I am a Special Education Teacher by trade who came to teaching late in life—I graduated from Bethel College at 51 years old. I began teaching Behavior Disorders (BD), Autism (ASD) and Transition to Employment for those who need additional support. I currently teach in a program called Project SEARCH based in a hospital. When I first joined the Mennonite Faith community in 1997, I was offered a Senior High Sunday School teaching position at Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton. I spent 20 years in that position where I was able to bring some of my skills, or lack of, to my ministry within the church. Over that period, I had two exceptional young people who challenged me, and my faith in action, in profound ways.
In 1997 we had a young man who was volatile and profane and who none of the teachers enjoyed. I did not have the terms at that time, but he had an intellectual disability. I found him to be impossible to work with and none in my peer group had any ideas how to either. One Sunday morning he was feeling exceptionally frisky and decided to use a Bible as a footrest. When that was called out as unacceptable, he became physically agitated toward me and I physically removed him from the room and shut him out. My heart was racing as he screamed on the other side of the door and the rest of the class demonstrated a mix of reactions from supportive to appalled. One young woman, who remains a trusted source of wisdom, called me out for my lack of tolerance, demonstration of power over weakness, and a lack of substantive and collective problem solving that could have helped provide the needed compassion for this young man. I was moved by her outcry and her articulate expression of my lack of values in the expression of my intolerance. That moment changed me, and I welcomed the young man back into the class and used her words to guide that relationship to a positive outcome for all. That wise young woman provided an inflection point for how I looked at the “other”: as those who are not like me. She exposed my bias of arrogance to me. I am grateful for that needed nudge.
Years later our church was blessed with a young woman with autism. She did not communicate verbally and would often cry out loudly during the Sunday service. She could be seen hitting her parents and required calming during the service. Her behaviors grew as she did and this made her participation in youth activities, including Sunday School, fraught with, “What to do?” By now I had entered a master’s program on low-incidence disability support and my thesis was on communication. I worked with the most violent students in the most restrictive settings, and I loved it. My team and I had great success in reducing abhorrent behaviors and many of my students went on to much less restrictive settings. I looked forward to working with this young woman as her participation in Senior High Sunday School approached.
The other youth were apprehensive about her inclusion and unsure about how to welcome her. Her parents were very supportive of my efforts to integrate her and flexible with my various attempts to embrace her support needs. We settled on a visual schedule and sensory activities, but I was very surprised by what became her signature outreach to her peers. During every class she would untie her shoes and wait patiently as different other youth would take turns re-tying them. Some would be playful and steal a shoe. Some might tie them together. All took a turn with this precious interaction as all realized this was a way to express camaraderie and relationship. She was a genuine and active member of the social group. Those interactions developed into her inclusion in other, less structured, activities. But the important element was the inclusion. She was a part of an age-appropriate social group.
It would be wonderful to step back and look at this as my work to include individuals with profound support needs in the church community. However, the common denominator has always been the leadership of the youth. They seek ways to include and are never comfortable with segregation. It is the adults that teach the youth to separate. It is the adults who teach the youth to fear the “other” as different and unacceptable. That challenge is underscored by my experiences with LGBTQ+ youth who struggled heartily in the Church. It is underscored by the lack of racial diversity in the Church. The youth try to inform us to live up to the promise of Jesus that all are welcome. If we do not see those faces, tolerate those outbursts, or fully embrace the differences in God’s Garden, are we then the welcome ones?
Tom Szambecki is a Special Education teacher in the Maize, Kansas School District USD-266. He is a member of the Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas. As a Sunday School teacher for 20 years with the Senior High church members, Tom worked with a variety of exceptional youth who are each unique and brilliant in every way.