One of the largest un-reached people groups in the United States is the disability community. Over one-fifth of all Americans are affected by permanent disability, according to the most recent Census Bureau numbers. They're un-reached because of the isolation, pain, difficulty, and degree to which people affected by disability are ostracized in our culture.
Our daughter Ana has Down syndrome. I've had a lot of exposure and contact with the world of Down syndrome as a result. As I look back on my life experiences, I see how God was preparing me for life with Ana. I have been in youth ministry for 20 years, and in every one of my ministries there have been many students with disabilities, including Down syndrome. God has been so kind and gracious to expose me to the world of disabilities before I was graciously pulled into it on a deeper level with Ana.
When she was 10 months old, we noticed strange things were happening to her. She would lose control of her body, especially her head and arms. We quickly called the doctor and got an EEG test that showed a thing called Hypsarrhythmia. Our neurologist gave us a diagnosis of infantile spasms. We were devastated. It was a difficult and tiring journey to her being fully cleared of all seizures. Her seizures were most often in the middle of the night; I would get up and hold her during the seizures, and sometimes there were episodes of 40-50 in a row.
I remember a night about 7 years ago very vividly. I felt completely helpless, and all I could do was cry out to Jesus through the tears. "Help me. Please help me, Jesus."
This is just a glimpse into life for people in the disability community. To face these struggles is exhausting spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. One amazing way God has refreshed my family is through the ministry of Joni and Friends, especially the ministry's "Family Retreat." Most families facing disability struggle with endless demands on their time, energy, emotions, mental capacity, and spiritual life. I've been in support group, after support group, where people were completely overwhelmed. These families rarely have time to feed their own souls in substantial ways. Yes, we really are committed to the Lord daily, we believe in the importance of personal and corporate time with him, but practically how does this work out?
When my family attended the family retreat for the first time five years ago, this renewal happened for us. When we drove up to the camp, we wept as counselors and staff held up signs with our children's names on them. We were being celebrated for the first time, and it was completely disarming. As a result of the disarming power of celebration, we were able to have complete respite and be rejuvenated through corporate worship with like-minded people in the disability community. We also had the opportunity to be blessed by those facing the same struggles. "Short term missionaries" served the families, each one assigned to our individual children. My wife and I even had the chance to talk to each other about goals for our family and the deep, hard things we were dealing with, without interruption! We even went on a date! Every year on "date night," we find there are couples who haven't been out for a date since the birth of their child with disabilities, and for some this is 10-15 years prior.
In our involvement with Joni and Friends ministry over the years, I've met so many people neglected by their own church. One such woman was a single mother with a 21-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy. As soon as her child was born, her husband left her. This is actually, sadly, a common occurrence; some figures reflect the divorce rate is as high as 80 percent (http://drgrcevich.wordpress.
com/2011/04/12/special-needs- and-divorce-what-does-the- data-say/). Her husband couldn't handle the shame he felt, so he left.
She would often seek out other people to connect with in her church, but nothing materialized. One day, her pastor preached on the passage in Luke where Jesus says to invite the poor and disabled in to your homes, the people who can't repay you. "He (Jesus) said also to the man who had invited him, 'When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just'” (Luke 14:12-14).
As she tells the story, she became so excited when she heard the passage and her pastor's teaching. "This is finally the day; now someone will invite us over!" she thought. So she rolled her daughter's wheelchair out to the foyer, turned it around and parked it so people would have to walk by them. Yet the people filed by; not one single invitation was extended to this very tired single mother. This is unfortunately an all too familiar scene for many in the disability community.
As we partner with ministries like Joni and Friends, however, we can make it more of a priority to serve families in our community affected by disability, and we can learn the best ways to meet their needs. For my family, the retreat has been crucial. Our heart has grown for the most unreached, un-evangelized, hurting, and isolated people group in the country. Let us with fresh vision obey the words of Jesus to "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed."
I believe Joni Eareckson Tada is the most influential Christian leader of this generation. See her testimony below. And here are a few links to information about ministries the church can take advantage of: