A couple weeks ago I posted about a new series in which you'll hear directly from individuals with special needs and their families. This week I am so excited to have Amanda joining me from LifeIsASpectrum.com. If you're interested in posting for this series or you know someone who may be, please email me at email@example.com.
Though I'm now the parent of a special needs child, I have also been a Sunday school teacher – and occasionally, when a sub is needed and my duties in the music ministry allow, I still step in. So I've had the opportunity to see our children's ministry both through the eyes of a parent and through the eyes of a teacher.
The kids in the Sunday school class can range in age from 5 to 10 years old. And they are awesome, in every meaning of the word.
It's true that I occasionally have to leave Sunday school and go repent of a few thoughts I've had over the past hour, but I always leave with a fresh perspective on religion, spirituality, life, and sometimes, variations on a few songs I thought I knew.
On most Sundays that I step in, the class is pretty evenly divided between girls and boys, but one particular day, I had a class of eight girls. All girls.
Girls and boys are different, obviously. The boys will punch one another in the shoulders, make up violent lyrics to hymns, stick the craft pipe cleaners where the sun don't shine, one-up one another and get increasingly loud until I have to shout to hear myself think.
The girls always raise their hands before talking. Their comments aren't always necessarily on point, but they do politely wait their turn.
On the Sunday morning in question:
Hand goes up in the middle of our story about an angel breaking the apostle Peter out of jail.
"Yes?" I ask.
"Look what I have!" and an energetic five-year-old jumps out of her chair and pulls a circular plastic lip gloss out of the pocket of her dress. "IT'S HELLO KITTY!!!" she's practically screams. Several necks crane to look.
"That's awesome," I say in what I hope is an adequately admiring tone. "Now let's put it back in your pocket until church is over, OK?"
Ever polite, satisfied and happy that she has now shared this with everyone, she complies and I go back to the story.
Another hand goes up. It's reaching and reaching and reaching, so eager to share.
"Yes?" I ask this new participator.
"I have lip gloss too!" And she pulls it out of her lavender sparkly purse. An appreciative sigh goes throughout the group about this remarkable coincidence, which prompts a general dumping of purses in the middle of the table as everyone examines the contents of everyone else's purse in the search for yet more lip gloss.
"OK! OK!" I tell them. "Purses away. We're at church. And you all look beautiful. But today we're focusing on how we make ourselves beautiful on the INside." I get kudos for bringing this back around to a life lesson, huh?
Another hand goes up.
"Does your comment have anything to do with Peter and the angel?" I ask her.
She carefully considers this for several seconds. And slowly nods her her gorgeously curly red head.
"OK," I say. "Let's hear it."
"I'm stronger than my dad."
We all mull this over a bit before several enthusiastic voices pipe up with "Me too! Me! Me!" and "I'm stronger than my dad too!"
After the lesson we went into a bigger room outside the class to play a game. It was a kind of "Tag" game with some kids playing angels and some playing guards and some playing prisoners. At first, they all wanted to be angels, until they realized that the guards had the most fun. One of the “prisoners” nearly got to the point of tears, so fearful was she that she wouldn't be "rescued."
My son Billy's class, the class below the girls in age, was in the big room too. Their class is less structured. They mainly play with toys, listen to music and have a snack.
The “tag” game with prisoners and angels totally enthralled Billy. He was so excited watching the girls play that he started jumping up and down and running in and out of the players, tagging people randomly.
Billy is autistic.
He approached one of the girls – she's two years older than him but about the same height – and got very close to her. A bit too close for normal social comfort, probably.
But he had a big smile on his face, and I could tell that he wanted to say hello. So I got down on my knees next to him and led him through the process of saying, “Hi, my name is Billy!” which he handled pretty well with prompting.
The beautiful big-eyed girl smiled back at Billy and told him her name.
Back in our classroom, I talked to the girls about Billy, about autism, and about how much I appreciate their kindness and patience with him as he learns things like how to introduce himself and how to share – still not his strong suit. They listened and took it all in matter-of-factly.
Later, as I was coming out of the nursery where I was picking up Willow, I saw a table of “my” girls playing with various games. Billy had plonked himself right down in the middle of them, reaching for the games and poking at the parts and pieces. And the girls weren't laughing at him or getting impatient or angry.
On the contrary. They were showing him how the games worked, which parts moved, how to make them turn. One little girl gently took Billy's hand and used it to make the spinner spin. His eyes lit up and a big smile spread across his face. He looked directly into her eyes and she smiled back.
I learned everything I need to know about angels that day.
I believe that including people with special needs fully into our congregations is not only a blessing to those individuals. It is also a blessing each of us, and particularly our children, who are given the opportunity to minister to their peers with special challenges and through these experiences, put Christ's love into action.
Amanda Broadfoot is a Florida-based freelance writer, wife and mother of a brilliant autistic preschool son and precocious toddling southern belle. A member of Good Samaritan United Methodist Church, she blogs about special needs parenting at LifeIsASpectrum.com.