Friday, July 30, 2010

The Church, Autism and a place of Welcome

When I was a kid , I spent several years on the junior usher board at church. Of course, back in the 70s, neither I nor my parents knew I was autistic, but they knew things were a bit off with me.

Anyway, being an usher in the African American church is an artform. You wear certain uniforms and there were certain hand signals that you would use to indicate a certain need. When the time came for prayer, you were supposed to cross your arms over your chest and bow your head. I can remember the feeling of cocooning myself into this little ball and it felt good. Once I was in that position, I would start twisting or rocking my torso, to the left and then to right. Back and forth, back and forth. It felt good to me, but it must have looked damn weird to the people in the pews. I can distinctly remember one day being in my happy place and rocking back and forth until a pair of hands touched my shoulders indicating that it was time to stop.

Looking back 30 years later, that was a vivid example of kid with autism in the church. I don't know if what the person did was correct or not, but I do wonder if people were disturbed at what I was doing.

Now that I am a pastor and someone with autism, I have started to wonder how those with autism are treated in the church. In talking with a good friend who has two children on the spectrum, I have found out that churches have a long way to go in welcoming people and families where one or more persons are on the spectrum.

I stumbled upon this blog post by a special-ed teacher in Georgia, who shares the struggles he and his wife have faced when it comes to the church accomodating his son who is autistic:
One would think that the safest place in the world for children with disabilities would be in houses of worship, among people dedicated to God, love, mercy, grace, compassion, faith, and forgiveness. But this is not true at all. The worship service itself, with constant demands for compliance and conformity, is hostile for those who are inherently different from everyone else. Anyone who is unable to conform to the structures of the service is not welcome and asked to leave. The larger the church, the more true this will be.

I may editorialize more on my feelings toward church and those with disabilities later, but I want to talk a bit about how churches attempt to deal with this unique and growing population. In this particular church spoken about above, they attempted to recruit helpers in order to help Thomas participate in the same activities as his peers. I think the intent of the program was excellent, and it started out well enough. But without diligence by a committed coordinator, it becomes just another chore to dread like ushering, parking lot duty, being a greeter or assorted other mundane tasks and ministries in the church. Yes, we are the boy’s parents and he is our responsibility which we take seriously. But no one was caring much about our own spiritual growth or struggles. Staying home is a more Holy, peaceful and rejuvenating experience for many families that have children with disabilities. Church is often a hostile, hellish experience where families are segregated or ostracized. I don’t think Jesus would approve.


The thing is, a lot of this rings true. There are many churches where the worship service is meant to be a time of silence and decorum. God help you if a kid gets cranky. But it's one thing if grown people are talking out of turn; it's another if a kid with autism is having a meltdown.

Churches have to be more aware and willing to find ways to welcome special needs persons. Of course, being a pastor I also know that isn't so easy to do, especially when it comes autism. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. But no one ever said being church was easy.

When it comes to this family, I wonder what would have happened had the pastor worked with family and other leaders to make church a more welcome place, not only for the kid, but for the parents. It is interesting that in all of this, it seems that the Senior Pastor was absent.

Raising a kid with autism can be challenging for parents. They love their kids and will do what it takes to make sure they are well-cared for. But it can also be draining for them as well and it seems like in this case, no one seemed to care about the spiritual and emotional health of Thomas' parents.

Maybe the problem here is that church is so formal. We treat it like we are watching the symphony. We want to hear the music and the choir, but we don't want to hear babies crying; that just ruins everything.

I'm not saying that church needs to be a rock concert, but what it we allowed a bit more informality?

I don't know what I can do to make church more welcoming to my fellow aspies, but I will try. I want church to be a place where freaks are welcomed.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Church as Wikipedia

Landon Whisitt is the Vice-Moderator for the Presbyterian Church (USA). He's a 34-year-old pastor from Liberty, MO and in what is common among pastors under the age of say, 45 is totally connected into social media. In a recent blog post, he says that churches have to start being like Wikipedia:

Regardless of the words we’d use, what does that idea mean – “open source church”? Whenever I try to explain “open source church” to someone I find it helpful to compare it to Wikipedia – the most successful open source organization that you have probably heard about. What would “church” look like if it were “wiki-church”?

First, it would mean that we’re clear about what and who we are and what and who we’re not. Wikipedia is very clear that it’s an encyclopedia, nothing more. We have to ask what a “church” is and be that and nothing more.

Second, we welcome everyone. Wikipedia prides itself on its “neutral point of view” which often means you have to represent several points of view. An “open source church” is not a monolithic one, does not pretend to be, nor desires to be one.

Third, anyone can participate. Wikipedia is not an exclusive club. Anyone can edit the encyclopedia, and they should expect that someone else will edit their contributions as well. An “open source church” doesn’t have a lot of hurdles one must jump in order to participate. there are not a lot of “unwritten rules” in an open source church. How about yours?

Fourth, when you disagree, be nice. Wikipedia has an established set of guidelines for dealing with disputes and people are expected to be nice and play fair. If a church can’t behave itself in disagreement then we’re not really a church are we?

Fifth, remember that there are no firm rules. Wikipedians are encouraged to remember that nothing is permanent and should, therefore, not be treated as such. Wikipedia is good because Wikipedians are willing to take risks sometimes – they break rules if it is for the benefit of the overall mission. If a church would commit itself to breaking free from long held traditions imagine the things it could do and be.

Being an “open source church” is not so much about content but attitude.

Whisitt is talking about this from the context of the Presbyterian Church, but it applies to a lot of churches, especially in my own denomination.

Any thoughts?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Motivating change

I found this blog post by Anthony B. Robinson rather profound, since I am working with a congregation in the midst of transition. Thanks to Michael Kruse for sharing it.

Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog | Faith & Leadership | Anthony B. Robinson: Motivating change

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gay Marriage: Step by Step

For about ten days, I was immersed in everything Presbyterian.

Since I work on staff for the local presbytery, I spent the last week and a half working at the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which was held here in Minneapolis.  It was a good time, but I was worn out at the end of it all.

Of course,  number of the issues the commissioners were called to decide revolved around sexuality.  On Thursday afternoon the General Assembly voted to allow for the ordination of gay and lesbian persons. While that might sound like a great step forward, that was only part one of the process.  In Presbyterian polity, this change to the Book of Order has to be approved by a majority of presbyteries.  Related changes that allowed for gay, non-celibate clergy has passed before only to be defeated at the presbytery level.

The next issue that happened to be dealt with on the same day, was a change in the definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two persons."  The result there was rather odd: the General Assembly decided to continue talking about the issue and decided to not debate the issue.  A number of people who supported the change were stunned by the results.  Maybe it was because the discussion took place so late in the day.  Maybe people could only handle one revolutionary change at a time.  Whatever happened, there was no vote to change the definition of marriage.

Many of those who support same sex marriage were quite upset at General Assembly and there was some justification.  Soulforce was present the next day, protesting the decision to not decide.

As someone who is gay and supports same sex marriage, I was disappointed.  And yet, I'm not willing to criticize the commissioners and could even at some level understand the hesitation.

I think for those of us who see being gay as a non-issue and same-sex marriage as no big deal, it's very easy to think that everyone should just get over their hangups concerning homosexuality.  We forget that for other people, this is still an issue that they are dealing with and trying to come to terms with. I think many of us who are pro-gay forget that changing the definition of marriage is a big deal for many people.  This is what I wrote over at my political blog, NeoMugwump late last year:

I think one thing that those of us who support same sex marriage have to admit is that asking that straight America get used to two people of the same sex getting married is a radical shift in how we think about marriage and love. Yeah, I know, getting married is not radical, it's as normal as two hetros getting married. But the fact is, that the thought of two people of the same sex getting married is still something that a lot of Americans can't get their heads around. It's not that they are all closet bigots. They can understand and accept gays in society. They can understand that gay people fall in love. But when we start talking about marriage, it starts to get confusing for them. Think about it for a moment. When the average Joe thinks about marriage, they think about bridal gowns and bachelor parties. But all of this is lost on most of us that support gay marriage.

It's easy to see those who voted to in effect, table the measure as nothing more than bigots, acting on their internalized (or not so internalized) homophobia. For supporters this was about justice. For a number on the floor, this was about trying to make the leap from one definition of marriage to another. As much as we might think the leap is inconsequential, for someone trying to come to wrap their minds around this issue, that leap is a mile wide.

The march towards inclusion of GLBT folks in the church is not something that is revolutionary as much as it is evolutionary. Most people are starting to accept gay people as every day folks because they encounter them everywhere these days. However, it is harder to accept a gay person in your pulpit (believe me, I know) or see them getting married to each other. Why? I don't know, but I tend to think that it's because they haven't seen that as much.

On the whole, American society has become more tolerant and accepting of gays and lesbians. Over time, Americans are become more willing to see gays serve openly in the military and are slowly accepting same sex marriage rights. The thing is, these things have come slowly, not rapidly.

In time, I think churches and churchgoers will come around on same sex marriage as they see more gay couples in their lives and get to hear the struggles they face. But all this takes time. Which is why I think it will be a while for the Presbyterians as well as other denominations to wholeheartedly embrace same sex marriage. It takes time for people to make the leap of logic.

Those of us who support same sex marriage should still press the case, but we have to remember that the average joe in the pews is still coming to terms with all of this. The best thing we can do is to keep working for inclusion and for those of us who are gay, to model what it means to be in a loving relationship with someone of the same sex.

And keep loving our sisters and brothers who who are trying to deal with all of this. They will get there- in time.