By Sharon McCart
A few years ago, I was a member of a planning team for a worship service to be led by youth and young adults with autism. This was not going to be a segregated time. It was going to be at the typical Sunday morning worship time, with the members of the congregation present. The leaders we planned to invite were all people we knew or were connected to, either through their parents or their mentors. Many of them had never been to this church before. Still, we felt God’s call that this was something we should do, to break down the stigma around autism within this congregation.
We chose what each young person would do based on their passions and gifts. One young person would sing. Another would read an inspirational paragraph. Each one had a part in leading worship. But who would bring the message?
A boy who had never spoken more than a couple of words at a time and had never spoken to a group did not have an assignment yet. It had been recently discovered that he could use a tablet to write essays and poetry and communicate. His mother told us he had recently written an essay that fit our theme for the service. Perhaps that was our morning’s message? But how could someone who doesn’t speak share the morning message?
The answer was simple. He could have his best friend read it while he stood next to her.
When the morning came, worship was powerful and moving. I was in awe of these young people as they led us in a wonderful time together. And during the message, the emotions ran high. Not because the boy has autism, but because he spoke with courage and strength. His words went straight to our hearts.
That congregation has had several such worship services since, and the young man who preached that morning has attended again, presenting poetry and other writings. His mother has described herself as formerly “church-phobic.” She has found her church home here. The whole family has. Just recently his father asked him on a Sunday morning if he wanted to go to church. He responded aloud, “Let’s go!” He is comfortable at church, often roaming the room, sometimes standing next to the speaker and sometimes in another part of the room. I have no doubt that wherever he is, he is always paying attention. He is accepted just the way he is. He belongs in a way that he probably doesn’t belong in many other places.
Jesus told a story about a man who gave a banquet. All his friends found reasons not to come, but the food was already cooking, so he sent a servant out to find people who were poor and/or had disabilities and bring them in. The servant found a few, but the table was still not filled, so the man sent the servant out to find still more people. The direction was not “Gently ask them if they might like to come.” It was “COMPEL them to come in and sit at my table!”
There is still room at the table today, and yet too often the door is too narrow for people in power chairs to come in. Too often there are stairs to the chancel, so people who cannot climb stairs cannot lead worship. Too often there is an unspoken, unwritten rule that people must fit within a certain expectation of ability before being accepted in our congregations. Membership vows sometimes require an understanding of difficult terms and too many times the curriculum for confirmation and membership class is not accessible to people who have difficulty reading and writing. We are failing to compel people with disabilities to come to God’s banquet. In fact, we are too often not allowing them to come in when they arrive!
So, what does adding the word “ability” to Article 4, Paragraph 4 mean to me? It means that everyone can be accepted at church. It means that everyone can belong and everyone can fully participate, offering their passions and their gifts to God and to the congregation. It means that all of us can answer our calls from God, whether to lay or ordained ministry, no matter what that ministry might look like. God calls all of us to serve and gives each one of us gifts to use in service, no exceptions and without mistakes. This amendment affirms that each one of us, regardless of ability, is God’s beloved, and each one of us is needed to make God’s Realm complete.
Born and raised in California, daughter, and granddaughter of Methodist ministers, I was the second of five siblings. I have been married to Dale for forty years, and we used to provide special music in worship. He has put me through school over and over again.
I began with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry (1978) and then worked in the industry for ten years. I hold multiple subject (elementary) (1994) and special education (1998) teaching credentials and have taught children with moderate-severe and profound disabilities for ten years.
When God called me into full-time ministry, it was hard for me to leave the children I love so much, but God gave me a dream that would meld my heart for God with my love for people with disabilities. Thus, I returned to the other side of the classroom at Claremont School of Theology, graduating with an M.Div in 2007. Now I am in full-time ministry and pursuing my call to minister with people with disabilities and serve people of all kinds in as many places and ways as God leads me. When I left teaching, I knew that I was not finished learning from children with disabilities. That vision is still expanding. My true calling is just beginning to show itself!