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Building channels: Hawaii church’s autism class connects through experience

Agape Mission Baptist Church in Oahu started a Sunday school class for autistic children in October 2021 that has already gathered seven students while ministering to their families.

PALOLO, OAHU, Hawaii (BP) – For the first year, Calvin and Bin Kim didn’t see anything different in their daughter, Chloe. She laughed and jabbered; she would tug at her daddy’s leg if he attempted to leave the room.

Then things changed. The family moved to Hawaii from Virginia when Calvin accepted an interim position as senior pastor of Agape Mission Baptist Church in Oahu. A few months later, Chloe withdrew emotionally. She didn’t respond to people or point at objects. She wouldn’t make eye contact.

“Her quietness became my sadness,” Calvin Kim said.

A September 2019 doctor visit diagnosed Chloe with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Kim described the news as “devastating.”

One in 44 children are identified with ASD, according to the Center for Disease Control, with it appearing among all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Symptoms include a deficit in social, emotional and communication skills and range from showing a lack of interest to becoming loud and disruptive. Behaviors or actions are repeated. Good and bad days hinge on sticking to a routine.

After collecting themselves, the Kims took account of the situation. Their daughter – regardless of diagnosis – was beautifully and wonderfully created. They vowed that she would understand the love her heavenly father had for her.

So, they got to work.

“We started looking for ways to treat our daughter and educate her,” Kim said. “It can take up to six months for her to get into the proper school and program, now almost two years because of COVID.”

As a result, Chloe’s education came at home through a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) and specialized education plans for children with ASD. Over time, the improvements came, and now she will even have short conversations with her parents.

The Kims’ experience with their only child has opened up a door for others. Another family started visiting the church whose son’s ASD made him unable to sit still during worship. At first a separate room was provided for him and a parent, but it became clear that this cut off a time of much-needed spiritual renewal for that parent.

“I sensed that we should provide care for the children so parents can focus on the service,” Kim said. “So, we started a Sunday School class for children with autism.”

To be clear, the church doesn’t treat the class as daycare. One-on-one attention includes worship, Bible study, arts and crafts. Agape hired RBTs to help in teaching lessons. And though Korean is the preferred language of the church, teachers need to be able to speak English, as that is what most of the children understand. Volunteers are desperately needed but hard to come by, so the church has invested in hiring personnel who fit the need.

Since then, two other families have joined because of the class. In the spring of 2020, Bin Kim launched a YouTube channel dedicated to their daughter but that also shows the impact of the class as smiling children play in the classroom, walk along a nature path and marvel at a sunset over the Pacific. Currently the channel registers more than 2,300 subscribers.

In addition to connecting with families online, Bin Kim also works full-time as an education assistant with special needs children at a local school.

The channel provided a door for many families with a child diagnosed with ADS. Those families said they wanted to go to church, but either felt they weren’t wanted or their child would be too much of a distraction. Subscribers asked for advice or just wanted someone to talk to who could identify with their predicament.

The ADS class at Agape Mission Baptist Church currently has seven students. It may be for the children in name, but it’s really for those families.

“They need to have a time where they can focus on worshiping God,” Kim said. “Also, their children need a time and place to know about God on a level they can understand.”

And families need to know they are not alone. “There are others like them who can fellowship with them in the faith,” he said.

It is also helpful for a measure of grace to be extended when someone’s child acts “different” or offers an unfiltered, socially-awkward opinion. After all, Kim said, God has a heart for these families.

“Autistic kids need Jesus, too. We want them to focus on knowing that,” he said.

That effort doesn’t come without work, investment and prayer. But it leads to something different than the “quietness” and sadness described by Kim.

Over time, it’s being realized each Sunday, things can change.