most parents were urging me to "kick him out." I decided, with the support of others, that since the trouble came about when there weren't adults around that he had to be under direct adult supervision anytime he was on church property, from the car to the classroom to the sanctuary and, yes, even in the restroom. I explained to the parents that if he were the victim, which I highly doubted, there would be a witness or it would make it stop. If he were the perpetrator, which seemed more likely, he wouldn't have the chance to get away with anything.

I know it's a different circumstance, but it's the closest I've come to the situation you described.

Icare said...

If we had a simular situation at our church, I would immediately get in contact with DAMI (Disability Awareness Ministries, Inc.) our own non funded UM organization which will soon be extinct due to no funds. I feel confident DAMI could and would address the situation with integrity and feeling and guide our congregation to a safe and happy resolution for all concerned.

Anonymous said...

We had a similar situation in my last parish. A family joined our parish w/a teenage son w/Tourette's syndrome. Needless to say worship (and confirmation class) proved interesting.

Fortunately, the parents were very upfront w/me about it and we arranged to show a video about kids w/Tourette's during coffee fellowship one Sunday.

It made a huge difference. Everyone relaxed and we got on with it. He was a great kid & everyone loved him. His behaviour improved w/some med adjustments.

A little education goes a long way.


Ron Cottone said...

"So as clergy or laity, what would you do in a situation like this?"

When faced with her son Adam being denied access to worship because of his autism, Carol Race called Disability Awareness Ministries for advice and support. We talked with her for 40 minutes by phone to help her clarify her family's situation with their church in Bertha, MN. When your church faces a question about inclusion, call DAMI. 612-230-DAMI (3264) Every situation is different. Every situation needs careful consideration and a compassionate response. It can help to consult with an experienced advisor.
Ron Cottone, DAMI Exec. Dir.

Anonymous said...

We had a single mom with twin autistic sons, about 13 or 14. She wanted to sing in the choir and would sit one in the back pew alone and the other in the front pew alone. One would come up during the service and whack the other on the head and yell. Then they grabbed a couple men by the ties and women by necklaces (they liked them and didn't know how else to express that). They were also confirmation age and I had two other kids with disabilities ready for confirmation. We called DAMI and they did an intensive training for the whole church, during education and worship for an extended time and helped us teach people how to sit with the boys and keep them interested and to interpret when they were getting restless and needed to go out for a few minutes. The mom moved out of state a few months later and has tried several other churches but says she has never been as welcomed or cared about in any church as she was here. The training was WONDERFUL and helped so much. We later did a training on mental illness for a full month of both education and worship time.

Anonymous said...

I listened to the comments on the Jack Rice Show on WCCO radio. The comments here are more helpful. It is about communication between church leadership and the family. However, the piece I did not hear expressed was "how much disruption can I absorb as a leader on a weekly basis and still maintain my focus on the task of leading worship?" We had a good discussion with a mother of special needs children at an adult group last night. Again, it boiled down to communication.
Joel Xavier
Trimont United Methodist

Anonymous said...

I don't think my church brothers and sisters would react much differently than did the priest, but it bothers me that one of God's children should be "banned by court order," and I am curious as to what wasn't put in print in the article. Were the parents asked to remove the boy at the first sign of any "uncontrollable acting out and refused to do so?" "Did he urinate every single time he was in worship (a far cry from an occasional accident)? Did he physically attack or actually threaten other worshippers, or merely threaten them because he was "different?" Was there any attempt to inform and educate the congregation as to the nature of autism? How many worshippers would be left in your church if all those who were "different" were banned? I am troubled by the situation, but do not have any easy answers.
Thanks for the opportunity for dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I, too, was disturbed by the idea of banning anyone from worship. But this expulsion causes us to think about other restrictions on our attendance and/or participation in worship as the Body of Christ. I've experienced several such problems, even in my short time in ministry.
1. A baby who screamed all through the service even though a crying room and a nursery were offered.
2. Two parishioners who had back problems and left the sanctuary to walk around, coming and going once or twice in every service.
3. A parishioner who coughed more or less uncontrollably through the sermon (She'd finally leave and sit in the foyer and cough there).
4. A church I visited where I was made to feel like a pariah because I was not of the same denomination.
The first three were handled with a great deal of love and patience, and no one was asked not to worship. The 4th one (by their attitude and open hostility) told me that I had mistakenly attended a church which arguably was some other religion. I have no solution for that problem.
Several respondents mentioned an organization which worked with the problem of an autistic child. Can we continue to have such help?
We don't have enough information about the "banned" child. For example, did he expose himself to urinate, or was it an "accident"? Did kids in school make fun of him, causing him to strike out at strangers? There are too many unanswered questions, but we know that ANY solution has to involve love for the child AND his family.

Bishop Sally Dyck said...

I knew this was more common than we may immediately suspect. I'm glad that DAMI caught hold of this blog and registered in a few comments. If anyone does have such situations, they can be a real help in working out some creative solutions that we as "lay persons" in the fields of autism, etc.have no any idea would help. But largely, it's communication.

Radical hospitality is not an easy process; it's a desire to do whatever it takes so that all of God's children can be participants in the body of Christ.

I'm interested in what other experiences people have had...

Mickey Carter said...

I understand the family was offered services in their home, or as a classroom setting much as some Sunday School lessons are taught.
I taught elementary school for 30 years and had students ranging all over the map of emotional; and physical needs. There is no easy answer.
I truly hope the family receives the spiritual guidance and growth we all need.

Debby said...

Our family experienced a miracle when my 5 year old survived a brain tumor; however it left her with many disabilities. There are over 6 million persons in the U.S. with developmental disabilities, with many causes, including autism. I'd like to address this incident from a parent's point of view and issue a challenge to our bishop and United Methodist Christians to use this very unfortunate exclusion of a person from a community setting as an impetus to grow in knowledge, faith and action.
Families are greatly affected when someone has a disability (20% of the US population has a disability that affects daily living activities). This mom most likely has had to advocate for years with the medical, social services, education and church institutions. The task is daunting. Perhaps she hoped that her church could be a haven where all who are weary could come and be welcomed. Would it be the one place in the community outside of "special places" where her son could be himself and where the family and the church family could experience God's presence? It sounds like despite great effort from all sides, that wasn't possible.
However, in testimony to the community at Centennial United Methodist Church in Roseville, many things are possible and can be tried by other churches.

Although my now 24-year old daughter appears to be 11 or 12 in most ways, she works part time at the church with minimal supports - can your church employ people with disabilities?

She is a member of the Flames, a group of young adults with various disabilities, including autism spectrum. Parents support inclusiveness during worship & monitor behavior, while at the same time, members and clergy verbally support our children and accept sometimes unusual behavior, which can be mildly distractive. Flames members are included (with extra training) in participation, such as ushering and lighting candles and aren't treated as big children - are your services inclusive?

We also have a class once a month where Flames learn more about the Bible, prayer and living. As one of the teachers, I can say we also have a lot of fun with experiential learning and teaching. - does your church have a class for post- confirmands with disabilities?

Finally, parents periodically meet during social activities to share ideas and be supportive of one another. - does your church have a support group for families of people with disabilities?

Let's keep this discussion going.

Chris Nordell said...

I feel that Church nursery and Sunday School classes are one of the first place that children experience God's love and that it is am important experience for all children. While I was a member of Brooklyn United Methodist Church I had the opportunity to share information about autism and the behaviors associated with autism with Sunday School teachers in a training workshop. There was an excellent response to this training and this helped create a welcoming attitude towards children with different styles of learning and ways of coping with the world. Initially there was only one autistic like child attending but the numbers continued to grow. An extra person was in the classrooms as needed to enable each child to be successful in the Sunday School. The church soon gained a reputation as a welcoming of all children.

songbird said...

We have a special needs child in our congregation who is quite noisy because that is how she communicates her feelings of happiness. Sometimes parishioners complain about her noise only because they are hearing impaired and they can not hear what is going on in the worship. But they always add that she is our child. Her family checks in with me to see if her behavior is too noisy. They monitor her and remove her from the sanctuary when they feel that it is in her best interests to be out of the worship service. in the past they have hired people to be her attendants in during the worship service. She has scared little children on occasion. She loves to give hugs but can cause injury with her strength. We have learned from her teachers how to follow the rules she goes by at school. These parents assume that they are the ones to decide when it is not feasible to have her involved. And when she had her tonsils out, I received more calls about how she was doing than any other person in the church. It is not easy but it hasn't been unbearable either. I am at a loss to understand the situation in Bertha. It is sad for all. involved.

Victoria Rebeck said...

It is hard to know what the church did or didn't do to try to accommodate this family. The news reports were not explicit on this point. This raises another task that faces that church: to plan how to tell its story. If indeed the church did go to great lengths to accommodate the family, it should have been prepared to talk about how all families and individuals are welcome, and the steps they take to make all people feel both welcome and safe. They also could talk about their theological understandings of who is part of the body of Christ, who Christ welcomed, etc. They could have described, in positive terms, what they did to reach out to the family. They could talk about what they learned from the experience. They also could have found a way to tell their story without using harsh language like "banned from worship." Could be that was the reporters' phrasing. However, because the church was not proactive in telling its story in its own words, now the public perceives this church as an unwelcoming, closed-door congregation. Churches need to realize that they have responsibility for telling their own story, and not assume that someone else (like a reporter) will do it for them. Thus they should plan carefully. All churches should engage in crisis communications training for situations like this and others. As it is said, the question is not "if"--it is "when."
Victoria Rebeck
Director of Communication, Minnesota Conference of the UMC

John McBride said...

A while back I was given a copy of “The Shack” from member of a study group I lead. I brushed it off for awhile, thinking it would just be another pop-theology book. When my wife and I went on vacation recently I was looking for something to take along to read and threw it into my carry-on. Like Bishop Sally I was surprised by the book and found it to have many wonderful theological gems. My favorite part of the story is when Mackenzie encounters Sophia. As a father of five, his trip through a confrontation with his own judgment of God struck me to the core.