2021 Special Needs Conference

By Sharon Mager

When Allison Fournier shares about her son, her face reflects a kaleidoscope of emotions—pain, love, frustration, and joy. “I know it’s only Saturday, but can I tell you about my weekend?” she asks at the 2021 Special Needs Conference at the Church at Severn Run. “I watched the movie ‘Elf” twice, and I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ five times, and that’s normal in our house because my son, Kaiden, has autism.” Those are Kaiden’s favorite things in life, she says.

Allison Fournier shares about attending a previous special needs conference and finding she is not alone (photo by Sharon Mager).

I am not alone
Taking a pause and deep breath, she tells her story. “In 2018, I walked through the hardest year of my life. Kaiden was diagnosed with autism, and my husband got on a plane to go to Korea for a year. So here I am, by myself, trying to figure out these uncharted waters of all things therapy and trying to help my daughter to survive second grade. Then, just when I thought I couldn’t handle anything else, God opened —no, he flung the door open for me to work in ministry.

“And so I walked through that door like a woman with a mission. Through my son’s story, I feel God put a calling on my life to encourage others who walk on a similar road.” Fournier joined the staff of Church at Severn Run and soon found herself at a special needs conference. “Within the first 30 seconds, I was in tears because I realized I was not alone.”

Dr. Bergina Isbell says, “When God looks at my children, He looks at them as whole and complete. And He says they are indispensable.”

Fournier was one of several speakers and panelists who spoke at the June 5 conference, sponsored by the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) and The Banquet Network (TBN). At least 50 people attended the meeting at the church and another 30 participated online including guests from Puerto Rico, Guam, Ontario, and Panama. Several registered for TBN’s free individualized church coaching.

Mental health, special needs, trauma and race intersect
Dr. Bergina Isbell, a keynote speaker, and her husband Amir are parents of two children with special needs and shared Fournier’s experience of being at the same conference, “Indispensable,” several years ago. She too felt the warmth of being with others who understood, and was encouraged by the message that there are many parts in the body of Christ but the weaker vessels are indispensable.

Brian Rowe plays the drums with the Gathering Place worship team.The group led worship for the conference. Rowe also served as emcee for the ev (photo by Sharon Mager).

“When God looks at my children, He looks at them as whole and complete. And He says they are indispensable. The world may not think they have value or are ‘less than’ or ‘low functioning,’ but God doesn’t look at them that way,” Isbell said. She said she draws from that knowledge in all she does as she relates to others.

Isbell, a board-certified psychiatrist, using multiple examples, shared how special needs, mental health, trauma, and sometimes race, intersect. She pointed to several news accounts for examples of that overlap. One referred to a young man who had special needs, was married, and was doing well. Later, he began having some mental health issues. The man became depressed and possibly suicidal. The family was interacting with the man to help him and the young man became upset and ran out of the house. Concerned, the family called the police to help this man and bring him home safely. Unfortunately, police officers found the man running in and out of traffic, tried to subdue him using tasers, and eventually, as anxiety escalated, the young man was shot several times and killed.

The incident Isbell shared happened in an African-American community. Because the man was unarmed when shot, fear and anxiety rippled through the neighborhood.

“Police officers are just like you and me with husbands, wives, and children. They’re not the bad guys. There is not a single officer whose dream in life is to go take someone’s son from a mother or to make a wife a widow. Law enforcement officers are often called to deal with people with special needs and mental health issues,” Isbell said. She shared how police officers become more affected by trauma over time.

About 50 people attended the first Special Needs Conference since COVID-19 began. Thirty people participated online (photo by Sharon Mager).

Hope at the cross
There is hope, Isbell said. She quoted Dr. Thomas Rodgerson, a counselor at CentrePoint Counseling. “We must wrestle with the difficulty of having a traumatic event at the center of Christianity.”

Isbell said, “Crucifixion didn’t exist before the Romans not only created that form of torture but [also] the entire idea of being hung on a cross. That word didn’t exist – to be crushed, to be crucified. The Romans created the word. That is how devastating and how traumatic the cross is, yet at our cross lies healing, lies hope, lies freedom. So, at the place of trauma is also our source of hope.”

In addition to Christianity’s role in assisting in mental health and special needs areas, Isbell shared several resources and encouragement regarding society’s response to the special needs challenges.

She and her husband recently started a podcast called “Hope Infusion,” dealing with various faith, mental health systems, and individuals.

Brian Rowe invited participants to grab drums lined up on the first row and play along during worship (photo by Sharon Mager).

Also helpful, she said, is a registry in some areas. For example, parents or loved ones can register someone with special needs, sharing photos, what the person likes and doesn’t like — basically resources professionals can use if necessary.

She mentioned “mental health court,” where those who have to appear in court can do so with judges, attorneys, and other staff who understand or are trained to work with people with special needs or mental health challenges.

In some areas, Isbell said, trained mental health workers are assigned to go with police officers when dealing with someone who has special needs.

Using a personal protection model, Isbell showed a slide of her son learning to put his hands up (unarmed) and point down at a lanyard. “We’re teaching him to say, ‘I have autism’ for law enforcement to understand he is not a threat,” she said.

Softly, she shared, “What mom wants to teach their child that? But it gives me some solace to know he’s protected and might help other folks who have similar concerns.”

Tom Stolle emphasizes, God cares for those with special needs, but does the church on earth?(photo by Sharon Mager).

These resources are not available in all areas, but Isbell is encouraged that there is more awareness of the need.

Finally, she shared a slide showing a wheelchair at the gates of heaven with the caption, “Heaven is not handicapped accessible.”

She concluded, “There are no wheelchairs, hearing aids, glasses, no anxiety, anti-psychotics. Heaven is heaven.”

Church is “social on steroids”
Thanking Isbell, Tom Stolle who serves as the associate director of the BCM/D and as the volunteer executive director of TBN, understands her concerns. Stolle and his wife Shelley are also parents of a 19-year-old son, Jimmy, who is affected by autism.

Blake Davenport says, “If our churches don’t work for all of us, they don’t work for any of us”(photo by Sharon Mager).

Stolle said he and Shelley are so grateful that the local police department have treated their family courteously, not using sirens or lights and being respectful and kind.

A member of High Tide Church (HTC) in Delaware, Tom said he and his family are bad church members. They’re late every single week, and it’s intentional. HTC leaders have a designated spot for the family near the back. That way, when Jimmy needs to take a break, he can slip out unobtrusively. And he needs lots of those breaks.

“Church is ‘social on steroids,’” Tom said. “There are greeters, hugs, smiles, handshakes, casual conversation, and that’s just on the way to getting to worship! I love all that stuff.”

Then there’s the music. “Singing, clapping, drumming, the keyboard, and other noises we love are too much for him,” said Stolle. “Worship music is awesome, and all of that is great. But for some folks with specific disabilities, that may not be the case.

“So, to make worship all it can be for Jimmy, we arrive late intentionally to avoid socialization,” he said.

Stolle emphasized he wouldn’t want churches to change worship. “But shouldn’t people like my Jimmy have a place to worship, too?”

Katie Matthews and Michael Crawford are part of a panel discussion during the conference (photo by Sharon Mager).

At HTC, volunteers spend time bouncing a ball and hanging out with Jimmy. During that time, they share their lives, how Jesus has moved in their hearts, and share Bible stories with Jimmy. They call Jimmy their friend. “That’s worship for Jimmy,” Stolle said.

Stolle challenged churches to discern whether they genuinely care about families in their communities who are affected by special needs. Are they willing to open their eyes and take the necessary steps to welcome all?

“Most folks who don’t ‘live it’ don’t get it. They don’t see it,” he explained.

Tom said, according to statistics, if you took all of those who are affected by special needs and put them on one continent, it would be the third-largest on the planet.

It’s not a “niche” ministry.
Blake Davenport, coaching and volunteer coordinator for TBN, continuing Tom’s sentiment, said churches are made more perfect as they reach out to the margins and embrace weakness. “Accessibility is not optional. It is required to live out the mission Jesus has for us,” he said.

Allie McCarty, the operations and communications manager for The Banquet Network, prepares to give thank you gifts at the end of the conference (photo by Sharon Mager).

In the ’40s, Davenport shared that fighter jets were designed based on average sizes. They measured pilots’ arms and legs and calculated the mean measurements to build the cockpits. Then planes began crashing. After measuring ten pilots precisely, they realized none fit the “average” model, so they had to make adjustments.

Referring to the book “Miss Match: How Inclusion Shapes Design” by Kat Holmes, Davenport said disability isn’t challenging for people because of how their bodies and minds function. “Disability is hard for people because of the way the world doesn’t work for them.”

“If we are the designers, then we are responsible for these mismatched interactions. We can create negative interactions or design ways that work for those with special needs,” said Davenport.

Davenport asked, “Have you ever ordered off a menu you didn’t understand? That didn’t work for you, right? That’s the experience people with disabilities are having in our churches.”

Panelists Blake Davenport, Dr. Bergina Isbell, Allison Fournier Michael Crawford, Katie Matthews and Jim McCaffrey answer questions during the June 5 Special Needs Conference (photo by Sharon Mager).

Referring to a bell curve design, Davenport said, “We design our world for people who are in the middle of the bell curve.” He used the example of desks and smartphone features designed for right-handed individuals. “We make things to work for those in the middle then lopped off the ends of the bell curve.

“We are leaving people off on the end. That’s where Jesus is. We are in the middle, and we serve a God who goes to the end of the bell curve. He leaves the 99 sheep to go for the lost one.”

“How can we rethink our churches to work for individual people?” Davenport said it’s hard, takes effort, isn’t economical, and is not efficient, but it’s the heart of Jesus.

Reading about a church Davenport said is that’s doing “inclusion” the right way, Davenport said, “This place hired someone specifically to focus on inclusion. They had carefully designed listening meetings so people with disabilities could participate. They didn’t ‘section’ them off and understood their value. This place is called Target. Maybe you’ve worshipped there before?” He referred to an article by Stephanie Tate called “The Ministry of Target.”

Davenport said, “If our churches don’t work for all of us, they don’t work for any of us.”

Cover photo: Katie Matthews stands with her son, Thomas (photo by Sharon Mager).