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Mother of autistic son buoyed when church reached out with compassion

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–When Cecilia and Harry Hernandez were asked if their 10-year-old autistic son, Chris, would participate in the Special Friends ministry at East Orlando Baptist Church, their first response was, “Why would you want him there?”

Bobbi McCain, Special Friends director at the time, simply replied, “Why not?”

In the past, the Hernandez family had been scorned by people who suggested their son’s disability was a punishment for sin. The family also had experienced the pain of seeing people withdraw from them out of fear or misunderstanding.

But East Orlando Baptist Church seemed different. Members were reaching out to them with a genuine compassion. Shortly after moving to the area, the family received an invitation to the church from a co-worker, a letter of welcome from the church and a visit from McCain.

“I didn’t promise anything other than to teach [Chris] about Jesus,” recalled McCain, who now is involved in starting a special needs ministry at First Baptist Church, Kissimmee, Fla. She also does consulting in special education ministries on behalf of the Florida Baptist Convention.

The couple agreed to let Chris participate in Special Friends. He enjoyed being there so much that it drew the other family members to the church. One by one, Chris, his parents and his two younger brothers received Christ and have been active members of the church for the past 10 years.

Chris, now age 20, is still involved in the Special Friends ministry, which now consists of about 30 people in five classes. “All you have to say is, ‘It’s time to go to church,’ and he’s waiting at the door,” his mother said.

His brothers — Tommy, 18, and Michael, 16 — both are in the youth group. Cecilia has served as nursery coordinator and Harry was a senior adult Sunday school teacher until his death last year.

“Our family has felt the support of the church all these years, but especially since my husband passed away,” Cecilia said. “I feel like the church is my family. They accept Chris for who he is, they love him, they are involved in his life, they come to the house and visit him.”

Parents of special needs children need to know that there are people who care and will share the love of Christ with them, Cecilia said.

“Sometimes people will not try to help you because they’re afraid or don’t understand, so they back away,” she said. “That makes me, as a mother to a special needs person, feel hurt.

“It’s because of the loneliness you have. You don’t want to ask for help. But at my church, people reached out to my family. I didn’t have to ask, they asked me.”

Despite success stories such as this one, being invited to church can be a rare experience for families with special needs children, said Margie Pratt, special education director for First Baptist Church, Inverness, Fla.

One parent told Pratt, “I can’t believe you’re inviting me to church. I’ve been asked to leave many times, but never invited to attend any.”

A special needs ministry can be hard work and time-consuming, Pratt acknowledged, but its rewards far outweigh any difficulties. The Inverness church’s 10-year-old special needs department includes more than 100 members from five group homes.

“If a person leaves the class with one basic Bible truth, God will use it and we’ve done what we were supposed to do,” Pratt said.

Robbie Arnold, special education director for Wayside Baptist Church in Miami, said her goal is for people with special needs “to become a part of church life, just like any other member.”

Begun 21 years ago with two teenagers, Wayside’s special education department now has approximately 140 members, including some who serve as greeters, ushers and Mission Friends workers in the church.

The special needs ministry of Delaney Street Baptist Church in Orlando began 25 years ago to meet the needs of one person, noted coordinator Dottie Rich. Today, the department has five Sunday school classes, including ones for senior adults, the hearing impaired and for those with Down syndrome.

Despite care to establish classes to meet specific needs, “we’ve tried so hard to make it a comfortable place to be, not so specialized they feel they don’t belong,” Rich said.

Ken Anstadt, a Sunday school teacher for Delaney Street and a retired special education teacher, said special education ministries should provide ways for people with special needs to learn to become servants of God.

“It’s important for them to be part of church functions; they really love to be included,” Anstadt said. “They need to feel useful and to be the servants that we are all called to be.”

Special education ministry is about providing a place of acceptance for everyone, said Russ Hughes, an associate in the Florida Baptist Convention’s Sunday school department whose responsibilities include special education.

The department sponsors a Special Education Retreat at Lake Yale Baptist Assembly each June. In addition, Hughes does training and consulting for church special education ministries.

For more information on special education ministries, contact Hughes at (904) 396-2351, ext. 8210.

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