For Emily, church means beautiful music, lots of activity, and being surrounded by friends. When Emily wheels herself over to fellow church attenders and grabs their hands, she delights in their smiles, attention, and pleasure at seeing her.
Every Sunday at Sunnyside Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Indiana, a volunteer greets Emily and takes her to the children’s singing time, followed by a children’s class or one-one lesson, depending on what is planned for that day.
We’re never sure exactly what Emily understands, but we know that she listens during the sermons. She will often pipe up with, “Yum, Yum!” if food is mentioned, and laughs if the speaker says something unusual or very loudly. She listens intently when people talk during sharing time, and once in a while, she wants to share something herself, even though she doesn’t speak in the way that most people do.
When Emily was twenty-three years old, our pastors approached us wondering if we’d like Emily to be baptized. In all honesty, we weren’t sure how to respond. Emily communicates only limited concepts. Although her level of cognitive abilities are unclear, we felt quite certain she wouldn’t be able to understand the concept of baptism. Together with our pastors and church elders, we had long exchanges about the meaning of baptism. The Sunnyside Mennonite Church leadership felt comfortable baptizing Emily, but we did not. Baptism wasn’t a choice Emily was capable of making herself. As Emily's parents, we’ve never doubted that God’s saving grace extends to Emily through this life and into the next, but baptising her did not seem appropriate to us.
Instead of a traditional baptism, we decided to have a membership ceremony for our daughter. A membership ceremony signified that the congregation accepts Emily as a member and promises to be a spiritual home for her, even after we, her parents, are gone. A membership ceremony signified that the congregation accepts Emily as a member and promises to be a spiritual home for her, even after we, her parents, are gone. Together, we planned a special ceremony in which the pastors walked up and down the aisles and sprinkled the congregation with water as a symbol of their commitment to Emily’s spiritual future. Following the service, everyone was invited to join in for a fun afternoon of water games, water balloons, a slip and slide, and sprinklers. It was a joyful event celebrating Emily’s special day that was meaningful for everyone.
We don’t know much about Emily’s future, but we are comforted knowing that she will always have a loving church home that is committed to including her and nurturing her spirituality.
Peter and Mary shared this story at ADN's Circles of Love Banquet, 2017. Peter and Mary have three other adult children, all married, and three grandchildren. Mary works as a pediatrician, and Peter works with Mennonite Mission Network in marketing and communications. Emily attends the ADEC day program on weekdays. Peter also serves as an ADN board member.