The DiToro family in Westbury, New York, is among many that have felt rejected by churches incapable or unwilling to handle the challenges presented by their children with special needs.
Edward and Jessica DiToro and their 7-year-old special needs son, Samuel, say they were turned away and rejected from a local church. They claim that their son was not welcomed in, wrongfully judged and misunderstood.
The DiToros, both in their 40s, told The Christian Post that they left their previous church because they did not like the way the Sunday school nursery teachers treated their son.
The teachers reportedly told the couple that their son "should walk and talk like the other children" and "should be more social with the other children.”
Samuel was often told to leave the nursery when he would hit another child and the teachers reportedly never took preventive steps to prevent the incidents from happening in the first place.
“I believed that the nursery teachers felt that our son had to fit the same phenotype as the other children in the nursery,’” Edward DiToro recounted. “I also don't think that they spoke to him to make sure Samuel felt like he was welcome there. He was just thrown in with the other kids and expected to behave like them.”
“All they would do was say that Samuel did something wrong, whether it's hitting a kid or soiling himself or having a temper tantrum. And there was never any positive feedback given on any week, nor did anyone work one-on-one with Samuel,” Jessica DiToro added.
The DiToros said the church’s congregation often avoided Samuel on multiple occasions and the pastor treated Samuel differently for years.
Eventually, in 2019, the family switched to another church called Point Lookout Community Church in Point Lookout, New York.
They said that their son is constantly engaged in an activity at their new church, whether coloring pictures or reading.
Like DiToro's, many parents with special needs children are searching for in-person or online ministries geared towards meeting their children’s needs or even having the ability to attend a church that welcomes and loves their special needs children.
For some, such ministries helped them overcome their painful experiences in their previous churches, but it has also helped them remain hopeful amid the challenges they have faced during the pandemic.
The youth ministry curriculum developer Orange published a recent article titled “How to Start a Special Needs Ministry at Your Church." The piece details three ways any church can learn and meet the needs of special needs children with ministries designed explicitly for them.
The author, Rev. Meaghan Wall, has lead the special needs children's ministry at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas. She is the lead pastor of the special needs ministry for dozens of kids of all ages called “GIFT: God Is Faithful Throughout." The ministry aims to nurture special needs students by encouraging their desire for a Savior and developing their faith.
Having heard countless stories of church hurt from hundreds of families involved with her special needs ministry, Wall said she felt led by God to write the article because she truly believes “all special needs children are made in the image of God and are created with great purpose."
"Because God has a plan for them and churches can potentially harm family generations by turning families with special needs children away from the church," she told CP in an interview.
“Some churches put up barriers because they don’t think God has it in their plan to serve the special needs population, and they don’t take the time to learn how to meet the needs of special needs children,” Wall added. “How will the family members of these special needs children view the church as a whole if their sibling or child has been turned away from the church?”
“When they see their special needs sister or brother was wrongfully rejected, they are likely to turn away from God," she continued. "[A]nd when these siblings get older, they will raise up children that also don’t believe in God, and the cycle goes on and on for generations. ..."
Many of the parents Wall works with have previously attended churches without special needs ministries, and some were asked to leave. Others were given ultimatums that involve choosing to follow strict stipulations for their special needs children or not return to the church.
The pastors of these churches, she said, often demand the parents to have their special needs children sit very still, quiet, remain separated from the other children, or even stay monitored at all times by a caregiver in addition to the Sunday school teachers.
“It takes a lot for families to come back to church when they’ve been hurt and told, ‘your child can’t be handled,'” Wall said. “We have to serve and love everyone and point everyone to the Gospel. Every church should have a special needs ministry, and every seminary school should teach special needs instructional classes to raise up generations of pastors who can meet everyone's needs.”
Wall said that "there is no excuse" for pastors and church leaders not to be educated on working with special needs children. Wall contends that pastors can "take a class, read a book, or an article online."
“Pastors can even go to their special needs teachers in the school districts in their communities and learn a thing or two from them,” she added.
Since the pandemic hit, Wall said, she has seen an increase in the number of people who attend her virtual special needs ministry classes from other countries. Her adult special needs class attendance has increased. And throughout the pandemic, she offered an online special needs marriage class, which was attended by more people than she has ever seen before.
“The pandemic has led me to offer activities in an online format which has allowed those who don’t have access to a church with a special needs ministry to attend,” she said.
Although the DiToros’ new church does not have a ministry specifically designed to meet the needs of special needs children, the family said their new church had done its homework.
The parents said the church had made an effort to treat special needs children equally and they are educated on special needs children’s specific needs and ways to work with them.
“The congregants have been very welcoming of Samuel’s needs in the Sunday school program during church services,” Jessica DiToro said.
When the pandemic first hit in 2020, the DiToros said their new church took it as an opportunity to love them even more deeply through maintaining connections virtually.
At first, the pandemic transitions were frustrating and difficult because Samuel did not want to wear a mask and didn't understand the importance of wearing a mask. As a result, it was difficult for them to take Samuel to places where masks were required.
During those early months of the pandemic, the DiToros said they would often take turns to run errands to allow for one parent to stay home to watch Samuel. They also stayed home and watched church virtually.
“Point Lookout church has a number of special needs children of all demographics, who were facing similar challenges during the pandemic,” Edward DiToro said. “The church rose to the occasion and provided not only the virtual services to those children in need but also a networking system with the parents of special needs children.”
Point Lookout Church has reportedly helped many parents with special needs children similar to the DiToro family. Although their ministry leaders and pastors do not specialize in special needs care and education, parents have said they have seen firsthand how the church demonstrates their mission “to be and to build community for the glory of Jesus Christ.”
Long Beach, New York, resident Kathy Butler, 65, said when the pandemic first hit, she was riddled with fear about her safety and worried about the emotional and physical well-being of her 28-year-old autistic son, Charlie.
She told CP that her family has attended Point Lookout Church for over 20 years and the church has "loved Charlie even in the very hard years when he was young.”
Despite her growing fears, she maintained her Christian faith while encouraging her son to have faith in God and participate in the church's networking and virtual services.
“Jesus loves all children and doesn’t distinguish between special needs and other children,” Butler said. “I can’t get through the day without Jesus, and it is very hard for special needs children during this pandemic, especially for those with serious behavior issues.”
Charlie, who has limited verbal abilities and was diagnosed with autism at age 3, had difficulty understanding the importance of wearing masks and social distancing.
In addition to having her church’s support, Butler also found solace in another program for special needs young adults called Hangout One Happy Place. The nonprofit organization in Nassau County was founded in February of 2019 to provide an inclusive environment that allows young adults with special needs to create their own hands-on curriculums and do recreational activities together.
However, she said it took many long weeks to find the program because many similar programs were shut down and not offering virtual services during the pandemic.
Butler said for her and many other parents who found Hangout One Happy Place, finding such a program during the pandemic to meet the needs of their special needs children was no easy feat.
"There are possibly many parents in the world who struggled the same or might still be searching for any program to meet their special needs children’s needs, especially a Christian-based program.”
“The pandemic caused Charlie’s volunteer jobs to shut down and his college class and day program became remote. And Charlie began to miss having in-person contact with his peers at church and school and he was left feeling isolated,” Butler said.
“The program Hangout One Happy Place changed Charlie’s life because he got to have social and emotional interactions with peers again during a really tough time.”
The founder of the program, Baldwin resident Angela Lucas, 53, has worked with special needs children for 15 years in various roles in the Baldwin School District.
Although her nonprofit is secular, Lucas, who is Catholic, said she does not discourage the concept of parents establishing religion in the lives of their special needs children.
“It depends on the child because some special needs children are not able to fully understand religion because they are unable to speak, but clients like Charlie are verbal,” she said. “Faith definitely has an impact on everyone. And just because someone is special needs, does not mean they shouldn’t have access to a form of religion.”