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Welcoming the Disabled

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Being able to attend church together as a family can be something easily taken for granted. But for families with disabilities or special needs, going to a service can be a struggle and leave families feeling alone or isolated, says Joe N. Butler, co-founder of Ability Tree, an Assemblies of God ministry serving those with disabilities.

Theresa Hernandez and her family know this well. For years her husband, Roberto, has hoped the family could sit together in church, but they often ended up leaving their son, who has special needs, home with a caregiver, or simply staying home to have church on their own. Not until coming to Lifetree Community Church in Robbinsville, New Jersey, could the family be united in a corporate worship setting.

Miguel, 15, is medically fragile and has a congenital birth defect known as FG Syndrome, which results in developmental delays. He also has epilepsy and is non-ambulatory and nonverbal.  

As Theresa shared her story and struggles with Lifetree’s Pastor Dan Greco over the phone prior to attending the church, Greco told her he wanted to make the church more accessible for everyone. He repeatedly expressed concern that the family couldn’t all attend church at the same time.

Part of making churches more accessible is first educating staff and laypeople and equipping them with necessary resources. Butler, who serves Ability Tree as an AG U.S. missionary, with Intercultural Ministries, trains church leaders how to become more welcoming.

Butler and his wife, Jen, experienced frustration firsthand in trying to worship together as a family. He and his wife, Jen, have a son Micah, diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy as a young child.

As church leaders learn more about disabilities, they don’t have to add extra programming or ministries. Rather, he says, they just have to be intentional about whatever efforts they are currently doing in Sunday School or church services.

“It’s not that complicated,” says Greco, who participated in Ability Tree’s church training shortly before meeting the Hernandez family. “It’s not that big of a deal but you realize just how isolated they [families] have felt. We’re learning and we’re growing.”

The five-year-old church is temporarily meeting in a senior center, which makes the facility accessible to those like Miguel who have wheelchairs or walkers. Because of Miguel’s developmental delays and short attention span, he sometimes makes noises during the church service, but Greco says it’s important to remind the family that such diversions are OK.

Miguel’s sister Danielle helps the teenage boy get integrated into his children’s church class, as well as trains volunteers in the church how to work one-on-one with the 15-year-old Miguel so they are bettered prepared for certain behaviors. For example, if Miguel gets distracted, those working with him can communicate with him through simple sign language and verbal prompts to help him start paying attention again, Danielle says.

After Miguel had surgery recently, his new friends from church made him get well cards. In the future, Greco says he wants to offer a program through the church to provide a few hours of child care for parents of those with special needs to enjoy some time away from their caregiving duties.

Lifetree is just one of several U.S. churches where Butler has provided training since Ability Tree launched in 2010. He also has traveled to Uganda and Argentina to minister to families with disabilities.

In addition to training at churches, Butler has developed a community-based center for special needs children, siblings, and their families in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. The ministry team provides R.E.S.T (recreation, education, support, and training) services. The programming includes day camps, parent and teen sibling support groups, after-school programming, and community events. Ability Tree has an indoor playground that is equipped for children with sensory processing disorders such as autism. Ability Tree also offers camps for adults with disabilities in New Jersey.

And the ministry continues to grow. Two-thirds of Ability Tree’s 100-year-old building space in northwest Arkansas is being remodeled, with a targeted completion date by the end of 2016. The renovated structure will house a gym where children of all ability levels can play games like soccer and basketball.

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