Today is the start of a new year. We often enter this day with hope and anticipation for what might happen over the next 365 days. A new year is an opportunity to hit the reset button and to consider where God is leading us and what God desires of us in this life.
It is also a time we set resolutions and promises that we intend to accomplish in the coming year. We’ll talk about losing weight (purpose a reaction to how many cookies we ate over Christmas). We’ll promise ourselves we want to travel more. We may even say we want to be kinder to others.
I don’t want to write about resolutions but instead desires. I believe desires, when expressed, respond to felt and unmet needs that have gone unmet. Our desires reflect where we need to see God at work through our mission and ministry. As an advocate for individuals and families with invisible disabilities, my desires reflect what we yearn to see in the church to reach full inclusion.
So, as we look ahead to this new year, what desires do I have for the church in 2023?
I desire the church will listen to individuals and families with autism and their experiences in the church. I believe these conversations are needed, as they will help the church to hear the pain and struggles of those who desire to be in the church but often feel excluded. It will help the church to understand how some well-intended language can be offensive toward individuals and families. Conversation leads to understanding, which can build collaborative missions and ministries that seek full inclusion.
I desire the church will recognize how ableism is a problem and can harm relationships. Ableism can manifest itself in many ways, but it often is expressed through the assumption that those with disabilities and their families and caregivers cannot do things like others. It looks down upon those with disabilities and caregivers with the belief that their lives are too challenging. It also seeks to do for others or assumes what others may need instead of engaging in relationships and conversations. Those who exhibit ableist tendencies believe they are being helpful but are truly being dismissive and offensive. To end ableism in the church, we need to recognize that it exists and how harmful it can be for individuals and families.
I desire that the church will provide care for families. Care for my family is something I do not often experience in the church. The church responds out of fear toward families like mine. That fear comes out in distance and hesitation in building connections and relationships, which excludes families like mine from the church. The church is a loving force for care and a witness of Christ. I desire the church will express that more to families who struggle with providing access, care, and provisions for their children and adults with invisible disabilities. The church can do this by asking, as Jesus asked in his earthly ministry, “What can I do for you?”
I desire that the church will invest in providing sensory toys in worship. Sometimes I hear from churches and individuals that it is too expensive to make the church fully inclusive for individuals with autism. While this attitude puts money before mission, it misses the small tools that are available that can provide a start towards building a more inclusive church. Churches can provide a bag with noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, and other items that help a sensory-seeking individual feel more relaxed in worship. Most of these items are not expensive. It is a matter of the church making an effort to provide these tools.
I desire that the church will not wait until a need arises to build an inclusive church. The other day I had a conversation with someone within the autism community who talked about creating an inclusive ministry in their church “when the time comes.” I talked about how this misses an opportunity, and we need to build now in anticipation of what will come. Hospitality is about providing space for the stranger and guest in our midst as we await their arrival. This means responding to their needs and getting our sanctuaries ready for their arrival. The church should not wait for those with autism and their families to come before seeking to build an inclusive church. I desire for the church to work towards that desire now.