A grace culture will never exist when we are unwilling to go the extra mile to extend grace without judgment. When someone is not like us, it is so hard to get past the differences and find the grace and love that needs to be conveyed to bring hope and healing. Today, because of the human condition, we continue to struggle with racial barriers, socioeconomic class wars, and stigmas based on our looks, abilities and status. Many times these stigmas have been passed down like a generational curse for the next person to inherit. There is nothing worse than an ignorant thought passed down by a presumably mature parent influencing an immature child. But it’s important as special needs parents to give the same grace to others as were asking people to give to us. We can either hold an offense or try to understand what has been passed down to them. Though it may not be good, if we were ingrained with the same ideology by our parents and the community we lived in how difficult would it be for us to look at things differently. I’ve seen so many special needs parents including myself sometimes hold an offense by how our family was treated as a special needs parent. There comes a time where we have to just Let It Go.
Recently I was asked by my friend Karl Hagestrom to speak about special needs at a crusade in Africa with him. Thousands of people came from all over the valley to hear about a God who loves them. Of course I was very excited as we were waiting to go on the stage to speak. As we were sitting there, Karl leaned over and said, “You know, I’m not sure how these people are going to respond to your message tonight. You must understand there is a huge negative stigma concerning those with special needs.” They think their children are cursed. At first my righteous indignation rose up and I thought to myself I will tell them! I’ll set them straight. How can these people look at these children as a curse???
Just then one of the interns with us said, “Yes, even here at the crusade it’s freaking us out a little bit. They are bringing kids who have special needs into the prayer tent and asking us to cast the demons out of these children when we know they are just children with special needs. We are trying to explain to parents that their children don’t have demons, they just have challenges.” Now my minds blown. They think there children are demon possessed when they only have special needs? What is wrong with these people???
This is a horrible stigma in many third world countries. In some tribes, special needs children are hidden because they are considered a curse upon the family. Their children may even be killed. I was talking to a leader who works for the organization Compassion International in Africa, and he said that one of the things parents would do would be to take a rope and tie it around a brick and then tie the other end of the rope around the child’s ankle and throw them in a lake to drown. I thought to myself what is the matter with these people? How can they think this way???
In most cases in third world countries, they won’t allow them to attend school or church or be seen in public because of the stigma of the children having something wrong with them. They don’t want that curse around “normal” people. Kids in Africa with AIDS can go to school and church, but kids with special needs are not allowed. I’ll never forget a trip I went on in Kenya. A little girl with autism wanted to go to school so badly that she would walk to school with her cousin but would have to sit outside by herself while her cousin was in- side learning in the classroom. When we drove up to the school, this little girl had the biggest smile on her face and came up to greet our team. Her smile could brighten any room. She would sit outside for hours and wait for her cousin to finish school then walk with her back home, but she was never allowed the same privileges other children were given. At this moment I didn’t want to understand why they feel this way I wanted to tell them how wrong they were. How could they reject a child this way???
As I heard Karl and the interns tell me these things, I started to get a little nervous. I mean there were no barriers between the stage and the people. If I said the wrong thing, I could be in trouble. I began to just pray silently, “God, I know I am supposed to be here. I know you are using me and others like me to break down stigmas and allow your grace to bring awareness and hope to special needs families. Please let me give them the same grace you’ve given me.”
That night I went out and gave a message saying, “Your children with special needs are not a curse; they are a blessing. God is going to use your special needs children to do great things.” I begin to explain about those with special needs and why they were so important to God and should be important to you. They didn’t exactly roar approval at my message, but they didn’t chase me off the stage either. You could tell they had never heard anyone say that a child with special needs was not a burden but a gift. Many lives were impacted. We had parents saying how they loved their children with special needs, but they have been taught about all that was wrong with their special needs child and not anything that was right.
I realized something that day. As bad as awareness can be across the world about the value of special needs children, everyone is on a different journey. Whether people don’t know or don’t want to know how to respond to a special needs child does not make them ignorant for life. We have to have the fortitude to let go of an offense so we can have the discernment to see where people are at. We have to think how can we teach them and bring them along on their own journey. Ignorance is taught and caught. So is tolerance. But you can’t fight ignorance with intolerance. The more we try to understand each person or cultures journey the more effective we’ll be at bringing awareness. No two journeys are the same.