Misty Brown once wondered if she’d ever be able to go to church with her husband and two children, as a family, again.
Brown and her husband Daniel have an 8-year-old son, Colby, who has autism. The couple struggled to find a church where their son was able to adjust. For a while they rotated Sundays. One of them would stay home with Colby. The other parent attended church with their daughter Zoe, who is 10.
“[It] was very frustrating not being able to worship together,” said Brown of the church they used to attend.
“They would tell us, … ‘Just bring him. He can sit in the pew. It’s no big deal if he claps his hands and screams.’ But … that was kind of a burden placed on us because … not everyone understands that. We didn’t want that to impact visitors coming to the church. We felt like it was best to just … keep him away.”
Students and volunteers participate in an activity at Rich Fork Baptist Church in Thomasville. The church has a ministry that reaches out to families with special needs children.
The Browns aren’t alone in their struggle. The Center for Disease Control reports that 1 in 88 children has autism.
Some parents with special needs children are turned away from churches that contend they aren’t equipped to handle this issue. And other families, like the Browns, just go when they can.
But then the Browns heard about Rich Fork Baptist Church in Thomasville.
Rich Fork’s reputation for ministering to families who have children with autism and other disabilities had spread throughout the area. And the Browns decided to visit the church.
“It was such a blessing to just be able to drop our son off, know that he was safe, well taken care of,” said Brown, whose family joined the church last December.
“We were able to go [to church] together … as a family; where as before that was kind of unheard of.”
With this month being National Autism Awareness month, pastor Michael Bowers said he’s excited about the ministry. He also added that he can’t take much credit for its success.
“It’s been something that I’ve been able to stand back and watch,” Bowers said. “As a pastor I’m very proud of … the number of volunteers and the resources that have gone into [this ministry]. … It’s really blossomed beautifully.”
The special needs ministry at Rich Fork started about five years ago. A family with an autistic child joined the church, and Rich Fork’s children’s ministry leader Gaylin Stewart looked for a way to help that family. The church asked volunteers to “shadow” (accompany or escort) the child and help him acclimate into a typical class with other kids his age.
“That worked well for that particular child,” said Stewart, who added that the church’s initial effort soon attracted other families. “[They] started coming to us … and [asking], ‘Would you provide for our child, as well?’”
Since then the ministry has promoted itself more in the community and grown to about 17 children – in addition to the church’s adult program.
Parents meet regularly with Stewart to discuss the needs of their children. The church has equipped some of their doors with alarms – that the community helped purchase – in case a child tries to open one of them. And parents occasionally lead training workshops.
“Now we have more of an individual plan for each child,” said Stewart, who explained some children might need more one-on-one time than others.
The church also uses a method called “reverse integration,” where typical students participate and build relationships with developmentally disabled children.
“Some of our older students are now spending time with [special needs] students close to their age,” said Pastor Bowers, who said the approach helps train young volunteers for future ministry.
“I think it makes them a more well-equipped believer,” Bowers said.
“I hope … our students graduate and leave Rich Fork and go to other parts of the state, and other parts of the world, and they go ‘Ya know, I can do this here.’”
In addition to the classroom, the church plans special activities for the children, such as swimming parties or a trip this month to an Alpaca farm.
“Valentine’s Day, [the church] had a couple’s dinner and they were … providing special needs child care,” said parent Misty Brown. “My husband and I were able to go to church, … eat dinner and have both of our kids taken care of.”
“It’s a ministry to their whole family,” added Stewart.
Churches like Rich Fork are a rarity, said Donnie Wiltshire, senior consultant with special ministries for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
“Sometimes out of necessity … churches will minister to [a] family or that child that has special needs in their church,” Wiltshire said. “But it rarely becomes an outreach ministry … to their community and draws people to their church. Rich Fork is an exception to that.
“Rich Fork embraced these people, these families, these children with special needs and ministered to them in a really good way.”
In North Carolina, Wiltshire said, there are about 180 to 190 Baptist congregations that have some type of special needs ministry. Wiltshire added that most of those ministries, however, are geared toward adults.
“That’s a great and wonderful thing, but there are a lot of children around our state [who] have special needs,” he said. “There’s tremendous need across our state for churches that would open up to families … and would aggressively, enthusiastically, with love and energy, embrace them and bring them into their church.”
“There are very few churches that aren’t touched with a child or youth that has autism in one degree or another,” he said.
The church’s ministry has particularly been a blessing to Karen and Mac McGee and their 17-year-old son, Kevin, who has Down Syndrome.
Each Sunday Kevin participates during worship time in the auditorium and always presents his offering before the service.
“For Kevin, for him not to worship would be a crisis,” McGee said. “That’s a part of him. That’s like telling him, ‘You can’t go on the playground anymore.’”
When the opening time of music concludes, a volunteer escorts Kevin to his class.
“He feels a connection with the Lord, there,” McGee said. “The third time we visited … his feet hit the pavement [and] he said ‘Kevin’s church.’”
While Rich Fork is a larger congregation of about 1,000 people who attend weekly, churches of all sizes can minister to special needs families, said Stewart.
Any church, she said, can have a volunteer adult or teenager “shadow” a child. Occasionally a church can ask a few of the developmentally disabled adults in the church to take up the offering.
“It is just beautiful to see that,” Stewart said. “[It’s a] simple thing, but they take it very seriously. I hope some day some of these children can do that too. … They’re not just at our church. They’re a part of our church.”
Stewart said she believes the ministry is drawing children closer to God. She recalled a time when she was ill and in the hospital. A father and his two autistic twin girls visited her and shared how the girls had asked to pray for her.
“When they came and told me that in the hospital … that was worth everything to me,” said Stewart, her voice cracking with emotion. “I knew that what we were doing was taking root in them.”
“Just precious people, all of them,” she said. “They carry a heavy load. To think that a church would turn them away … I just can’t do it. Whatever they need I’m going to try my best to provide it for them.”
For more information about Rich Fork’s ministry go to http://www.richfork.com or, contact Donnie Wiltshire, senior consultant with the special needs team for the Baptist State Convention of N.C., at (800) 395-5102 ext. 5630, or go to http://www.ncbaptist.org.