Imagine this scenario: you’re all set to relocate to Italy – but on arrival you hear “Welcome to Holland!” How would you react? You would have to change all your plans – learn a new language, buy new guidebooks, be prepared for experiences that you have not anticipated.
Emily Perl Kingsley used the above analogy in a poignant story titled “Welcome to Holland”, to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability. For these parents, there is often a sense of disorientation and having one’s life take an unexpected turn.
About three per cent1 of Singapore’s population has a disability. This includes preschool children with developmental difficulties, school-going children with special needs, or adults and the aged with disabilities2.
This translates to an average of three members out of every 100 church members who is likely to have special needs.
Extrapolate that to include the families of each person with special needs, and we’re looking at almost 10 per cent of the population. Living with a family member with a disability is de-stabilising and stressful. This seems to present a compelling reason for churches not to overlook this issue.
The “Through the Cracks” Conference on Embracing Persons with Special Needs was a sterling effort by Singaporean Christians to work towards an adequate response. Early last month, 380 participants from 65 churches gathered at Wesley Methodist Church for this purpose, reflecting the willingness of Christ’s Body to come together in united response.
In this setting, it was startling to hear the keynote speaker, the Rev Wilfred C. Hoecke, comment: “I don’t encourage starting special needs ministries in churches!” An American pastor with personal experiences of disability, he cautioned that churches should avoid relegating persons with special needs to an isolated ministry or a few trained professionals.
Rather, he encouraged churches to develop a church-wide special needs policy, so that people with special needs could both bless and be blessed by the whole church body.
“God’s gifts are not limited by disabilities,” he declared, drawing from his own experience with his son Karl, who has Down Syndrome.
The Rev Hoecke had thought that Karl would suffer from “Holy Spirit delay” in tandem with his delayed cognitive development. However, he realised: “Karl would often run up to a person to comfort them. It was only after I chatted with the person myself that I realised the person was going through a tough time. Somehow, Karl sensed that – he was my ‘holy spirit’. He had this gift of going up to folks who needed ministry 100 per cent of the time!”
That completely changed his perspective. Rather than viewing people with disabilities as merely recipients of ministry, he began to view them as partners in ministry, with special gifts, and able to serve much like the rest of us.
This was evident throughout the conference as several of the volunteers and helpers with disabilities ministered capably in ways such as ushering, welcoming, and taking photographs. And Ms Lee Hwee Chin, one of the Pastoral Team Members of Children’s Ministry at Wesley Methodist Church, later testified to the powerful prayer and prophetic ministry of children with special needs.
Is there then a “theology of disability”? Studying the Biblical references to disability, the Rev Hoecke came to the surprising conclusion that “for some reason, God wants this stuff” – He made disabilities, as noted in Exodus 4:11. John 9:1-20 gives us a hint: it has to do with God’s glory being displayed through the disability world.
And maybe, as seen in the apostle Paul’s experience of asking for healing in 2 Cor 12:7-9, God knows there needs to be more brokenness in the church – “it’s hard, it hurts, but it keeps me broken, it keeps me seeking Him”. The Rev Hoecke testified to becoming a “much better pastor and father, because my first-born was born with a disability”.
He noted that 13 passages in the Bible refer to disabilities in the prophetic, as in Micah 4:6-7, and stated: “I believe God will do something in the last days, when we gather the lame, the blind and the crippled.”
What is the Church’s role? As families of persons with special needs grapple with an on-going “grief cycle”, they do not want our pity or sympathy, but rather our compassion, the Greek word of which signifies sharing their burden. Although parent-to-parent support is uniquely helpful, there are several ways of burden-sharing that do not require specialised knowledge or training, such as simple befriending, help in accessing resources, support for daily tasks, setting up an inter-church network, advocacy and education.
Any member of the church – pastors or lay – can help form a caring community for families with special needs. What is crucial is a willingness to welcome them, and dialogue with them to find out their needs.
How will you respond to this call? Will you ask, like I did: “What’s mine to do, Lord?” Perhaps you, too, will hear Him reply: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (Ecc 9:10a)
Picture by carlosphotos/Bigstock.com
Methodist Message interviewed the Rev Hoecke, and asked him: “How do you see the ‘theology of disability’ interacting with the theology of healing?” Watch for our upcoming article that reveals his answer!
ASK * God how you can care for families with special needs * your church to develop a church-wide special needs policy * families with special needs how you can support them.
JOIN * a network of Christians supporting families with special needs in various ways. Contact Ms Lee Hwee Chin at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, Ministry of Social and Family Development
Grace Toh is the Assistant Editor of Methodist Message and has been a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church for most of her life.