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In her memoir, Dancing with Max, Emily Colson describes the challenges and joys of raising a child with autism, including a common experience for many: the difficulty that comes with attending a worship service. 

Over one-third of families who have a child with a disability have changed churches because they did not feel welcome. Many stopped attending church altogether, and some even left the Christian faith.

When Colson attended a worship service at The Gathering, a church plant in Holland Michigan, she was thunderstruck by the presence of many people who have autism and other disabilities, as well as many non-disabled people.

The Gathering is a joint venture of Benjamin’s Hope, a community for people affected by autism and developmental disability, together with the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. Disability Concerns provided behind-the-scenes assistance in the formation of The Gathering.

Colson reflected on this experience in a blog:

“The band hit the first note and people flooded forward, dancing. I could feel my heart race; I’d been waiting 20 years to experience this—ever since my son Max was diagnosed with autism.

“At The Gathering, residents, family members, friends, and people who have not felt welcome at other churches worship weekly. Dancing is encouraged. Jumping is expected. Sitting is optional.

“In his message, pastor Eric Peterson told us about God’s power to help us when we ask him. In the middle of a point, a commotion broke out beside me. Two young women with disabilities were visibly upset.

“‘Is everything OK?’ Pastor Eric asked gently. ‘Should we stop and pray?’

“As if waiting for the invitation, several young men who also have disabilities jumped forward to pray. I ached at the simple beauty of stopping life, of asking God to come to our rescue at this very minute. ‘God, please help us love each other,’ one young man with autism began to pray. ‘Please give us peace.’

“It took my breath away. ‘This is who we should be in our churches,’ I thought, ‘totally transparent, willing to drop everything to be with one another in our needs, present with someone without demanding that they change for our convenience.’

“How many families affected by disability sit at home on Sunday mornings because they can’t find their way into a seemingly perfect church? How many people without disabilities stay home for exactly the same reason? Tears filled my eyes as if my heart had been pried opened. God wants us to come to him as we are, open, vulnerable, even in our most untidy state.

“At the end of the service we danced again and swayed and hugged and cried. We held hands high as we sang the final song, and I thought, ‘This changed my life.’”

(Abridged by permission of the author from specialneedsparenting.net/gathering.)

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