By SCOTT BARKLEY, Baptist Press
MILLER, Mo. (BP) — Their names are Brant and Grant. They are twins, 48 years old and Down syndrome. Some might look at them and think they could do little for Round Grove Baptist Church.
They would be wrong.
When Mark Fugitt walks behind the pulpit each Sunday, he is guaranteed at least a few rounds of “Hallelujah!” Amen!” from the direction of the twins. It’s like a pitcher taking the mound with a strike already in the count.
When Laura Fugitt stands in front of the special needs adult class she teaches every Sunday, she knows she is going to see pure love for Jesus and the gospel. “They know the Bible. They are all saved and baptized, and they are not ashamed of it,” she said.
Days like March 21, recognized as World Down Syndrome Day, resonate with the Fugitts. They experienced the inherent isolation that is part of ministry, but also that that comes with being a family with special needs. Two of their four children are diagnosed with autism, and so the need for such ministry is before them every morning.
Round Grove had an active special needs ministry before the Fugitts arrived four years ago when Mark answered the call to become a pastor.
“It marked us,” he said. “If you live it, it’s easier to understand the need for it and appreciate its value. We hope to expand it. »
With an average attendance of 300, Round Grove is one of the largest churches in its area, perched on acres of cornfields in southwestern Missouri, with Springfield and Joplin about an hour away.
Isolation can become a fact of life for families with special needs. COVID-19 made it better, but also helped in many ways. For a while, everyone understood what it felt like to be away from other people. Technology has caught up and made church more accessible through live streams.
Two years later, most are back to pre-COVID life. But many families with special needs have not done so due to concerns about their loved one’s immunosuppression. Laura Fugitt’s adult class averaged 12-15 before Covid, but now has four regular attendees.
Even without the specter of COVID, people with Down syndrome have a shorter lifespan. Round Grove has also experienced this, as several students in Laura’s class have died in recent years.
Yet the actions taken by Round Grove have received praise and resulted in greater involvement of families with special needs. Laura knows what it’s like to soothe an autistic child in the church hall during the sermon. Round Grove offers a sensory room with privacy but also a calm and quiet place to decompress when a child is overwhelmed. Items include beanbags, weighted blankets, ball pit, swings and fidget toys.
Separate events provide more opportunities to connect with the church. A sensory-friendly version of an Easter egg hunt last year provided distinct physical boundaries and fewer crowds and noises. Adults participated in their own Vacation Bible School class, learning about missionaries and scripture, making crafts and singing songs with lots of visual aids and pictures as the majority of students don’t know read.
Mark Fugitt encouraged churches to look for ways to reach these families and individuals.
“The need is there. You won’t see it if you haven’t provided resources, but it’s everywhere,” he said. “We have learned over the past few years that you need to develop a personalized plan for your families. Listen to them. Every need is different; every family is different.
But don’t forget the importance of inclusion, his wife added. Train teachers on how to work with people with Down syndrome and other special needs. This is beneficial for both parties as they learn to communicate and appreciate each other.
Brant and Grant will turn 49 next week, a fact they’ve been announcing since January. Maybe they understand why it’s remarkable; maybe not. But they celebrate with a vigor that most people don’t express.
The difficulty of going to church with a child with special needs — the expectations of standing still, being quiet and generally not causing a scene in a very social setting — may be too much, according to Laura.
“So many families don’t go to church; it’s just too difficult,” she said. “They could be considered an unreached group of people.”
But, she added, when a church takes these steps to welcome them, the benefits can be as obvious as a hearty “Hallelujah!” Amen!”
“I see this joy of learning and loving God. Don’t underestimate them.