AUSTIN, TEXAS — After a few months in the special-needs ministry at the Brentwood Oaks church, Alex Busch-Petersen started picking where he wanted to sit during worship service.
The autistic 15-year-old always chose seats near the front of the auditorium. When his mother asked him why, Alex, who communicates by pointing to letters on a page, spelled out, “Church baptism.”
Later minister Roger McCown asked Alex, “Why do you want to be baptized?”
Alex spelled, “F-O-R-G-I-V-E.”
“Why do you need forgiveness?”
“You know that God loves you and that Christ died for you, right?”
“What do we do now?”
“You want us to pray now?”
“’Yes’ — he actually verbalized ‘yes’ this time,” McCown said. “He bowed his head, reached for my hand, and I was barely able to speak the prayer.”
Alex is one of about 9.4 million children — about 13 percent of all children — in the United States with special needs, including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and a broad range of disorders called autism, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Few churches provide services for such children. Some churches even ask parents to keep them away from Bible classes because they’re “too disruptive,” McCown said.
“I don’t think we realize how many people are sitting in our auditoriums with a grandchild, a nephew, a child with no place to go,” said Amy Bruce, a coordinator of Brentwood Oaks’ ministry and mother of a 9-year-old autistic child, Jackson.
Jackie Boyd, who oversees the church’s children’s ministry, said the special-needs program has been better for the congregation than the kids.
“They’re really incredible children,” she said, but many churches are afraid to serve them.
TO SERVE A CHILD — OR HUNDREDS
When Teresa Thomas’ son, Josiah, was little, “you could tell what kind of week he was having by the bruises on my arms — and sometimes my face,” she said.
Diagnosed with severe autism, Josiah was 4 when his family moved to Montgomery, Ala., where his father was hired as youth minister for the Carriage Hills church.
Keeping their son under control for two hours each Sunday was a daunting task, but church members responded by creating an entire ministry for Josiah, dubbed “Josiah’s Buddies.”
“As soon as we walked in the door on Sunday or Wednesday, someone was waiting to take charge of Josiah,” his mother said. The “buddies” would take him to class or, if he couldn’t stay in class, walk him around the church grounds.
“It was amazing for me to finally be able to worship again,” Teresa Thomas said. “My soul had been parched.”
Brad Thompson, young families minister for the Southwest church in Amarillo, Texas, and his wife, Karen, launched The Hali Project in 1999. Named after their daughter, diagnosed at age 5 with mental retardation and later with epilepsy and mild cerebral palsy, the ministry has trained hundreds of families and service providers in 25 Texas school districts to assist students with special needs.
In 2003 the ministry launched Zacchaeus’ Place, a Wednesday night Bible study for teens and adults with special needs.
Before the family came to the Southwest church, Hali would beg her parents to not make her go to Sunday school, where she felt intimidated, her mother said. About 20 people with special needs attend the class, discussing topics relevant to their struggles, Brad Thompson said.
Karen Morris, a special education teacher and member of the Brentwood Hills church in Nashville, Tenn., helped launch a special-needs ministry in the late 1990s. A friend had discovered that a church member was taking his child to McDonald’s during the Bible class hour because the child couldn’t sit through the lesson.
The church serves about five children and tailors its program to their individual goals, based on conversations with their parents, Morris said. All the children have a “buddy” who accompanies them to class and helps them join in activities.
“The most inspiring turn of events happened when almost 20 students volunteered to serve on a buddy rotation for Christy, a special-needs peer who is deaf and has multiple disabilities,” Morris said.
SEEING A BROTHER IN CHRIST
At Brentwood Oaks, Alex shifts in his seat, cranes his head toward the walls and taps his mouth with his fingers. He doesn’t seem interested in the Bible lesson going on around him.
His friends know better. They watched him confess Jesus as his savior and submit himself to God. Alex said he was nervous about being baptized, but his mother, Gae Lyn, said she’d never seen her son so calm.
“There’s no doubt about it. He’s accepted Christ as his savior,” said Frank Hill, a volunteer in the special-needs program.
Alex’s 17-year-old sister, Kristina, said she’s always known that he understands his world on a deeper level than most people think. The other teens are beginning to see it, too. They whisper excitedly when Alex makes a prayer request in class, always for someone other than himself.
“I guess I take it for granted sometimes — how smart he really is,” Kristina said.
August 1, 2006