In March 2012, I had the honor of introducing Joni Eareckson Tada during her tour of the San Francisco Bay Area, by sharing my family’s testimony. Video (10:30) and transcription below:
In 2005, when my son Jeremy was 18 months old, our family returned from a year serving abroad in Uzbekistan. Jeremy still wasn’t talking, so we had him checked out for a speech delay. We assumed he was confused over the different languages he’d heard. But, when he was diagnosed with autism, we were devastated.
You may not be familiar with autism. But instead of giving you a clinical definition, I’ll tell you how it defined our family: At two years old, it meant suddenly facing that our toddler might never have a conversation with us; no friends, marriage or family of his own; no college or employment; and he’d have to live dependent on others his entire life. It also meant spending $6000 a month, to see 20 therapists every week; and constant fights with insurance, school districts and government agencies to try to get support or services.
Disabled Faith, Spiritual Rehab
It also meant a huge crisis of faith. After years of being a Christian, I wish I could tell you I responded in a spiritually mature and gracious way, like a church leader should. But I didn’t. I was PISSED. I felt completely betrayed by God and raged it out with Him for about five years.
But gradually – and surprisingly– God would redeem and transform that pain. Autism would become a surprising blessing, even though it came gift-wrapped in hardship. Godwould bring miraculous healing: perhaps not physical healing for my son, but profound spiritual healing for me. What the enemy intended for evil, God would redeem for good. He was about transform a test, into a testimony.
When Jeremy was first diagnosed, we were the only family with a special needs child at our church. Our pastor had a great heart for us: When he found out we’d been spending that much money on treatments, he insisted we hire one of Jeremy’s therapists to be his 1:1 buddy – at church expense – so we could continue to worship and serve. We were floored and overwhelmed. It silently screamed that we mattered.
Desiring to support us as best they could, our children’s ministry also requested that I train them. Understandably, they just didn’t know how to manage a child with autism. Neither did I, and I was his mother.
Joni and Friends
I was already overwhelmed, so I Googled and found Joni and Friends (JAF). Debbie Lillo, the Church Relations Manager for the Bay Area office, reassured me that even if a church is doing whatever they can to love one family, we were already doing disability ministry. She continued to advise and coach us going forward, on our newly launched “special needs ministry.”
I also learned about Respite events, where total strangers at local JAF network churches would volunteer to watch my kids for free – just so we could get a break. I instantly became a Respite Groupie: If there was a respite anywhere within the (408) through (650) area codes, I. Was. There.
In 2011, we also attended our first JAF Family Retreat. It’s a weeklong respite, retreat, all-inclusive vacation, VBS and overnight camp; with 1:1 childcare provided by trained Short Term Missionaries (which included energetic high school students) who actually PAID to come do this for 5 days – all rolled into one. If you’re a special needs family, you’ve just got to go. We plan to attend every summer.
In time, God led us to seek out a new church home. We visited several JAF network churches at various stages of their special needs ministry, where they loved on our family well, just like our previous church did.
God eventually lead us to settle at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship (ALCF), because of their established ministry called Special Adventure (SA), where they pair 1:1 buddies with special needs children during the services, so parents could attend worship, together.
The world tells me that my child is broken, weird, or just too much trouble. But when we came, he was celebrated for who he is, and they actually thanked me for bringing him. Are you kidding me?? “My ears had heard, but now my eyes had seen the glory of the Lord.” (Job 42)
Comforting Others With The Comfort of Christ
By the time we settled at ALCF in 2010, God had grown in my heart a passion to encourage and support other special needs families, with the comfort I received from Christ. Two months after we became members, my husband Eddie and I began leading the Special Adventure parent support group. Two years later, God invited me and another fellow SA mom, Magda Ramos, to co-lead the Special Adventure children’s ministry.
By then I knew the Lord had redeemed and repurposed our struggles, for such a time as this. But I was also a little terrified. Just like when my son was diagnosed, I had zero experience with disabilities. Now, we had upwards of 30 special needs families to care for. But when you love someone -or you’re desperate enough – you’ll find a way, even if you have to beg, borrow or steal. If it’s important enough to you, you’ll find a way; If not, you’ll find an excuse.
However, I haven’t had to beg, borrow or steal, neither in special needs parenting nor in ministry. Once again, I called on JAF. I now keep Debbie Lillo on speed-dial, and half-jokingly refer to her as my Special Needs Ministry “Mordecai.”
SF Bay Area: 1.5 Million Affected By Disability
The SF Bay Area is well documented for having one of the highest concentrations of autism and disabilities in the nation. 90% are not in wheelchairs. Even if you think you don’t know someone impacted by special needs already: it’s a statistical certainty that you do… or you will.
Many families like mine struggle with chronic fatigue, stress, and isolation, with an oft quoted divorce rate of 80%. Just last week in Sunnyvale, a mother shot her adult son with autism, then turned the gun on herself. Every special needs parent I know can identify with this kind of despair. Where does our hope come from? Hope comes from the Lord, the maker of Heaven and earth (Psalms 121). Families like mine need hope and support. And we need God’s people to demonstrate His grace, because the world seldom does.
The Body of Christ: The “Weaker” Parts Are Indispensible
Journeying with the “SA families” has been an extraordinary blessing and privilege. Especially at a church as diverse as ALCF, I’ve witnessed how disability can cut across ethnicity or socio-economic status, to destroy families and dreams. Despite our vastly different backgrounds and even the diagnoses among our families, it’s a marvel to deeply connect, and be united in one spirit with them. Despite their challenges, they still rejoice in God our Savior. It’s humbling, inspiring and empowering to be in their company.
I often hear, “If you guys can be joyful and serve like that, then I’m without excuse.” I’d love to take credit, but without the redeeming power of God, I could easily be that mother in Sunnyvale. Our circumstances provide an opportunity to brag on Him, “Look, you see what my life is like. So explain my JOY. I’m either faking it really well, delusional, or God really is that real and that Good.”
We may not be able to serve in typical ways, but this is the work of God we can do: To believe in the One He has sent (John 6:29), and to demonstrate that we more than conquerors through HIM who loved us (Rom. 8:37). Why were our children and loved ones born this way? So that the work of God could be displayed in our lives (John 9).
“If You Build it, They Will Come”
But churches, if you don’t build it, then they can’t come. Struggling families need God’s People, but His people also need us. If you build it, we will come. But unless you build it, we can’t come. We need you; but you also need us.
In Special Adventure, our key verses come from 1 Corinthians 12:
“Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor… God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”
God came up with Inclusion! It’s a Biblical mandate that everyone must be fully included in the Body of Christ.
Some of us need to just come; to receive this special honor and blessing that God is waiting to give. Still others of us need to step up and partner with Him; to be a distributor of His blessings, and to concretely demonstrate concern for those who are bereft of it. It can mean serving at a respite or at a Family Retreat; prayers or financial support; or even here at ALCF in supporting our Special Adventure ministry.
If disability is an equal opportunity Destroyer, then God is an equal opportunity Redeemer. The Bible says the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. But Jesus came to give us life, and life more abundant.