A week ago Sunday my plane landed at my home airport about an hour and a half before our usual evening programming at church. Usually I stay home, trusting our children’s ministry team to manage the special needs side of things – both for our kids and for the other families I serve – and trusting my husband to manage our six kids. But this night would be different. I was arriving back from spending the past four days in Seattle at the Refresh Conference. My kids were dysregulated. My superhero husband was spent. I was needed.
We arrived, and I realized I didn’t even know where our kids were supposed to go. The Beanie Boo stuffed animals I brought home from the trip needed to stay in the car, we said. All but one child was okay with that. The one who wasn’t was very not okay over it. I carried a lot of pounds of melting-down child down the hall and around the corner, only to realize we were late enough that the kids were already in the worship center with their classes for the first part of the evening. I was spent from the trip, so that was enough for me to crack a bit and have to hold back tears. I set my child down for a moment. I took a deep breath. Then I turned and resolved to do the hard mom things, when a teacher rounded the corner. He gently said hello to my child, called him by name, spoke kindness to him, and invited him to go with him to join the rest of the class. Making eye contact with me, he said, “We’re good, Shannon. I’ve got him,” and walked off hand in hand with my boy.
I let some of those tears fall, this time in appreciation instead of the frustration in which they had welled up.
After a few moments to myself, I felt restored. I was ready to go see how all our babies were doing. As I got to the side doors to our worship center, our family discipleship pastor caught my eye. He had seen my son come in, and he realized the music was going to not only be loud but would vibrate strongly where his class was sitting on the floor. The noise-cancelling headphones our child usually wears were at home, of course. I said, “Let’s watch and see how he does, but if it’s too much, I need to be the one to sit with him,” knowing that part of his dysregulation was due to my absence the past few days. We stood to the side, ready to intervene. Within moments of the music starting, the rest of the kids were standing while my son was sitting and rocking himself on the floor. So I joined the class, sitting on the floor with my child in my lap – allowing my body to absorb the vibrations – and with my hands cupped over his ears to dampen the noise. He smiled. He could listen and sing and soak it all in with those helps.
Partway through, he moved my hands from his ears during a quieter time, just long enough for me to snap this picture and share with my husband via text that our son was wearing two right shoes – one of his in his size and one of his brother’s in a smaller size. Bless it.
As we left and the kids went to small group, I stepped back to let my boy join his group after coaching him in how to answer his curious friends who had been asking what was wrong with him. (“I have supersonic ears that hear better than other people’s, so that’s why my mom was covering them,” he said proudly, just as we discussed and then added “I’m actually part superhero, and that’s one of my powers.”) I thanked the pastor for loving our son well by seeing the potential issues before I did and alerting me to his need for support.
Then my husband and I wandered out to the lobby, where we chatted with friends and I napped a bit in an armchair next to him. (I’m a mom to six small children, many with special needs, so I have no shame napping wherever and whenever I can.) As he went to get the kids from classes, I asked if he’d mind doing that on his own so I would enter the worship center for the closing songs. The music in corporate worship feeds my soul more than anything else in big church. I stood in the back and caught the eye of one of my best friends who was in the back row. We hugged and moments later she scooted out of the row she was in with her family and came to stand with me in the back. I was such a simple gesture, but her presence was sweet ministry to my soul.
Sometimes we think inclusion is a place or a single strategy. But that night, inclusion looked like a volunteer who took my child by the hand so I could step away, a pastor who noticed a need and invited me to help with the solution, and a friend who joined me in the back of the church. I think inclusion is a mindset that says, “I love you, and you belong here,” and then does whatever is necessary to put those words into practice.
If you think about it, this inclusion is really a gospel practice. Jesus loved us so much that he sacrificed everything to become man, die painfully, and defeat death so that we could ultimately be welcomed into his family as children of God. As a gospel-driven people, we get the precious opportunity to follow Christ’s example in a small way by sacrificing in much more minor ways so that our friends affected by disability can be welcomed into our church families.
And today, I’m thanking God for the volunteer, the pastor, and the friend who lived out the gospel for our family last weekend.
In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon Dingle is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.
Check out Shannon Dingle’s blog series on adoption, disability and the church. In the series, Shannon looked at the four different kinds of special needs in adoptive and foster families and shared five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families. Shannon’s series is a must-read for any church considering adoption or foster care initiatives. Shannon’s series is available here.