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began my school year with a large set of keys in my pocket. I used them to help me get to school, but I also used those keys in a second-grade classroom to set the stage for including a child with Down syndrome.

The talk went something like this: “Did you know that when you were born, God gave you some keys? How many babies have their ‘crying’ key right away when they are born? How about their ‘eating pizza’ key? That’s right, the eating pizza key you get later on.

“Some keys we have right away; other keys God gives us as we grow and learn. I want to tell you about my friend Joe. Joe has many of the same keys that you have. He loves to eat pizza, and he really enjoys playing with his friends. How many of you have already had a chance to play with Joe? Joe loves to listen to books, and he is really flexible! Joe has some keys that are just the same as yours and some that are a bit different.

“Joe has something called Down syndrome. This makes some things easier for Joe and some things more difficult. Joe is a second-grader, just like all of you. I’m excited for the new keys that you will all get this year as you spend time together.”

When contacted about writing this Banner article, I was asked to think about the spiritual needs of individuals with cognitive impairments. (These individuals are a God-created package of gifts and needs with an IQ below 70). I realized that my talk to the second-graders could also be adapted to help churches welcome people of all abilities. So here are four important “keys” to keep in mind:

  • Each of us has a “made in the image of God” key. Created by God, we uniquely reflect God’s likeness. Therefore, each of us is worthy of respect and honor. Although this particular key shows great variety in design, everyone has one. What this means for your church: Although there has been some improvement, individuals with cognitive impairments have not always been welcome or honored by our society. That has been true in some of our churches as well: “Sorry, we don’t have anything for you here” or “Your family is welcome, but please don’t bring ____ back with you. He’s too distracting.” We need to replace those real-life statements with “You are welcome here” and “We are eager to find places where you can use your gifts and receive support for your needs.”
  • Each of us has a “need for salvation” key. God has provided the salvation that we need by sending his own Son. What this means for your church: We need to help people of all abilities plug into God’s salvation. While including and honoring people is important, it’s also important to know how each one learns and participates. Will the invitation to accept Christ be understood by all attending? Can each person participate in a worship service or response time to God?
  • Each of us has a “gifts” key. God designed each one of us with something to offer in his service. I have been blessed to see individuals with cognitive impairments offer gifts of acting, singing, intercession, compassion, nurture, evangelism, organization, friendship, and hospitality to a church family. What this means for your church: Get to know the individual with unique gifts and needs. Allow that person to serve and obey God by using those gifts in your community.
  • Each of us has a “needs” key. Sometimes people mistakenly look at individuals with cognitive impairments and see only that key. But each one of us is a unique combination of gifts and needs. And God expects each of us to use our gifts and receive support for our needs. What this means for your church: Get to know people with cognitive impairments. What needs do they have? How can your community come alongside them and their families to support those needs? Consider issues such as respite care, volunteer buddies in Sunday school, group preparation for inclusion, and much more.

As you honor each individual God sends to your community, your own keychain will grow. God will give you keys of compassion, creativity, care, responsibility, understanding of diversity, and so much more. As I told the second graders, “I’m excited for the new keys that you will all get this year as you spend time together.”

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