A child with special needs giggles in church, and an usher asks the family to step out of the service. In the lobby, the nonverbal child continues to giggle, and another usher tells the family they need to leave because they are being disruptive.
The same family visits another church but receives a warm welcome. People in that church seem to care deeply and are willing to help with the child. Eventually, the child enjoys attending church and sits quietly during the service.
The Rev. Lorna Bradley, author of Special Needs Parenting: From Coping to Thriving (Huff Publishing Associates), said this true anecdote shows how churches, regardless of resources or budget, can embrace families of people with special needs.
"It's just a difference in attitude," she said. "Are you welcome or are you not? Churches say ‘everyone is welcome,' but it's hard to feel welcome when there isn't something intentionally making a place for you."
Susan Galindo and others at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio strive to create a welcoming environment for people with special needs.
"The main thrust of our ministry and our church is that anybody can participate in any part of the church, even if they have special needs," Galindo said.
To that aim, u|ability provides opportunities for people with special needs to participate in worship, serve the community, give to worldwide missions and develop practical skills.
One aspect of the program is a worship service for adults in the Believer's Garden in the church gym. It averages 150 people in attendance.
"We do a lot of outreach from our worship service," said Galindo, who directs the ministry. "Because of people's physical limitations, you can't always reach out to other places or other nations, but we have found several organizations where we can give to make things happen."
Ministry draws new congregants
Over the past 15 years, participants of u|ability have given $15,000 to disaster relief, Christmas boxes and other mission projects.
Though its adult ministry is much larger than its programs for teens and children, u|ability also features a sensory-motor playroom, funded by a church grant. The playroom contains $10,000 in therapeutic equipment that therapists, parents and others in the community can use.
"Last year, we had six families become a part of the church because of the playroom," Galindo said.
During the week, u|ability operates Helping Hands, a day habilitation program with about 50 adults who participate in prevocational tasks, while building a community with daily devotions, prayer, exercise and fellowship.
Avon (Indiana) United Methodist Church brings special needs to the forefront of its congregants' minds and hearts with events throughout the year.
"Along with having our Disability Awareness Sunday in April," program leader Jennifer Anderson said, "throughout the year, we incorporate those with disabilities in our service."
Anderson said people from the church's ministry serve as ushers or help with the offering, and this helps members of the church think more often about people with disabilities.
Every November, the church sponsors "Celebrate Families Night."
"This year, I'm opening it to the whole church so they can know what it's like to live with someone who has a disability," Anderson explained. "Those who have mental challenges are going to speak about what a day in their life is like."
The church also hosts a support group for people with special needs and their caregivers.
For vacation Bible school and Sunday school, the church offers a buddy program that pairs a volunteer and a child with special needs. Anderson said this helps the child "not feel like they have to be left behind."
With a local nonprofit, the church participates in "Circle of Friends" for adults with disabilities who live on their own and need a little help. Twice each month, they meet with a volunteer who helps with life skills, such as keeping an apartment clean or practicing good personal hygiene.
All people can ‘become disciples'
Roswell United Methodist Church, north of Atlanta, also offers a wide variety of ministries for adults with special needs.
More than 30 people attend the church's Noah's Ark Sunday school class each week, according to Penny Monk, a program coordinator.
The church also helps with a bowling league. "It's a 12-week session," Monk said. "They have a pizza party and get a T-shirt at the end."
On the third Sunday in May each year, Monk said the church hosts a field day, similar to Special Olympics.
"It's just a fun day. (The participants) have different games they play. They have an opening ceremony with a flag and music. Then they have lunch afterward. That's something they look forward to."
The ministry also hosts a short program during both church services on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Monk said this lets "the congregation get to know them better."
Bradley has seen the mutual benefit that comes to those involved in relationships with people who have special needs.
"When you're helping a person develop their spiritual connection with God, it enriches your path as well," Bradley said.
Galindo said she firmly believes all people can "become disciples, regardless of their physical or cognitive challenges.
"We believe that everyone has a purpose for their life, and there's no disabled souls," she said. "Everyone's soul is able to respond to God's call in their life."
Monk said she sees God at work in the loving, joyful attitude of the people she serves.
"They are the most joyful, loving and thankful people you would want to meet," she said. "You can be having a terrible day, and you spend an hour in there, and they lift you up. The unconditional love they show is Jesus alive every minute that you are with them."
Church support critical
For both Monk and Galindo, their congregations' support helps to make their ministries successful.
"Our church really has a heart for people with special needs. They go out of their way to include us," Galindo said. "It's amazing to be so well supported by the church. That's really what makes the difference."
She encourages churches that would like to start a special-needs ministry to start small – even if only two or three people might initially benefit from the program.
"Start with what you have," she said.
Galindo also recommends working with Joni and Friends International. "They have some really great resources on how to start a special-needs ministry."
"To get funding, we hold fundraisers and bake sales," Anderson said. "The kids even help out. We have the young adults sell the stuff. They learn that when they make stuff and sell it, they make a profit."
Beyond finances, Monk said what the ministry at Roswell most needed from the congregation was "the room and the support and their encouragement."
To learn how your church can be more welcoming to all people, visit umcdiscipleship.org and read "On Greeting Persons with Disabilities: A Suggestion Manual for Ushers and Greeters." Find additional ideas from the General Board of Global Ministries.
"Be in dialogue with the folks you want to have in your congregation," Bradley said. "Special needs can be really complicated. Every child and every family is going to be different. There are going to be things that have to be a little bit tailored."
Bradley said special-needs ministry is about the whole family.
"How do you keep the whole family resilient? How can you equip them to be successful?" she asked. "They are really under unique stress, raising a child with special needs, and it's a matter of pastoral care that congregations often overlook."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.