I am deeply saddened by the number of times that I hear about children with additional needs or disabilities, and their families, being rejected by or excluded from the very place that should be the most welcoming, most inclusive, most loving place of all… church.
Stories about families being told “Please try somewhere else, this isn’t a special needs church”; or being turned away because their child “Might be a health and safety risk for the other children or leaders”. Children who are told “Don’t come back next week”, or who are excluded permanently, due to behavioural responses which are totally misunderstood. Parents who are struggling and need support, but are instead accused of being bad parents or of having naughty, uncontrollable children. Families who feel bullied by their church. It goes on and on…
So why does this happen? Why do people who are taught week in, week out, the Gospel message of love fail to apply it? Why do they seemingly ignore the many examples that Jesus gave where he engaged with and included people with disabilities; the numerous times that he taught a message of inclusion and love for all?
I was recently reading a few verses in the book of Hebrews, in which the writer attributes these words from the book of Isaiah to Jesus:
“Here am I, and the children God has given me.” (Hebrews 2:13b/Isaiah 8:18)
These words do not come with an asterisk at the end, with a note saying *Does not include children with additional needs or disabilities. I have an image in my mind of Jesus arriving at a church with a bunch of kids with various additional needs and disabilities, to be met at the door by someone saying, “You’re not coming in here with them, this is a place of worship!”
It reminds me of the time that some children were being brought to Jesus for him to bless them. Some of the disciples tried to stop them, but Jesus warned them not to hinder the children:
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:13-14)
Again, there is no asterisk, no *Does not include children with additional needs or disabilities in this passage. So what does “do not hinder them” look like in today’s church context? Would Jesus rebuke churches that reject or exclude children with additional needs or disabilities? Who are unwilling to change or adapt what they do so as to include everyone? Who marginalise and bully families of children with additional needs? Would people so easily try to turn families away if, like with the disciples, Jesus was right there watching and rebuking them for their actions? Well, the uncomfortable truth for some is this, Jesus is watching…
Just a few chapters after Jesus blesses the children, all of them, he teaches us about how what we do, or don’t do, for others, especially “the least of these”, we do or don’t do for him:
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:42-45 (It’s well worth reading the whole passage from v31-46)
Sobering words, especially to churches that have turned children or families away. Jesus didn’t establish his church to be a place where only people that fitted in were welcome; he railed and raged against that very thinking 2,000 years ago. Church should be a place for all of God’s family to gather together, a place of welcome and belonging for all. In that same passage in the book of Hebrews that we started with, the writer shows us a glimpse of that family relationship we have with Jesus and should have with each other:
‘So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” (Hebrews 2:11b-12)
Brothers and sisters, heirs of God, all of them including children and young people with additional needs or disabilities and their families, no asterisk here either. If Jesus is not ashamed to call them ‘brothers and sisters’ why are we?
May our churches be places where all are welcomed, where all belong, where all are treated equally, where all experience love and acceptance. A place where everyone can join with Jesus in saying, “Here am I, and the children God has given me”*
*Especially includes children with additional needs or disabilities and their families!
First published at The Additional Needs Blogfather on 15th January 2020.
The views expressed in this blog post are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the GC network.
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