It's sometimes tough stuff, trying to encourage churches to welcome all.
Some churches are fabulous. Their leaders are enthusiastic about learning. They enable their teams to get good training. They fundraise and allocate budgets to ensure that everyone can get to a service and feel valued. We know that such churches see their congregations...and finances...increase year after year. I am fortunate to have found several like this. But some others...well...
I want to talk about feeling valued. What it is. What it is not. And about the 'othering' of people like me. Born autistic. Autism is a sensory processing and social communication disability, nothing to do with 'bad behaviour'.
So often, disabled people or those who live with differences are tolerated.
'Tolerate' is what you do when you let someone sit next to you... whilst you feel uncomfortable and hope they sit somewhere else....but you smile at them in a false way. The thinking behind this is, "I am such a good Christian for allowing you near me. After all, someone like you being in my church spoils my experience of God. You should be thankful to be allowed here". Had that happen a few times.
Now, the strange thing is that if it was done to them, other folk would immediately see that as intolerance. As prejudice. As falseness. As fear or hate. But it's something that folk like me are often expected to be grateful for. I think not.
Sometimes disabled folk and others who live with differences are the subject of 'awareness raising'. This means that we get to stand up in front of everyone and explain all the things we cannot do. All the things that make us feel really small and really bad about ourselves. And then, people are 'inspired' by us. "You brave person, coming to church!" "Wow, people like you can talk!" "So do you live in a residential home? Is that your carer with you?" I've had it all over the years. We are not friends. We are not colleagues. We are not equal. We are exhibits.
Now, the strange thing is that if this was done to them, other folk would feel really uncomfortable. But it's something that folk like me are expected to be grateful for. After all, we're talking about autism now, aren't we. Yes, yes we are. In a way that demeans and uses me, and has no regard for the after-effects. Often I'm expected to do this for free. As if it is a special treat for me to be allowed to talk to church people about embarrassing things and then go home feeling bad. That's not brilliant.
Yes, people like me offer training to the outside world. Training where we knowingly do stand up in front of many others and explain our 'deficits'. Our difficulties. Training where we are an example to be assessed, a thing to be stared at. And after each session, we go home to our families and friends and partners and children...and try to restore our sense of self-worth. Important stuff, awareness-raising. But it's nothing to do with valuing us.
What does valuing us look like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like?
It feels like we are seen as people, as colleagues, as friends. It feels like people want us to sit next to them. It feels like we're offered the same chances as others to show our strengths. It feels like we are enabled to feel safe and supported, of course - but in consensual ways that ask us. In quiet, invisible, respectful ways. Training like that happens in many places, and it's always a joy to work with such groups.
It doesn't look at us as a cost burden. As a time-waste. As a 'danger' (frankly we are no more likely to be dangerous than you are). It doesn't think that Church happens 'elsewhere' for us. There are no churches for autistic people. None. It's like a thing where Jesus got his team to hand round food to the 5000 and left all the autistic ones hungry and thirsty. Do you think that's what happened? Me neither.
We are God's loved children too. Valuing us doesn't allocate the budget and team and support to everyone but us... and then claim no money, no spare time. It doesn't involve ignoring bullying of us, or blaming us for the bullying. It doesn't involve laughing at us or using us as some sort of freak show. Or encouraging others not to help us. Or encouraging others not to talk to us, by pretending we are a nuisance. We're not exhibits or dangers. Truly we are not.
We are your friends. We love Jesus and are Christians who want to share our love and care with others, just like you do. We have families, just like you do. We have passionate interests, just like you do. The church should not get to pretend that we are 'other'. Not in front of God we're not.
It's our church too. It belongs to God, and God says yes. That's a reality that every church already has to come to terms with. Plenty of us are willing to help. But know the cost, please. And value the time and exhaustion and despair that it causes, especially when so often the response is 'go away', a budget-withholding, silence-enduring, "We don't want your sort here".
You are loved. We are not your enemy. Learn about our gifts to the church and to God. Value us for who we are, God's children, made in God's image.