Archive for the ‘the church’ Tag

Suffer The Little Children: Part IV in my Autism series, Updated   Leave a comment

So today I’m writing about experiences that people on the autism spectrum have had at churches around the United States.  Some people were children, one an adult when I talked with them about what it was like to attend church or youth group.

There was a general sense that other people just didn’t know how to interact, so sometimes families with people with ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) were just left alone, and did not have any overtly negative experiences.  One respondent told me that her son had a very positive experience at the church they were currently attending.  People were accepting of differences, and the congregation was friendly.  At this church, the pastor had a grandchild on the spectrum, which she said made him more understanding and inclusive.  At two other mega-churches they attended before the family found this small Southern Baptist church, their son was directed to the special needs department, which he did not need as a high functioning individual.  This lack of understanding of his actual situation seemed patronizing to him and he would not go back to that church.

Another mother, Shelly, met personally with people in leadership roles in three different churches to explain her child’s situation.  Her older teen-aged son is a talented musician who wanted to get involved by playing in the worship team.  They agreed to include him in the band.  However, when some difficulties arose in getting all the musicians in sync, instead of spending the additional time it might have taken to help him get up to speed with the band, the leader decided this young man on the spectrum was too much trouble, and he was asked to leave.  Shelly also found out later that the pastor had said unkind things about her son during a church leader’s meeting.

In a different situation, as she moved up from the middle school group, Kimberly’s daughter Julie found the high school scene to be focused on socializing and the teens who were leading the worship music.  The environment was supportive of the musical talent of these kids, leading them to rise to the top in what quickly became a popularity contest, and girls and guys who had previously been Julie’s friends in the middle school group began to ignore her.

When Kimberly met with the youth group leader to explain about Asperger’s, he wanted to assign another girl to be her friend, but Kimberly said Julie would see right through that.  She suggested instead that he create more structure for the group meetings, as she knew there were other introverted teens who were having a hard time with the long periods of unsupervised small talk and general chaos.  His response was that the majority liked the arrangement as it was, and as the group was growing quickly, Julie would just have to get used to the way things were.  Due to all the factors that were making youth group overwhelming for Julie, Kimberly decided to let her stop attending.  Then she was criticized by other parents in the church for not requiring her daughter to attend.  The family eventually left this church for one that was much smaller, where they are happy.

Most of these situations while hurtful, were not overtly dangerous.  Unfortunately, having autism apparently does put you in literal danger.  Marie left her three-year-old in the church nursery.  He was found walking along the road outside the church by people who happened by and brought him back in.  The reason?  The male nursery worker let him leave the room because he had “had enough.”  I’m not sure what behaviors a three-year-old could exhibit that would justify “releasing him into the wild” to fend for himself.

Marie also had a younger son knocked down and kicked in the head during another church’s children’s program.  No adults intervened, and when she let the leadership know, they didn’t take any action.  In both of these cases, nobody was concerned, let alone apologetic.  I’d like to provided more commentary, but on this one, I’m speechless.

The church seems to have a hard time with anybody being different.  I think this problem extends far beyond the world of ASDs.  No room is left for people to be different and for people to be loved as they are.  If you don’t raise your hands occasionally during the songs, get into the music and smile at everyone, and if you aren’t comfortable holding hands during group prayer, you are criticized as being un-Christian.  Yes, a pastor actually told the congregation from the pulpit that if you did not join hands with others, you were un-Christian.  There’s a very small grain of truth to that–but it doesn’t take into account other realities.  It dismisses the challenges those with ASDs face every day.

If a person has extreme social anxiety or a physical condition which would prevent her from holding hands during a group prayer time, this would probably be understood.  The same consideration should always be extended to any person who is worshiping in a congregation.  Consider that for people on the spectrum, sensory input or a change in routine can be overwhelming, and these challenges can be something as simple as your talking to her while she is worshiping, or asking her to move out of her accustomed spot.  These are concerns that neurotypical people often are not aware of.  But now you know–large group gatherings can be a literal minefield for other minds.

Your feelings may get hurt by what you think is odd behavior, but the focus should be honoring the needs and feelings of the other person.  Your ideas about what is socially acceptable behavior may be upset, but what is important is that members of the body of faith experience the grace and peace the church exists to share.

Love the person as he is and where he is.  Continue to acknowledge the person even when you don’t seem to be getting a response; smile when you see him; ask how he is.  Over time, your consistent love and kindness will be rewarded.  There are many valid reasons why a person may not be either able or willing to do exactly as the majority of the church body is doing during worship.  These reasons should not keep a person from being loved, valued and included.

 

 

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Posted April 18, 2018 by swanatbagend in autism, the church

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Open Letter to Sojourn Community Church — Guest Blogger   1 comment

Today, I am publishing an open letter by an anonymous blogger about his experience in a church as part of my current series on life with autism.

 

Almost two years ago now, I stood up and walked out of the sanctuary of Sojourn’s J-Town campus. I never came back. Indeed, I never set foot in Sojourn Community Church (as it calls itself) again. I swore that I would not, and I have kept that oath to the letter.

As I said, it’s been two years, and many things have changed in that time—just as many things have also remained the same. One of those things: I am still angry. Not so angry as I could be, but furious nonetheless—furious at Sojourn for all that it did and did not do—and this fury shows no signs of dissipating.

Holding anger within for two years is unhealthy, to make a bit of an understatement. It is time to set it free, and hope that by doing so it will cause no further damage, either to myself or to others. It is time that Sojourn knows how it hurt me, and what it must do to improve.

I came to Sojourn from a church that had, since my arrival, made a custom of ignoring me. It was easy, of course, for this to occur: I am an introvert, and introverts excel at metamorphosing into inanimate fixtures of their environment, no more deserving of interaction than a piece of furniture. I assumed that this was my natural fate within the church—I was not outgoing nor stimulating in conversation, so why should anyone reach out to me? I contributed nothing; why should I receive anything? A disappointing state of affairs, but a wholly just one.

In the end, my family departed that church, for it also made a custom of ignoring even those who contributed most to its enfeebled existence. And, due to doctrinal particulars that I need not detail, we wound up at Sojourn.

Sojourn was an entirely different place. For one thing, it was big, and growing even bigger. It surrounded itself with artistic talent and endeavor, from an unimpeachable worship band to bulletins prefaced with artworks relevant to the sermon series. The sermons were never anything less than eloquent.

However, the people who comprise Sojourn seemed to be the most significant difference; they were young and hip—the youngest and hippest that a church can scrounge up these days. More importantly, they were enthusiastic for all that Sojourn Community Church stood for: the Gospel, Jesus, and most of all, Community. If you have attended Sojourn for any length of time, you will have noticed that it emphasizes Community a great deal; there is never a Sunday where the phrase “we are a Community!” is not emitted by some grinning individual at a microphone.

You will also have become aware of the primary vehicle by which Community is expressed: namely, the community group. Having become members, my family immediately involved itself in one—and I was there every step of the way. I had discovered that passivity would not work: in order to be anything more than a tumor on the Body of Christ, to truly belong, one must contribute.

In the beginning, I tried my best—and for a time, it seemed to work. My input in sermon discussions was valued (or so it was claimed). Individuals inquired after my well-being (a strange thing indeed). When I underwent neurological surgery, there were people with whom I had no genetic kinship in the waiting room, actively praying for my recovery.

But it did not last. I do not know when the laborious process of constructing relationships with those who comprised our community group ceased, but cease it did: it was as if I had hit some barrier that could not be surmounted by any amount of effort. I reached out, but my reaching was no longer reciprocated. Invitations were refused, excuses made. I stopped attending community group; no one noted my absence. (I did not merely assume this—my parents confirmed it.)

While taking an intensely difficult class in mathematics over the summer, a fairly prominent individual within Sojourn offered to tutor me. Desperate to the point of wishing that I were dead, I accepted. Yet this individual would never respond to my emails requesting assistance in time for us to actually meet. In the end, he stopped responding to my emails at all.

Again—and not for the last time—I was a non-entity. I had less worth than the installations that Sojourn produces in an attempt to validate itself through artistic expression: at least people would sometimes stop and look at those things.

Having been completely abandoned, I left. I fled this shell of a church that would not extend its much-vaunted “community” to the likes of me. In the end, I had lost the capacity to trust, and gained…nothing. Nothing, except bitterness.

Perhaps I simply did not try hard enough. Perhaps I got what I deserved. Perhaps there is no need for me to be angry: there are far worse things that Sojourn could have done to me. But being ignored, and then persistently informed that the church is overjoyed to involve me (“We’d love to meet you”), is cruel.

There is a reason for the regrettable events I have described: I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes me about as capable of developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships as a turnip. However, I am not stupid enough to fail in recognizing fraud. “Community” does not exist within Sojourn Community Church, except as a buzzword. Seek it here, and you will fail; knock, and the door will be opened, then slammed shut.

“All are welcome”, states the page describing community groups on Sojourn’s website. I find that I must disagree, Sojourn. Some are welcome: not the lonely, the broken, nor the hopeless. Certainly not those on the autism spectrum.

So, what can you, my reader, do to rectify this situation? Firstly, mean what you say. Do not feign friendliness. Align your actions with the gospel of grace that you aver. In a world of hypocrites, you have been part of the problem and not the solution.

Secondly, take note of the introverts around you: the person who never speaks up in community group, the skinny young man who wanders around the narthex after Communion. Don’t simply introduce yourself: try to involve yourself in our lives. Invite us out for lunch. Nine times out of ten, we will refuse; but there is always a chance that we might be willing to take a risk and accept your attempts to show concern for us.

I should note that this is not, per se, a call for the church to do better in its ministry towards those diagnosed with Asperger’s, or even those on the autism spectrum in general; although I know firsthand that Sojourn is for all intents and purposes oblivious to us, and that this must change, I do not wish those on the autism spectrum to become the targets of some new initiative in outreach—grist for the mills of pamphlets and books describing five-point plans for “welcoming those with ASD”, complete with mnemonic acronyms. The church in the United States excels at this, but I want none of it. I do not want special treatment. I merely want to be treated as a human being.

I know that introversion is an unacceptable character trait in today’s culture. But we have the image of God imprinted on us, too. It would behoove those who call themselves “Christian” to treat us in the manner to which they were called.

Posted May 25, 2016 by swanatbagend in autism, the church

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