Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany” and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.”
Listen Now. We will now be including the daily reading of Epistle and Gospel with The Prayer Team.
Then children were brought to Jesus that He might lay His hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me and to not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:13-14
Good morning Prayer Team!
I’m taking a one day break from our series on “Commissioned to Be Apostles” to write a special message about inclusion and special needs.
If there was a pothole in front of a church and one out of every five cars that came into the lot ran over the pothole and popped a tire, the church would waste no time in repairing the pothole. It would be taken care of immediately.
About one in five people has a “special need”—this may be a physical handicap or a mental one. But there are a good number of people affiliated (or who perhaps could be affiliated but feel disenfranchised or alienated) with our churches who have a special need that challenges them from having the full experience of belonging to a church community. Are we doing enough to minister to those among us who have special needs? Are we doing enough to make sure they feel included? The answer is, most likely not.
Let’s take perhaps the most obvious one—a physical handicap. Churches that don’t have signs for handicap parking, who don’t have a wheelchair ramp, or who don’t have a place where someone in a wheelchair can sit in the church sanctuary are not going to be able to effectively minister to those who have physical handicaps. There are people who can’t come up to receive Holy Communion because they can’t walk or can’t get a wheelchair on the solea of the church. If the priest or the ushers are not paying attention, there will be people who unintentionally are denied the opportunity to receive Holy Communion. If our church is to be one of “inclusion”, then we need to find ways to include people with physical handicaps.
I’m writing this message today, however, primarily to address another special need, which is children with developmental disorders like autism. A growing number of children are being diagnosed with this and other types of developmental disabilities that make participation in the life of the church a challenge. Not only are the children challenged, but their parents are as well. A child who is struggling begets concerned parents who are worried. Combine that with people who don’t know what to do, or who give uncomfortable looks to parents who children are “different” makes for an uncomfortable experience. Social settings like Sunday and GOYA bring other challenges. I’m not writing this message today to proclaim that I have any answers. In fact, I’m struggling to use even the proper terminology to write about this. However, something happened over the weekend that inspires me to mention this.
We had a retreat in our parish over the weekend where we talked about making our church environment more inclusive of people with special needs, specifically our young people with developmental and learning disabilities. For the first time in my twenty years as a priest, I used the word “autism” in a sermon in church on Sunday. If we keep things quiet, it is as if we think it doesn’t happen in our churches or to our children. Some of us want to do something but are afraid that is we say or do the wrong thing, we risk offending a parent or a child. And so most of us throw up our arms and do nothing because we don’t know what to do. I confess I have struggle with how to make everyone feel included. It is not that I lack desire. I lack knowledge.
I applaud my community for putting this retreat together, specifically the parents who asked that we offer this. Because in beginning a dialogue, we can create an environment that will allow for the best possible outcomes for the most number of people. For those who have children with special needs, please open a dialogue with your priest, your Sunday school director and your GOYA advisor. To those who are priests, Sunday school teachers and GOYA advisors and parents, work in concert with parents of special needs children and their children. Because where there is a dialogue, then good things can begin to happen. Where there is no dialogue, we generally guess wrong and people get hurt unintentionally and sadly, sometimes intentionally.
Where there are willing parents who want to open a dialogue, when there is no one to dialogue and work with, they feel alone and discouraged. Where there is willingness on the part of parish leadership to be inclusive but no direction, there is frustration. If EVERYONE can come to the table with the love the Christ teaches us to have, we can create environments for all of our children that are safe, and offer the opportunity for the joys of parish life to be accessible to everyone.
Everyone has deficiencies of some kind. And everyone has gifts. There is no one who doesn’t have a deficiency, a challenge or a struggle. There is no one who doesn’t have a gift and a talent, a way to express Christ’s love to the world. When we are patient with one another’s challenges and promote the expression of each person’s gifts, then we have again the love that Christ tells us to have for one another.
Let’s start the conversation, but let’s not have that be the end. Let’s start talking and then let’s start doing. Because Christ came for all people. He included everyone. He called everyone. Even the ones that the crowds try to push away. He called everyone. And He still does. It is up to us to help one another to hear the call, to heed the call, and to come to Christ. We all play a role in that. We are to include everyone in that. This is definitely not the last message I’ll be writing on this subject. This weekend’s event in our parish was eye opening, because it made me aware of challenges that I didn’t know were challenges for people, and it opened a constructive conversation about very workable solutions to these challenges.
May God bless all of our children and all of our parents, and may He open our minds and our hearts so that we can respond with love, the kind of love that seeks to include everyone, in the hope that the joy that comes from Christ may indeed be shared through His Church with everyone.
Come, O believers, let us labor with zeal for the Master. Since He distributes His wealth to His servants, let each of us correspondingly increase the talent of grace that we received. Let one acquire wisdom by means of good deeds. Let another celebrate the liturgy with splendor. Let the believer communicate the word to the uninitiated, and let another disperse his wealth to the poor. And so let us increase that which was lent to us, so that as faithful stewards of grace we may be counted worthy of the Master’s joy. O count us worthy of this joy, Christ God, since you love humanity. (Aposticha, Service of the Bridegroom, Holy Monday Evening, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Let’s get the conversation going. And then let’s start doing!
With Roger Hunt providing today’s Daily Reading: Listen Now.
These readings are under copyright and is used by permission. All rights reserved. These works may not be further reproduced, in print or on other websites or in any other form, without the prior written authorization of the copyright holder: Reading © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA, Apolytikion of Abbot Marcellus © Narthex Press, Kontakion of Abbot Marcellus © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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