Monday, June 02, 2008

restrain that order!

It didn't make front-page news (at least in our newspaper, but the headline certainly caught Bonnie's and my attention: "Mom cited for taking autistic son to church." A Catholic church in Minnesota has gotten a restraining order to keep a 13-year-old autistic young man from attending Mass.

According to the account in the paper, the church believes the young man, who is already 6 feet tall and weighs more than 225 pounds, is disruptive and his behavior is a threat to other parishioners. The church claims that he has hit a child, knocked over elderly members, spat at people, and urinated in the church. His mother disputes these claims and believes that Adam should be in Mass, and either not barred from the service, nor relegated to watching it on a video feed in the church's basement.

Now to be honest, as one who is both a pastor as well as the parent of a person with developmental disorders and behavior problems such as this young man, I have sympathies for both the church and the family. There were times, when due to Teddy's behavior in worship, that I had to physically remove him, or others had to assist Bonnie in doing so. I know the ways in which such behavior can be frightening and even threatening to those who do not know the person. If you have not lived with a person so damaged, you may not understand the inner turmoils they are experiencing, both as a result of their disabilities, and the result of the medications they are being given. For instance, many of the medications used to help people (like this young man and Teddy) typically cause weight gain and physical growth. So, it is not surprising to read of the size of this young man.

And to be honest, there is no more important place for this young man, or Teddy, of the millions like them to be, than in Mass, in worship, in church, in God's House, in God's Household, in that sanctuary, that refuge, the psalmists talk about. They may not be able to verbalize very well, but they know how profoundly damaged and different they are. But they also know that they need a place where unconditional love, unconditional acceptance, unconditional compassion is offered. Teddy's emotional and intellectual level may be that of a five-year-old (in a 22-year-old's body), but like any five-year-old, he knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that God loves him, and God cares for him, and God accepts him, and he wants to be with this wonderful Person.

But to be honest, like this young man's experience, like Teddy's experience, all too often it is the church that stands in the way of entering this refuge, of finding this Person, of being with the One who loves them beyond question. In the families of the people we know, with children who are autistic, who are Fetal Alcohol, who are mentally ill, who are developmentally delayed, and yet are families of faith (any and every faith), the vast majority of them have encountered barriers at their houses of worship. Some are physical, true; but by and large, the barriers are those of fear, of attitudes, of misunderstanding. None have had such legal obstacles put in their way, but most have had it made clear to them, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that the presence of their child, of their family, in that house of worship is not welcome.

Let's be honest. I am not surprised by the article, but deeply saddened. Because I will bet that this is a congregation that talks (like most) of welcoming all, that talks (like most) of wanting families, that talks (like most) of including everyone in the life of faith. Yet, when inclusion becomes difficult, it is easier to fall back on the old patterns of exclusion. The irony is that this particular church is part of the faith stream that produced Benedict, who believed that we should welcome each person as if they were Christ.

And we certainly wouldn't take out a restraining order against Christ, would we?

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman


Tarheel-terian said...

My daughter has Asperger's Syndrome and is very high functioning yet our family has experienced the many raised eye brows and disapproving looks. Her outspoken and quirky behaviors were cute at age 2 and 3 but are not so cute at age 6. "She ought to know better." I am Presbyterian and kids with autism are not "Frozen" although I believe that they are "Chosen." My daughter has a deep faith and love for God already at her young age. I hope that congregations will become more tolerant and understanding. To be fair there are several church members who love her and appreciate her for who she is.

Eleanor Burne-Jones said...

Thank you for this blog entry. Have put a link over on Evening Beaches. A friend with Aspergers is working hard on creating a booklet on understanding and integrating people on the spectrum in church gatherings, with the objective it should go into every church in her denomination. Somehow we can handle putting a wheelchair ramp in, but we can't address the issue of needing to help one another grow in understanding of something like ASD.

Anonymous said...

Thom - As a parent of a child with 'Special Needs' I am 100% with you on this. Church was never meant to be a place for perfect people but rather human beings with all their variety beauty and sometimes disruptive behaviour but all made in the image of God.

Walk said...

Wow, that is powerful and helpful. I think I will link it on my 'pastor's blog.' I hope my members will read it, and the post after it about the two rooms of a Scot's home.