Back in December, Chris and Heather-Lee Wysong challenged CLC Network donors and friends to help send CLC Network’s message of inclusion to church leaders around the country. Chris shares, “Too often, group leaders, volunteers, and pastors lack the training to effectively welcome persons with disabilities into church life. Inclusion and understanding of disabilities needs to be the norm, not the exception.”
Chris and Heather-Lee offered to match all gifts to CLC Network, up to $2,500, on Giving Tuesday (December 2) in order to send Barbara J. Newman to church conferences this spring, to speak about inclusion in churches and provide practical advice to church leaders. Donors responded by giving more than $3,800!
“I was thrilled to be able to introduce the idea of inclusion from a Christian perspective to pastors, church staff, and volunteers who may not have thought about it before,” shares Newman. “This information is so needed by many leaders, and I am grateful to CLC Network donors for helping me make inroads into so many new communities while also supporting communities already welcoming individuals with varied abilities.”
The Wysongs got to know CLC Network and Barbara J. Newman through Zeeland Christian School, where their son Pierce attends and is included socially and academically. At their church, they hoped for the same level of inclusion for Pierce, who has autism spectrum disorder.
“We attend a large church with someone designated to help those with special needs,” explains Chris. “Even with that commitment from the church, getting one-on-one help so that Pierce can participate in all the activities such as Sunday worship, summer camps, and overnighters, is almost an impossibility.” Since Pierce’s disability is more hidden, church leaders, such as volunteer group leaders, often expect him to act in a “normal” way. Instead, Pierce acts as a person with autism spectrum disorder will — from his own unique perspective. As a result, his behavior is not often managed in a helpful way.
“I wish that our church leaders, both pastors and lay people, would seek out the training that Barb offers at these conferences and through CLC Network. This is NOT just for the volunteer who is designated for special needs!” Chris reflects. “That’s why we are excited about supporting CLC Network. We don’t want to see kids drop through the cracks at church.”
While Pierce no longer attends youth group with his peers, missing out on the opportunity to build friendships and causing the other children to miss the chance to be “Jesus with skin on” for Pierce, he has found a way to contribute to the life of the church. He persistently asked to help with the younger children. Today, he volunteers to help every other week during the service. In addition, he helps out other kids who have special needs.
Chris explains, “We are sad that Pierce isn’t participating in youth worship and at camp, but there just isn’t the support for his needs. Hopefully Barb’s training for pastors and youth leaders (parents and volunteers) will open more eyes to kids in congregations who are different.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 “Inclusive” newsletter.
Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network.