Let’s Move Past (Another) Church Controversy and Embrace Acceptance

August 09, 2020

Editor’s note: This article was originally written in March 2020, when a New Jersey church was the center of a controversy when it was accused of not allowing a boy with autism to receive his First Communion. Now, months letter, this article is a relevant resource in light of recent event where a New Jersey family’s young son was asked to leave his sister’s Baptism. 

A New Jersey church was at the center of a controversy earlier this year when it was accused of not allowing a boy with autism to receive his First Communion. The boy’s parents said they were told their son could not receive the sacrament because his disability prevents him from understanding right and wrong. 

Month’s later, in early August, another New Jersey church is the center of a similar situation, accused of  asking a family to remove their son with autism from his sister’s Baptism ceremony. The church explained that the boy should not have been playing during the ceremony and was a distraction.

These situations are unfortunate in several ways, not just for a breakdown in communication. These families no longer feel they can rely on a trusted spiritual institution, and they feel their children have been either deprived of an important milestone in their religious education, or denied the right to participate in a siblings sacrament.  It is no easy task raising a child with special needs, and these families most likely gained strength and spiritual support from their church community and probably felt their church was a part of their family where they would always feel accepted.

Still Seeking Acceptance

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of these stories, however, is that, in the year 2020, what these families experienced can still happen anywhere in our communities and is not unique to any single institution, religious or otherwise. These experiences illustrates there is still quite a bit of work to be done in the area of “Awareness,” one of the four pillars of Autism New Jersey’s mission. It also demonstrates how a lack of acceptance and inclusion can be emotionally devastating.

In April, Autism Awareness Month, Autism New Jersey focuses on the people and places that are helping to shape our communities as models of patience and tolerance. For every negative story and experience, there is one that inspires and moves us forward. One needs to look no further than our dedicated Ambassadors to find shining examples of people doing amazing work to promote acceptance and tolerance.

There are, of course, many places of worship that are extremely welcoming to everyone. Autism and Faith: A Journey Into Community — a collaborative product of The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Autism New Jersey, and others — profiles several such religious communities that have strong relationships with members who have disabilities. These are communities that go out their way to “actively value the goodness of creation … and welcome all of God’s people,” writes Mary Beth Walsh, Ph.D., a Catholic theologian and parent of a child with autism.

An Excellent Source for Everyone

“Autism and Faith” is an excellent source not only for families of individuals with autism, but also for their worship communities who have good intentions but are struggling with being as inclusive as possible. The guide also provides a glimpse into how a strong, understanding relationship with these communities can provide tremendous benefits to all their congregants.

“Creating an atmosphere where parents of children with autism can gather in safety and honesty will enable the synagogue/church to successfully put into practice its noble calling and, as a result, present an opportunity to add value and meaning to the lives of its congregants well beyond the group,” says Rabbi Geoffrey Haber, who formerly served Temple Emanu-El in Closter, NJ.

We hope all of you, regardless of religious affiliation, reflect on how you can encourage places of worship and secular spaces to be more welcoming. It may help when you feel your own ability to be inclusive is being challenged, and when it feels easier to reject rather than to sit back and to accept. We hope you remember the words of the Very Rev. John R. O’Connell of Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity in Midland Park, NJ.

“If a kid jumps up and screams, it’s not a problem with me. This is not my house — this is God’s house, and I’m just the custodian.”

Experience Our Power of Connection

Autism New Jersey is following recommendations from the CDC and state Department of Health and is implementing telework and remote meetings for its employees to help reduce the community spread of the coronavirus.

During this time, our 800.4.AUTISM Helpline will remain open. Please leave a message with specific dates and times you are available for a call-back, or email information@autismnj.org.  You can also message us via our website, and we’ll aim to reply promptly.

We remain focused on our mission to be a resource for the autism community. With a fluid situation and great uncertainty, we’ll share relevant, accurate information as it becomes available. We encourage you to regularly visit our central hub of coronavirus resources for the autism community.