While watching my three-day-old grandson take an afternoon nap, I wrote him a letter. In one paragraph I said, “Jonathan, I pray that you will grow up to know the Lord, to surrender your life to him and to serve him. I would be so grateful if God chose to use you in some special way to minister to people in whatever way that may happen. I commit myself to be a faithful role model for you as a grandfather and to always pray for you.”
I would be so grateful if God chose to use you in some special way to minister to people in whatever way that may happen.
I signed, sealed and mailed the letter to my grandson who would never read it.
A few years later, Jonathan was diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), along with our second grandchild, Elizabeth. According to the Autism Society, ASD is “a complex developmental disability, typically appearing during childhood and affecting a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.”
The ASD diagnosis has become a challenging and difficult reality for an ever-growing number of children, young adults and their families. A 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report indicates about 1 in 59 children has been identified with ASD.
As I navigated this new world of autism along with my wife, Freda, and daughter, Michele, we discovered a community of abandoned and often forgotten people in desperate need for ministry within the local church.
We attempted to learn as much as possible about autism to serve Jonathan and Elizabeth and apply that knowledge within the church setting. We did so through written articles, published books, videos, professional seminars and communication with therapists. Too often, we met families within the autism community who felt the church was not adequately prepared to meet their needs or the needs of their child with autism.
In October of 2008, we launched the first Autism Ministries at Calvary Wesleyan Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Much preparation had gone into making certain the site was safe and secure for the children. Volunteers were educated and trained, and the congregation was educated about autism and embraced the new ministry. At the time, Jonathan was nine years old.
We did not want it to be a ministry brought into the church; rather, we wanted it to be a ministry of the church. So, before we started the ministries, we included several factoids regarding autism in the weekly bulletin. By doing this, the church became knowledgeable and supportive of Autism Ministries; families from the autism community felt welcomed and not rejected.
The Sunday program had to be more than just babysitting children with autism. We wanted to make their time with us in the classroom meaningful and special. We encouraged the parents to attend worship service, while we took care of their children with autism.
Over the next seven years, Autism Ministries at Calvary Wesleyan Church thrived, garnering attention from professors at several local colleges and universities, who eventually offered their services, expertise and students to assist the leadership team and serve the children. By 2015, the continued growth and success of Autism Ministries made it necessary to relocate to Bethany Wesleyan Church in Cherryville, Pennsylvania, to accommodate the need for more space and additional help.
During this transition, God blessed Autism Ministries with additional leaders and individuals having expertise and experience working with autism. Their assistance has continued to propel the growth and enrichment of Autism Ministries.
The services our team offers have reached into the community. Through Saturday respite programs, children with autism participate in planned activities for four hours, while the parents get a well-deserved and much-needed break. More than 50 children are registered, and 70 volunteers respond to the call for help. It’s a special time for these special children and their parents. We are currently planning an Adult Day Program for children like Jonathan (now age 20), who will soon be too old to remain in school but who still need support and assistance with day-to-day living.
I serve on the Hephzibah62:4 Board, a Wesleyan organization focused on “equipping and mobilizing local Wesleyan churches to transform the lives of vulnerable children.” Autism Ministries is an official partner with Hephzibah62:4, and we are thrilled and honored to be in this partnership.
I could not have imagined where my prayer [for Jonathan] in that letter I wrote was going to take us. But I have to say, if I had known, I can’t imagine I would want it any different.