It was his shoes that first caught my eye. They were the light-up-when-you-walk kind of shoes and they looked very similar to a pair of shoes that my own little boy has. Except, this little boy’s shoes weren’t lighting up. Both of his feet were fixed in a special kind of stroller and I quickly noted the braces coming up from his shoes and wrapping around his little legs. He was sort of laid back in his special chair and his momma was very busy about making sure he was positioned correctly and that he was comfortable.
I noticed how she very rarely looked up to make eye contact with the many people staring at her son. Instead, she just busied herself with him, though he seemed pretty content and comfortable. I felt a tug at my heart. I knew this scenario all too well. I wasn’t sure exactly what their story was, but I know what it is like to have a child with a disability and to have strangers stare and make comments.
The announcement was made for all pre-boarding passengers to begin boarding the plane. This momma very carefully moved forward with her son in tow, and the rest of us pre-boarding passengers followed behind.
I had prayed very specific prayers for my trip. If I was going to be traveling and giving up time with my precious family, then I wanted to be sure to make every moment count and for nothing to be wasted. I had prayed specifically for whoever I might sit beside on the plane…not just because they had to sit beside me, but I prayed that there would be purpose in our meeting. I had prayed that I would sit beside others who I could learn something from or maybe others that I could pour into, encourage, or pray for. Nothing wasted.
As I boarded the plane, I saw this mom and her son situated in their seats. I knew. I just knew that I was supposed to sit next to them. I took my seat on the aisle and almost simultaneously, the momma shifted in her seat so as to block me from her son who was propped up next to the window. Protection: I recognized this gesture very well.
I wanted so badly to put her at ease. I wanted so badly to let her know that I was no stranger to this. I was so excited, literally bubbling over because all I could think was “Thank you Lord! Nothing wasted!” At the same time, I knew I couldn’t push. I knew I needed to give it some time. I knew that if I came out with “I am so excited to sit with you! Don’t you worry! I have a special needs child too! Did you know that I asked God for the opportunity to sit with you?! Nothing wasted!” …well, she would just think I was plumb crazy. So I waited.
About ten minutes into the flight the little boy began to whimper ever so slightly. His momma struggled to get his bag from the overhead compartment to get him a snack out. About this time, our stewardess whirled by and fussed at her harshly because passengers were not to be out of their seats. The momma began to explain that her son had just had spinal surgery, they were headed home, and he needed something to eat. The stewardess shrugged and walked off in a huff. Frazzled. This momma became frazzled and understandably so. She fumbled with the snack trying to calm her son and get him something to eat…but she just didn’t have enough hands to do it all.
“Can I help?” I asked. The momma politely said “no” but when the snack began falling on the floor and the little boy kept sliding down in his seat, she handed me his cup. Her eyes were misting as she said “some people are not very understanding.” “No, they’re not. I’m so sorry,” I replied.
Finally, we began to talk. I learned that the little boy’s name was Peter. He was four years old, just like my little boy. Peter has a disease that is quickly causing his body to deteriorate.
I was also able to share with this momma about my two children and about the fact that my son, Ezra, has Autism. I literally watched this women transform from protective to relieved as we shared some common ground with one another.
We talked therapy, disability insurance, schools, and surgeries. (This is what we special needs parents do.) We talked every-day life, what it is like for the siblings of a special needs child, and we even talked about our dream vacation destinations. My new friend had let down her guard. She was warm and easy to talk to. She was very real and it was refreshing to visit with someone who understood “life” as we know it.
Then, I asked a question. I knew this question might shake things up a bit to ask, but I was willing to try. “Does your family go to church anywhere?” I asked. I instantly watched the warmth be sucked right out of this momma and sadness was left in its place. “Our family isn’t welcome at any of the churches we’ve been to,” she said in a quivering voice. She went on to explain that many churches in their small community aren’t even wheelchair accessible, which immediately rules them out as options for her son to be able to attend church with his family. She continued explaining that the other churches their family of four had attempted to visit, met Peter with sharp glances, stressed out nursery workers, and even declarations of “we just can’t help your son here.” As this precious momma shared, I could watch a bitterness rise up in her; understandably so.
I wanted her story to not be true. But I knew better. As she shared about one bad experience after another of all their family’s attempts to find a church that would accept them and their special needs child, memories of my own family’s experience visiting churches flashed through my mind.
I remember the dirty looks and stares. I remember the inconvenienced attitude of the nursery workers. I remember the panicked look on one of the volunteers face when she saw my child struggling into church one Sunday morning and she worriedly declared “Oh, Ezra’s here.” And I even remember the church-going man who was sure to let my husband know that he believes our son’s Autism is a result of sin in our (Ezra’s parents) life. No, many churches are not kind or welcoming to families like ours. I know this to be a very harsh and true reality.
Peter’s momma went on to explain that, although they very much would like to go to church, when they are having to fight for Peter to get a good education, fight for the doctors to give him the attention he needs, and fight for the insurance companies to cover all of his surgeries, the desire to fight for a church to welcome him had been long since lost.
Fighting is a way of life for special needs parents. How sad that (many times) we must fight for a place for our children in God’s house. The fact of the matter is, not too many parents of special needs children have enough fight left in them to try to find a church that might welcome the needs of their precious family.
Peter’s momma and I visited more. I was able to pray for Peter’s little body to heal and for his family. His momma prayed for me as well. It was a sweet time. I was so thankful to have met Peter and Peter’s momma. I hope that in some way she felt encouraged and not so alone on our big plane. I know I did. Thank you, Lord. Nothing wasted. When our plane touched down, we went our separate ways. Peter was ready to be home where his daddy and little sister were waiting for him.
As I waited in the airport for my connecting flight, I thought about my visit with Peter’s momma. I thought about the sad fall in her countenance at the mere mention of church. It wasn’t that she had had a look of anger or hate, but rather a look of defeat. This should not be.
Church, we have an opportunity. Not a little opportunity, but a huge opportunity that beats in step with the very heart of God. We have an opportunity to welcome those who are often times cast aside by society. We have an opportunity to love those who are not always shown love by the rest of the world. We have an opportunity to take the fight out of life for just a moment, for those who must fight every single day of their life.
It all boils down to this: What kind of church are you? Are you a church that has fallen into the belief that everything must look pristine, rehearsed, and without flaw? Do you only welcome those who might bring something to the table? Are you more excited about a doctor joining your attendance than a person from the homeless shelter or maybe someone in a wheelchair? May I challenge you that church was never meant to be this way?
God’s love is all encompassing. He loves all of His children regardless of ability, disability, social status, or size of our wallets. He welcomes all of His children with open arms. Oh Church, that we would imitate the heart of Christ! Oh, that we would desire to do real-life with one another. When we do real-life, things get messy. So, I pray for messy churches. I pray for churches that are willing to get into the trenches of life with the children of God. All of His children.
Our family is so thankful to have found a church that welcomes us and our son with open arms. Such churches do exist. Our church doesn’t have the latest and greatest equipment for special needs; it has a lot of opportunities for growth in this area. What it does have is a heart and developing awareness for special needs children. For a family like mine, this means the world to us.
Somewhere out there is a little boy named Peter. Peter’s body is frail and his family has a lot on their plates. This family has a need. They have a need to be loved and accepted. They have a need to not be so very alone. There are countless others who may look different, act different, smell different, or even dress different, but they all have one thing in common: Their Creator, God the Father, loves them. He believes they have great value. He created them exactly the way they are for a purpose.
We have an opportunity, Church, to try our hardest to create a place of refuge for ALL to learn about the great love of our Heavenly Father. We have an opportunity, Church, to love deeply and to be the Bride of Christ we are called to be. We have an opportunity, Church, to leave nothing wasted. Nothing Wasted.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”