“When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 14:15 NIV)
I nudge my son and whisper, “What do you think?” He looks around at the wooden pews, the stained glass windows, and the wooden cross up at the altar.
“I like it,” he says. “It’s calm here. I can think.”
I give a sigh of relief. God had led me to a church where my needs as a recent widow and my son’s needs as an adult on the autism spectrum could be met. Here there are no flashing screens with neon letters, no loud bands on the stage, none of the sensory explosions that trigger Allen’s meltdowns.
Here we can worship.
It is a sorrow to me to realize that in the Jewish customs of the Bible days, Allen would have been excluded from the Temple. The poor, the sick, the maimed, the disabled–including those with neurodiversity–would not be welcome. In “Disabilities in the Bible ”, (Bible Odyssey, 2022), Henning explains the standard of “bodily normativity” and its relationship to religion. The blind and the lame could not enter the Temple (Samuel 5:8) and a woman without children was considered “barren” and likewise excluded (Deuteronomy 23:1). Even King David’s desire to honor the family of King Saul could not under the law give a royal title to Mephibosheth, who was crippled in his feet (2 Samuel 9:3).
As an adult on the autism spectrum, Allen does not easily connect with things he cannot see or feel. While he and his siblings were raised to go to church and Sunday School, Allen attended more out of parental expectation than belief. According to a 2018 study done at Boston University, individuals on the spectrum were 20% less likely to identify with a church or religion. The reasons cited are not just a lack of intellectual understanding of the concept of God, but the social demands of church. Often, religious environments do not accommodate the sensory and learning needs of children and adults with diverse needs. Allen has, in fact, been known to walk out of a service if the sensory overload becomes too much.
In his book, Disability and the Church, Pastor Lamar Hardwick, an adult on the autism spectrum, speaks about the minority community of the disabled, a group anyone can join if they are differently-abled in any way. It is the way the church should seek to greet everyone, says Hardwick, being observant and considerate to those with diverse needs. Some people, Hardwick states, do not need fanfare to welcome them to the church; they just need quiet acceptance.
That’s exactly what my son found on his first visit to the Church of the Atonement in Claymont. Those who offered to shake his hand did not look askance when he simply said “Hello” or nodded, disliking physical touch. No one commented that his hair was uncombed or that he was wearing his favorite sweatpants. No one ever has. And in that quiet acceptance, Allen has been able to grow both socially and spiritually. He serves as a greeter at services, does clean-up on the hospitality committee, and has joined the Young Adult Group. He’s even started returning handshakes.
We’ve been at Atonement a little more than a year now. Allen and I have both found a home here. He has now included Pastor Amy as one of the few people he will hug. One day, I asked him why she had joined the select group.
He thought a moment, cocked his head to one side, and said, “Well, Pastor Amy’s sort of like you. She understands me.”
Isn’t that what we all need?