By Sharon Mager
Lamar Hardwick is a pastor and he has autism. His website’s domain name is autismpastor.com, so you know he’s open and candid about his developmental disability. And that makes some people uncomfortable.
Hardwick shares, “I do recall having an interesting conversation 3 to 4 years ago. A man sort of took issue with my online moniker ‘autism pastor.’ He asked me why I label myself that way.”
And Hardwick’s reply? “It’s only a problem if you think those two terms don’t go together. People like me and those with other disabilities are perfectly capable of answering God’s call,” he says.
God uses a lot of people with issues, he says, referring to Moses’ speech impediment, and Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.”
“Why have we detached this understanding in our modern context when it’s all throughout the Bible?” he questions.
The church’s challenge
Hardwick, who will be a keynote speaker at the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware’s (BCM/D) Special Needs Conference at Colonial Baptist Church in Randallstown, Maryland, on March 28, was 36 when he received a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. He is now the pastor of Tri-Cities Church in Eastpoint, Georgia. And he has a passion, a mission, to challenge today’s church to intentionally reclaim those with special needs and disabilities who have been left in the margins.
“The church was born to include those people,” Hardwick says, pointing to Matthew 16, where Jesus told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom …” He explains, “It has always been our job to give people access to God’s world.”
He encourages churches to make strategic strides to become more inclusive and to start special needs ministries. The issue isn’t money, he says; it’s getting leadership invested. “Nothing happens if it’s not important to pastors and leaders,” he adds.
“The church must understand the tremendous amount of influence and impact it can have on the lives of people,” Hardwick emphasizes.
In his book “I am Strong,” Hardwick refers to Jesus’ parables in Matthew and Luke about the lost sheep. “For years, I assumed that the primary point of this story is the sinfulness of the missing sheep,” he says. “After all, the owner has to search for the little sheep that has gone missing. In many ways, this implies that the sheep is wrong or sinful. At the very least, the sheep is so different from the others that it seeks isolation.”
What if the lone sheep is not the errant party? Hardwick wonders. Perhaps the flock has allowed the sheep to wander, to get lost, to become abandoned.
He understands the feeling of being lost. For three decades, he experienced overwhelming challenges as a result of his undiagnosed autism. Throughout his childhood, he felt as though the world was in on a joke that he didn’t get. His speech issues, separation anxiety, inability to interpret social cues, and need for isolation caused him to feel isolated and made him a target for bullies. He learned to present a façade, hiding his true self. Middle school was even more difficult, and in high school, he turned to drugs and alcohol.
Hardwick made a profession of faith at 17 but admits the true quickening came in college when he and several others were in a near-fatal car accident. That’s when he surrendered his heart.
“That was my first understanding on a personal level that God really did care about me and what I was doing in my life in real-time. Jesus died thousands of years ago and rose from the dead, and He was the way to the Father. I had a real sense of what I was doing and what I had to do,” he recalls. “It gave me an understanding that what I did mattered. I affected other people in a real way and I understood that. That was the first time I started to get a sense God might be calling me if what I did influenced other people.”
It was also life-changing to meet and marry his wife, Isabella. Hardwick can open himself to her completely, lower the mask and be who he is, and Isabella accepts and loves him.
Lamar sought a diagnosis for his disability while working on his doctorate. For one of his classes, he asked several people to complete evaluations of him as a leader and as a person. One older father-figure, who he respects, wrote that Lamar managed well in small groups but missed social cues in larger groups and that he was laser-focused on one task at a time. That evaluation, as well as critiques from others about his social struggles, caused him to take action.
Hardwick did research for a year and asked Isabella to help. “When I got the diagnosis, I was prepared,” he said. While there was a relief, there was also anxiety and pain. “There was a lot of work and the trauma of having to discover who I am. It has been a tough road, but I am thankful to finally have words for what I am dealing with and words to explain how people can connect with me,” he relates.
For God’s glory
Now, in addition to his pastoral duties, Hardwick travels, as he can to encourage churches to be intentional about opening their doors to those who have disabilities and special needs.
“Humanity has a long history of connecting our disabilities to God’s judgment,” he says.
He refers to John 9, where Jesus encountered a man who had been blind since birth. When asked whose sin caused the blindness, the man’s or his parents’, Jesus answered that it was neither the man’s nor his parents’, but so that God’s works might be displayed in him.
“What we believe about our weaknesses, our differences and our disabilities says a lot about what we really believe about God,” Hardwick says.
“Imagine a God so powerful that He works through our differences and our disabilities,” he concludes. “Imagine a God so powerful that our limits have no authority to limit God’s abilities. Imagine, if you will, a world in which God takes full responsibility for assuring that each person with a difference or disability has value and dignity because God chooses to use their difference as a platform for pointing people to Himself. I believe there is no greater privilege than to be a person God can use to orchestrate His perfect plan.”