Every one matters

The SERVEurope Catalyst Team helps our teams and partners see opportunities to maximize their Gospel impact. We offer expertise and connections, consulting, coaching and collaboration in some key areas we believe God is calling his Church to engage. One of these spheres is disability ministry. That’s why Oksana Elsinger recently joined our team as a Disability Catalyst. Oksana brings years of experience and skill in building networks to help churches, families and communities work together to serve families affected by disability. Her experience and connections with valuable partners like Joni and Friends is a great resource.

However, “catalyst” isn’t something Oksana does… it’s as much heart as it is a skill set. Where others see a problem or a distraction, we see opportunity for the church to be what she was made to be. That conviction drives us to serve others in developing a catalytic response to disability concerns in their own respective settings.

Oksana describes a recent experience at her local Twin Cities area church:

I had heard that our registrants for VBS included a mom whose son had autism. Since the boy was going to be in my small group, I called the mom. Her son, Isaac, had some significant behavioral issues. I knew I would need to think and plan ahead to keep him engaged.

30 minutes into the first day, though, it was clear that none of my plans for Isaac were going to work. He threw every toy he touched (Quick, where are soft toys?), bolted away when not held, and continually pinched or spat at me or nearby kids. Nothing would induce him to participate in any activity.

I noticed that Isaac enjoyed playing ball, so we played catch in a spare room for a while. As we tossed the ball around, I listened to Isaac’s comments – he seemed to be quite a smart boy. At one point, he grabbed a piece of chalk and writing the alphabet on a chalkboard. I didn’t expect this from a 5-1/2 year old who hadn’t yet started kindergarten and displayed such troublesome behavior. Given a coloring page and crayons, he started coloring between two narrow lines, drawing the contour of a star. This told me that, beneath all that pinching and spitting was a truly intelligent little boy.

But that didn’t help get him involved in any activities with other kids. Isaac bolted, and I would run after him… even though I could see that chasing him was reinforcing the behavior. But he couldn’t be on the stage where kids were practicing songs… and I certainly couldn’t let him fall off the balcony!

I did manage to get him to stop pinching. I noticed when they arrived that Isaac would keep pinching his Mom’s face and she kept telling him to stop it. It seemed all about attention. Naturally, Isaac started pinching me – but I didn’t give him any attention, positive or negative. He would try to pinch me harder and seek eye contact with me to see my reaction – yet I gave him nothing. Soon, the pinching stopped.

But could I find something positive to reinforce? I saw that Isaac liked to put coins into the little dispenser where kids put their donations. So during story time, we would sit for a moment in the story room and then I’d take him out to put a coin in the box… then we’d go back and listen for another minute… and go out again to put another coin in. But that had to stop, since the door was so loud it distracted the other kids.

I was told at the end of that first day that we would have to let Isaac go – we weren’t set up for one-on-one care for him: what about the other kids in my small group, and teenage helper Matt, who ended up taking of all the other kids alone? I felt like such a failure: all I did was play catch with Isaac for 3 hours… he wouldn’t participate in any activities, not even in the gym (unless you count punching other kids).

All I could do was write my phone number down for his Mom and suggest a few available area resources. Returning to the rest of the kids, I almost missed Maria and Isaac leaving. I saw them in the hall way and caught up with Maria. “{‘m sorry we couldn’t do a better job for Isaac,” I apologized. I told her how unprepared we felt, and how much I wished Isaac could stay… but what to do? Maria asked, “What if I come and stay and help with Isaac tomorrow? I have to go to the doctor, but I can be there for the last hour and a half.” Of course, I told her, they could come.

I struggled all day, feeling like a failure, yet hoping and praying they would return the next day. They did! When Isaac saw me, I heard, “Bye, Mom!” as he ran to me and grabbed my hand. Monday had at least one success: we had actually bonded.  With Maria there, holding Isaac’s hand, he wouldn’t run off… so I could help her here and there, but also be available to Matt and the other kids. With Maria and I helping Isaac together, he was soon playing games with the kids, doing a craft, participating in the “experiment station.” I knew Isaac could read, so we helped him read the Bible verse while other kids had to memorize it. I was glad to know that seed of the Word was being planted each time Isaac read a verse a few times to earn his candy.

For the next 3 days Maria and I spent time with Isaac. He would sit through an entire story (with the help of Smarties” candy). I noticed he liked them, so they became rewards to him for sitting and listening. Maria started the week giving him treats to calm him down when he would start to fuss or try to run away… in essence, teaching him to do something naughty to get something good. Soon she learned to give him a little treat or praise for doing a good job sitting and listening, trying to stretch the time between treats to help him be calm a little longer every time. Psa 139 and us

I also suggested to Maria that she give him a break between some of the activities which were more difficult for him. If he makes it through story time, let him go play ball and run. That way, he will learn that his good efforts would be rewarded. By the last day Isaac was singing on stage with all the other kids about how Jesus loved him and how He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

I knew that on Sunday kids would sing for the entire church, about 150 kids crowded on the stage.  I prayed all week-end, “Lord, help Isaac not get overwhelmed, help him stay calm and not punch any kids next to him!” It ended up beautifully! I headed outside to play ball with Isaac, outside of the sanctuary, where we could watch the VBS slide show. We talked together, went to the office to look for candy and just had a fun time. At the picnic after the service, Isaac’s dad came up to me. “Thanks for spending time with our son. I know he requires a lot of energy.”

“I’m sure it’s not as much energy and grace as you need as parents,” I responded. “Please come back – we’d love to continue to share life with Isaac. We have kids’ church downstairs.” It ended up being such a sweet time.

Yet, if I had met Isaac, say, at LAST year’s VBS, I know what I would have said: “He can’t stay here… we’re not configured to help him, we can’t give one-on-one attention, it’s not our job  – this kid will need special care and extra help. It’s just too much effort…”

Yet with just minor adjustments we gave him an opportunity to hear God’s Word and show his family that we, as the body of Christ, really cared. As the Spirit reminded me, “Faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ,” I knew that Isaac heard the Word of God, read Bible verses multiple times and could experience God’s love as music and words from the songs were penetrating his brain.

On the drive home, Maria put on the VBS CD… and smiled as Isaac sang his head off praising Jesus!

If you’d like to take a fresh look at how your ministry might be refreshed by reaching out to those around you who are living with disabilities – please contact Oksana (oksana.elsinger@efca.org) with the Catalyst Team.

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