My husband, Ralph, and I have been traveling to conferences, churches and seminaries on behalf of Friendship Ministries for more than ten years and, during the past two years, representing CLC Network as well. When people ask us about our volunteer work, they assume that we do it primarily to help families and persons dealing with disabilities. While this is true, we also perform this work in order to benefit entire church families.
There are times when we are speaking, it is obvious that some in the audience do not really comprehend or believe the assertion that a church can be transformed when persons with intellectual disabilities are completely welcomed and included into the church family.
Yet we’ve seen it happen, and I believe it will continue to happen because this transformation is rooted in God’s principle learned and expressed by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. When the Lord declared, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (12:9) Paul grasped the concept, experienced it, and then admitted, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (12:10) Man’s idea of strength is the opposite of God’s. When a person becomes vulnerable and admits weaknesses and dependency, God can take over and work through that person. While this is a hard lesson to learn in a culture steeped in vanity and self-sufficiency, observing the behavior, lifestyle, and faith of a person with an intellectual disability can be a valuable first step.
When our friends with intellectual disabilities are part of church families, a tangible expression of weakness and vulnerability is obvious and effective. Those exposed to it are confronted with traits that most people hide behind a façade. Pride and ego get in the way of authenticity. It is not comfortable being “real.” Yet, when church members get past their insecurities and actually interact and come to know the person with a disability, God speaks volumes to them through that person. There is seldom pretense or posturing in the relationship. A blessing comes from knowing a child of God who is genuine and authentic, who is not concerned about portraying a certain image, who often expresses love unconditionally. The simple, child-like faith usually displayed by our friends with intellectual disabilities reflects the joy and peace sought by every follower of Christ.
Transformation begins in a church family when there is enough interaction to make this authenticity contagious. It is liberating to throw off pretense, to admit insufficiencies, and to become completely dependent on God.
Transformation continues as our friends with intellectual disabilities are welcomed and their gifts recognized and utilized. God values our friends with intellectual disabilities and must be pleased to see them worshiping in His church. He probably smiles when Marilyn claps enthusiastically after the choir sings, when Bill pumps his fists into the air to the beat of a praise song, and when Steve reaches out to the pastor for a “high five” following the service. The church family is blessed and God is glorified when church members learn to love and value each other for who they are and for how they are put together.