Frances Denino (right) and her daughter Chrissie attend Epic Church in Palm Coast, Florida. Fran has roots in the Beech Mennonite congregation in Louisville, Ohio. Prior to retiring in Florida, she taught school in Cleveland, Ohio.
Chrissie says things that are appropriate for the situation, but unfortunately her speech often comes out garbled. People understand her better the longer they are around her. To compensate for her speech challenges, she has learned to do some signing and is very good at finger spelling, since reading and writing are her strengths.
Due to my husband’s job, our family has moved several times during the forty-three years since Chrissie was born. At one church we attended several years, if the pastor ever spoke to Chrissie, I don’t know when it was. At that church, I was a member of an organization called the altar guild. We took care of the altar. I always took Chrissie with me to the meetings and encouraged her to help with whatever task came up. One year when the guild was going to meet for a Christmas potluck, the host asked me to keep Chrissie at home, which hurt me very much, though I eventually was able to forgive her.
The next move brought us to a new, lively church that was meeting at a school. I became friends with the pastor’s mother and she very quickly bonded with Chrissie. She was embraced with open arms by the pastors and was given the job of organizing the bulletins every week. She sometimes served as a greeter and handed out bulletins. I always loved it when the pastors would see her at church and would always go, “Hey, Chrissie! How you doing? High five!” She was included in our home group, and when it was time for prayer requests the leader would ask her if she had any. She would usually ask for prayer for her bowling score, because she was part of a group that bowled every Saturday. She would also ask for prayer for a friend who was sick or for a dog that she loved.
I was never too concerned about her relationship with Christ. I would talk with her about it and she would affirm that yes, she had Jesus in her heart. And I knew that she surely was his child.
The current church we attend also meets in a high school. We are in a home group here, and she attends with us. Everyone seems to love it that she is there. Sometimes she doesn’t want to stay the whole time since we usually listen to a tape before discussion. When she gets tired she moves to a table and quietly does activity books that she brings with her.
A few weeks before Easter, the pastor made an announcement that we were going to have a baptismal service on Easter afternoon at the beach. We live in Florida so baptisms are done in the ocean. Chrissie looked at me and gestured as if to say “What about me?” I said, “Chrissie, do you want to be baptized?” She said, “Yes!” So after the service, she led me to the pastor and I told him that she wanted to be baptized.
“Chrissie, that’s fantastic!” he exclaimed. “What do you know about baptism?” She gestured with her hand the sign for Jesus and pointed to her heart. The pastor loved it.
When our home group leader learned about the planned baptism, she remarked, "The wonderful thing about the gospel is that everyone can understand it."
On Easter, we gathered at the beach. Several people from our home group came and family members were there also. When Chrissie emerged from the water, a loud cheer arose from those gathered there. She was very happy.
I am convinced that most people want to be open and welcoming to people with disabilities, but often they are fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. It is really pretty simple. Often, what people want more than anything is just to be acknowledged. It may take time and effort to get to know them as individuals, but it is well worth it.
In contrast to the church where Chrissie was basically invisible, her baptism celebration was a vital part of a church where she is a worthy part of God’s family.