In the United States, a disability can mean the difference between attending church or not at all.
According to Andrew Whitehead, assistant professor of sociology at Clemson University, the odds of children on the autism spectrum never attending religious services is almost double what it is for children without a chronic health condition. Part of this barrier is due to misunderstandings about God's plans for people with disabilities. Jesus himself addressed this in the culture of his day.
"'Rabbi,' his disciples asked him, 'why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents' sins?'
"'It was not because of his sins or his parents' sins,' Jesus answered. 'This happened so the power of God could be seen in him'" (John 9:2-3, NLT).
Jesus rebuked those who tried to attribute the man's disability to divine punishment, pointing instead to how God would glorify himself through that individual. While he healed this particular man, he did not say that this was the only way God could demonstrate His power in the lives of those with disabilities.
Overseas, it can mean the difference between having a loving place to call home. In Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, thousands of children are in orphanages, but only about 2% are actually orphans. Thanks to deep-seated issues of unemployment alongside stigmas against disabilities, many parents leave their children at state-run institutions, believing they are doing what is best.
One young man finally found a safe home and also humanity's Savior. Zlotea was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth and dropped off at the state orphanage for handicapped children.
Unlike many children who are ejected from Moldova's overburdened orphanage system when they are 15 years old, Zlotea wasn't able to simply make do with odd jobs and thievery like most abandoned children. His disability would've spelled disaster for the young teenager alone on the streets. The orphanage workers were able to locate his grandmother and bundled him off to live with her.
He arrived at a tiny shanty where she had been eking out a living for years. The shack had no bathroom, electricity or running water, and she had no idea how to provide for someone with a physically limiting handicap. Conditions in the state orphanage had been rough, but here, they were outright grim. If matters didn't change quickly, Zlotea knew he would have no future.
He considered his options. While at the orphanage, he'd been informed that some people were taking children to a Christmas event. He was sent along with a group, and he'd been startled by how pretty and clean the center was where they celebrated the holiday. If only he could go back there.
Zlotea found a phone he could use and called the local city hall. There, he knew social workers had their offices, so he calmly asked the secretary if he could speak with one. Once the social worker answered, he explained his situation and then described the center.
"Please find their contacts," he said, clutching the phone tighter. "Please find a way for me to go there!"
The social worker reached out to the team members at the home, but they gently explained that they didn't have any rooms available at the moment. However, the social worker had been appalled by Zlotea's living conditions, and she continued calling the center to see if there was any possibility, any at all, that they could make room and take him.
She was so insistent that one member of the team decided to go out and visit the young man. As soon as Zlotea heard, he began packing, laboriously pulling all of his belongings together and folding them into a small bag. He was determined to find a new home.
When his grandmother invited in their visitor, Zlotea was sitting on his cot, dressed and ready to leave with his bag beside him. Slowly, painfully, the team member explained that this was just an assessment visit. Their center did not make a habit of swooping in and taking children from their current residences without careful consideration.
All very sensible, but Zlotea couldn't keep from feeling like he was crumbling inward with disappointment.
The team member inspected the house, talked to the grandmother, spoke a little more with the young man, then marched outside to make a call. When the center worker at the front desk picked up, he told her, "Find an extra bed. Put it somewhere, anywhere. I'm not returning without this boy."
Then, he went inside to tell Zlotea. Heart soaring, Zlotea watched them pack his few things into the center's car and then said goodbye to his grandmother as they carried him out.
"I can't describe his joy," one of the team said, "when we brought him into the center and he saw the other young people, many of them just like him."
The conditions in the center were much nicer than they'd been at the state orphanage, and the workers were happy to be there, kind and loving to the people who lived at the center. They spoke often about Jesus and the work He'd done to save them. Now physically and spiritually, Zlotea was looking forward to a new life.
This Christmas, may we all become more compassionate and understanding of the challenges faced by people with disabilities and look for ways to be inclusive.
Rachel Chimits is a writer for World Challenge, a global ministry that encourages people to live a better life and make a better world through Jesus Christ. Its partner Best Friends Ministry helps those with disabilities become an integral part of the church community in Colorado Springs.
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