Creating a Community Where Everyone Belongs and Serves

A mother and her adult son were worshiping at a church. They were a hesitant about attending worship because they had been asked to leave a previous congregation. The son’s behaviors were not always in line with what people expected. The son, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, was having a difficult morning at their new congregation and cried out loudly a number of times.

Eventually, the pastor stopped preaching and asked them if they were okay. Then he prayed for them, and the son found peace; worship continued.

The congregation said, "You are welcome here."The pastor behaved kindly, but how would congregation members react? Would they tell the mother she needed to keep better control of her son? Would they suggest they find another church? Praise God, the members of this congregation gathered around mother and son after the worship service and reassured them kindly.

“You are welcome here.” “Don’t let this keep you from returning.”

This welcome was so different from the way they were treated in previous congregations that they chose to stay. In fact, recently, the son was baptized, and the mother made a public profession of faith. They had found a church home.

Interdependent Community 

Through the apostle Paul, God paints a vision for his people in 1 Corinthians 12 as one body, together in Christ. No one excludes another. (The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”) No one self-excludes. (Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.) In fact, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable to the healthy functioning of the body (1 Cor. 12:22).

Surely, being asked to leave a previous congregation was painful for this mother and son. The church that asked them to leave hurt itself even more than it hurt this man and his mother. Churches that exclude people with disabilities have lost indispensable parts.

Everybody Belongs. Everybody Serves. 

Christian Reformed Church (CRC) Disability Concerns helps churches become healthier communities by learning to follow the biblical model for community in which everybody belongs and everybody serves. This mission pushes against centuries of history and against deep-seated and often unexamined prejudice against people who live with visible and “invisible” disabilities that may be physical, visual, auditory, intellectual, and/or emotional.

I pray that someday people in churches will so embrace God’s vision for biblical community that this vision will be part of the culture of each congregation. Each congregation will clearly portray the guests assembled at the great banquet of Luke 14:15-24. People with and without disabilities will be able to get in and take part; and those with disabilities will join in numbers even greater than their proportion in the larger society. Each congregation will meet or exceed the guidelines and standards of accessibility and participation required by law in the rest of society.  They will accept full responsibility for doing their part in meeting the spiritual and physical needs of the people and families with disabilities in their communities.

Celebrate Disability Week this October

CRC - RCA Disability ConcernsUntil that beautiful time, both CRC Disability Concerns, and our sister organization, Reformed Church in American (RCA) Disability Concerns, encourage congregations to set aside the second or third Sunday in October to think especially about working to become communities in which all people, especially people with disabilities, belong, participate, and serve.

What is your church doing to fully engage everyone? Are you setting aside a special Sunday for this purpose? Find resources — including sermon ideas, litanies, devotionals, and videos — to celebrate Disability Week on the CRC Disability Concerns website and Network site and share with us how your church celebrates disability Sunday/week in the comment section below.

Nicole and Mark StephensonRev. Mark Stephenson serves Christian Reformed Churches as the Director of Disability Concerns. Previously, Mark served as pastor of two churches for 17 years. He and his wife Bev have five children including Nicole, who has severe multiple disabilities. He frequently blogs on the Network.

25 Years of Inclusive Education

This year, we are pleased to celebrate twenty-five years since CLC Network launched our first inclusive education program in a Christian school. Since then, inclusive educa­tion has transformed our communities by honoring the image of God in every person, regardless of their abilities.

As we look to the future of expanding inclusion to Christian schools nationwide, we remember how change hap­pened for the Christian Learning Center (as we were known then) and all the faithful partners who believed in our vision: that students with disabilities are part of our Christian cov­enant, and belong in our schools and communities.

Building on our relationships with Christian schools established through CLC Resource Rooms, we were able to convince many schools—fairly quickly—to include students in the general education classroom. We are so grateful to our earliest partners who stepped out in faith and changed our communities for these twenty-five years, and for many years to come.

"The community saw that there was a whole population of students who were being denied a Christian education. We all needed exposure to that population in order to realize the great opportunity." - Bill Gritter, Former Administrator at the Grand Rapids Christian School AssociationOur first school partner was the Grand Rapids Christian School Association (GRCSA), who launched the Christian Learning Center under their gov­ernance in 1979. Bill Gritter, GRCSA’s administrator from 1977- 1993, recalls, “We had a vision for Christian education, that it should be available to all students regard­less of their ability or disability. We took a risk, but we trusted God with that vision.” Gritter continues, “CLC has been such a positive influence in the life of many schools. I think that’s evidence of God’s approval for what we were try­ing to do.”


1989:
 ZEELAND CHRISTIAN SCHOOL

"Many parents have said that their kids are becoming better people thanks to the inclusion program." - Bill Van Dyk, Principal, Zeeland Christian SchoolZeeland Christian was the first part­ner school to prove that inclusive educa­tion could be possible in West Michigan. Bill Van Dyk was in his second year as administrator at the time; he recalls, “I knew it was a gamble; it would be an unbelievable success or I would have a short career here. Clearly it wasn’t a gamble, since God has blessed it so much.”

Their extraordinary commitment to students with disabilities continues today, with more than 60 students receiving services and participating in general education classrooms at some level. “Miracles are hap­pening here all the time, it’s just life,” shares Van Dyk about the inclusive education program.

1990: CRESTON CHRISTIAN SCHOOL

"The biggest beneficiaries of inclusion are the general education students. They are changed. Kids with special needs bring so many gifts we don't always recognize, but they are there." - Greg Yoder, Teacher Consultant, CLC Network, Former Inclusion Specialist, Creston Christian School“We made a lot of mistakes; inclusion was brand new!” shares Greg Yoder, a CLC Network teacher consultant and former inclusion spe­cialist at Creston Christian School. “But it was such a support­ive environment, with a strong sense of community and lots of prayer. Over years, the program became a model of good inclusion.”

"Inclusive education helped our school grow in size. People wanted to be a part of this community, because the challenges of some students strengthened the entire student body." - Tom Visser, Former Principal, Creston Christian SchoolTom Visser, Creston’s principal at the time, welcomed twenty students from CLC’s former program at Seymour Christian to their school. “God’s providence put people into the right posi­tions at the right times. The year leading up to this was one of my most difficult; we had to trust God and we didn’t know where it would take us. It’s easy to say afterwards, that was the Holy Spirit working, but it was a challenge to trust Him at the time.”

Creston Christian School closed their building in 2010, and their inclusion students are now served at both Rockford Christian School and Grand Rapids Christian Elementary.

1991: JENISON CHRISTIAN SCHOOL // GRAND RAPIDS CHRISTIAN HIGH SCHOOL

"Understanding has grown around disabilities. Kids are more willing to approach someone with a disability and aren't afraid of them; often more so than their parents. They are good teachers for all of us." - Scott Schermer, Inclusive Education teacher, Jenison Christian SchoolInclusive Education teacher Scott Schermer remembers well the beginning years of inclu­sion at Jenison Christian. “With one of the first resource rooms (in 1980), inclusion was the next logical step for us,” he shares. Approximately twelve students with special needs enrolled in Jenison for the first year.

“Our school became much more repre­sentative of the body of Christ, where everyone belongs and has a place.” Schermer remembers a school-wide biking event, and the school pur­chased tandem bikes so that kids with mobility issues could still participate. “A big part of the success was the strong focus on the social atmosphere as part of our student learning.”

1992: BYRON CENTER CHRISTIAN SCHOOL // MILLBROOK CHRISTIAN SCHOOL

Bob Van Wieren, Byron Center Christian School’s adminis­trator, was new to the school when CLC proposed an inclusive education model. But after learning about inclusion and its poten­tial, he developed a lifelong commitment to the idea and fostered that commitment in the school. Today, Van Wieren serves as President of the CLC Network board.

Van Wieren gives credit to CLC Network’s Executive Director, R.H. “Bear” Berends, for convincing so many local schools to try inclusive education. “When he started talking about all of our children being part of the covenant, about belonging to all of us, that really made sense to me. The school community never really balked at the idea, it just felt like this is the way the Kingdom is supposed to be.”

1993: HOLLAND CHRISTIAN HIGH SCHOOL

As students began to graduate after their eighth grade year from the inclusive education program at Zeeland Christian School, many enrolled at nearby Holland Christian High School. Stan Konynenbelt, a parent and board member for Holland Christian at that time, explains, “The special education teachers took ownership of the need for these students to be a part of our school, even though inclusion can get difficult as kids get older.”

Konynenbelt recalls, “As a parent, I never felt like there was any risk to sending our daughter to the inclusion programs at Zeeland Christian or Holland Christian, because the staff and leaders shared our faith and sense of purpose. When we are united in faith, it makes a big difference to what we can accomplish.”

1994: SOUTH CHRISTIAN HIGH SCHOOL

"Inclusion has come into every part of our students' lives -- we've seen graduates [without disabilities] take what they've learned here and bless their communities in so many other ways." - Ellie Van Keulen, Inclusive Education teacher, South Christian High SchoolEllie Van Keulen can still point out her first classroom at South Christian: a small room tucked away in a back hallway. Today, her classroom is at the very heart of the school. Shortly after launching inclusive education and enrolling CLC students at South Christian, parents and school leaders wanted their students to become more socially involved.

“I knew the students in my classroom, but I didn’t know most of the students in the hallways,” recalls Van Keulen. That was the spark that started South Christian’s Connections program. This program includes peer tutoring, lunch partners, an annual ban­quet, and other ways for students to establish friendships. Today, nearly half of the entire student body is involved in the Connections program, making inclusion an active reality.

Since 1994: 58 MORE SCHOOLS

CLC continued to partner with even more schools, eventu­ally staffing educational support services in more than 49 West Michigan schools by 2000. Now, as a consulting firm, we bring this expertise and experience to more than 58 schools in 4 states.

We are always grateful to our partners who have brought us to this point in our history, and for those who continue to challenge us to do more for the Kingdom!

To learn more about how your school can welcome and support students at all levels of ability, contact us at 616-245-8388 or by email.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 Inclusive, CLC Network’s bi-annual newsletter. Click here to read the original article, or sign up to receive the Inclusive in your mailbox.

Elizabeth pictureElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network. 

Inclusion in Action at LaGrave Avenue Church

LaGrave01Inclusion at LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, MI) began with a simple desire to welcome a few members of the congregation who needed extra support.  By equipping staff and the congregation with information, training, and practical ideas and tools to implement, the community at LaGrave became stronger and more representative of the body of Christ.

It begins on the church’s website , where visitors to LaGrave are offered a preview of what they can expect when they arrive (including parking, greeting information, children’s worship, and more). The church has designated a quiet space for attendees to go when they need to move around during the service. The Bible, Hymnal, and bulletin are available in large print, and the Hymnal is even available in Braille! Cushions are ready for friends that might need one for the wooden pews.  Gluten free bread is offered during communion. And a loop hearing system is available for members that need hearing assistance.  In addition, most of the church is wheelchair accessible.

George - LaGrave

George answered Guiding Light Mission’s request for handmade Christmas decorations, spending a weekend crafting a massive paper chain.

The changes at LaGrave have profoundly affected its members’ understanding and acceptance of persons with a wide range of abilities.  Ann Mary Dykstra, Disability Advocate at LaGrave has worked closely with 12-year-old George, a member of the community with Autism Spectrum Disorder. “George is just a part of the church. He’s well liked.” He contributes by collecting and washing the church coffee cups, and enjoys sitting near the organ during postlude.

Ann Mary remembers the training from CLC Network consultants:

“The Church IEP (Individualized Education Plan) crafted by Barbara Newman helped us see George in a different light because it addressed the strengths he had to contribute to our church.”

Equipped with information about his strengths and needs, Ann Mary helped peers and teachers understand how his mind works. Teachers and students relaxed when they learned George’s disability has a name, and that he had designated helpers and a behavioral plan.

We praise God that the community at LaGrave reflects what is described in Romans 12: 4-6: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…”

Learn more about building inclusive communities at your church on our website.

Katie Barkley ImageKatie Barkley is the marketing communications manager at CLC Network.

Only You Can Prevent Bullying

Bullying

Credit: http://flic.kr/p/dRjXgk, Inf-Lite Teacher

In grades K-12, 1 in 7 students is either a bully or a target of bullying.  Whether it’s a post on social media, constant refusal to include a peer at lunch or messing up a locker, bullying hurts others and definitely does not show love towards fellow image bearers of God.  We don’t like it and know that it’s wrong but what can we do about it by ourselves, really?  I mean, sometimes we may have a hunch that a student is bullying or being bullied but we really can’t prove it.  Or, other times, it seems like we are the only one who wants to address it.

While comprehensive bullying prevention is best done in the context of the whole school community, where the atmosphere and expectations are the same across all situations and people involved, there are a few ways that you can proactively address bullying on your own at home or church.  The following suggestions were adapted from information provided on stopbullying.gov.

Talk about bullying with kids.

We, as adults, need to help kids understand which behaviors constitute bullying and what to do about it.  You could point out what they can do or say to stand up to bullying, like “Stop” or “That’s enough”.  Also, encourage them to get help for themselves or others by talking to adults about the situation.

BullyingPSA

For conversation starters with your children or class, use this 30-second PSA, “I Will Not be Bullied!” from the American Association for People with Disabilities and the downloadable tool-kit to get them thinking deeper about bullying.

Communicate often. 

When we talk with kids on a regular basis about what is happening in their lives they will feel comfortable to come to us with sensitive topics like bullying.  It’s important that we build trust with them by listening to their views and opinions on school, friends, and activities.  Then, we are able to talk openly by asking questions like “What do you usually do when you see bullying happening?” or “Why do you think someone might bully another?”   And kids will be more likely to see us as a trusted resource when they are being bullied.

Encourage kids to pursue their interests.

Teamwork

Credit: http://flic.kr/p/asmDJZ, USAG-Humphreys

When kids are involved in activities that they enjoy it provides an opportunity to build relationships and grow in confidence.  This builds resilience and can protect from bullying.

Be a positive role model

The old adage that behaviors and values are “caught not taught” still rings true.  When we treat people with kindness and respect, kids see it and are more likely to engage in similar behavior.

Using these ideas can help to reduce bullying towards and by those children with which you have the most contact, and can further your mission of helping them grow in Christ-likeness.  CLC Network also provides professional development to help your school put a comprehensive framework into place in order to become a safer community for all children. Please visit clcnetwork.org for more information.

Beth HarmonBeth Harmon is a School Psychologist at CLC Network, where she enjoys the “ah ha” moment when a parent or teacher gains an understanding of why a child learns or behaves in a certain way. She loves being the advocate to help the adults in a child’s life appreciate the uniqueness of and love the child even more.  

Donor Profile: Bob and Trudy Van Wieren

Van Wieren imageBob and Trudy Van Wieren have spent most of their lives in Christian schools, since they met as first graders at Highland Christian School in Highland, Indiana.  Over that long history, they have witnessed the transformation that inclusive education has brought to Christian schools, making them passionate advocates for CLC Network’s mission of creating inclusive communities.

As young students, Bob and Trudy recall a common lack of understanding for people with disabilities.  Kids with disabilities weren’t part of the community, and often didn’t attend church or school with other students.  Trudy and Bob contrast that with the experiences of their own grandchildren, who are attending inclusive schools.

“Our kids and grandchildren will never say they are afraid of those who have different needs,” shares Trudy.  “I’m not even sure those differences are even in their vocabulary.  Their friendships with students in special education are simply matter-of-fact.”

Bob and Trudy moved to Byron Center, Michigan in 1985 for Bob’s position as principal at Byron Center Christian School.  One of his first tasks was to start a special education program at the school, so he met with the Christian Learning Center to learn how to do it.

Trudy and Bob give credit CLC Network’s executive director, R.H. “Bear” Berends, for launching fully inclusive programs at area Christian Schools. “His legacy is really incredible.  When he started talking about all of our children being part of the covenant, about belonging to all of us, that really made sense to me,” recalls Bob.  “The school community never really balked at the idea, it just felt like this is the way the Kingdom is supposed to be.

Bob has worked at Christian Schools International (CSI), Calvin Christian Schools, and today serves as Accreditation Program Director for CSI.  He often travels the country visiting Christian schools on behalf of CSI.

“Many Christian schools are realizing that they should include kids with disabilities, but they just don’t know how,” Bob shares.  “Sharing CLC Network’s help is really important right now.”

As current Board President, Bob devotes a significant amount of time to guiding CLC Network’s future.  He’s excited to see CLC Network grow to serve schools across the country and to meet those community’s needs.

Trudy recalls learning about a family who had to send their daughter far away to become part of a community, when students with those same disabilities were getting on the bus in their home communities with her own kids.  Trudy and Bob ask, “Why wouldn’t you want your children to see all of us as part of God’s Kingdom?

TRIPLE YOUR IMPACT:

To encourage our online friends to give, a generous donor will TRIPLE your online gift through the end of 2013. Give now to help us offer our services at a reduced rate to schools and churches across the country.