Similar to our Vocation of Peacemaking series, The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this new series from the BPFNA!
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“I Pray With My Eyes Open” by Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is from There’s A Woman In The Pulpit – Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments and the Healing Power of Humor, edited by Rev. Martha Spong, 2015. Permission granted by SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT, www.skylightpaths.com.
When I began professional ministry as a young single minister, on Sunday mornings all I needed were my keys, my wallet, and my Bible. Flash-forward six years, and I was packing a bag with diapers, wipes, bottles, a change of clothes for my baby, and an extra blouse in case I was spit up on.
I never imagined that twelve years later I would live next door to the church yet still be packing a diaper bag, a lunch, and an iPad to take with me on Sunday mornings. My son has autism, and uses the iPad for communication.
We walk to my office, twenty feet from the parsonage, at 9:15. My son turns on all the lights in the office and immediately goes to the toy box, usually dumping it upside down. During Sunday school, I lead Bible study for adults while he plays at our feet, occasionally interrupting me on his iPad to tell me he is ready for his snack.
Following Sunday school, we walk to the church building together. I sit my son down on the front pew at 10:45 and open his lunch because he is used to eating lunch at eleven 0'clock every day, and, of course, worship begins at eleven. While I greet people as they arrive, my son often runs up and down the aisle more than once before I am able to corral him and locate him in the front pew again.
I have led worship while my son began to have a meltdown. I have prayed with my eyes open, watching my son crawl under the pews. I have announced to the congregation, "Please be seated," and immediately added, in a louder, sharper voice, “A. J., sit down!" as he stands on his tiptoes on the edge of a pew. I have led worship on two hours of sleep when A.J. has struggled to sleep through the night. I have to trust the Holy Spirit to carry me through on the difficult days.
This is Sunday morning for a pastor and a mom of a child with autism. I am half of a clergy couple, but my husband commutes a half hour on Sunday mornings to another town, and going along would add an extra hour to my son's already long Sunday schedule. Most Sundays he comes with me. It has taken time for the congregation to get used to him. At first, many found him loud and distracting. Even though they were introduced to him during the search process, even though I wrote a letter to the congregation about him, they still did not understand until they experienced him in worship.
The main difficulty of being a clergy mom of' a child with a disability is that people are afraid to help. They are afraid they don't know what to do and don't know enough. When my son was a baby, before we had any cause for concern, I never ran out of volunteers willing to hold him or care for him. That all changed once we had a diagnosis of autism. It took a long time before people in my current congregation felt comfortable enough to respond to my requests for help.
Now A.J. is part of the congregation and no one is distracted by his behavior anymore. Everyone greets him and offers him a high-five or a hug. They smile when they see him run up and down the aisle – which has become rarer as he matures and becomes used to the Sunday routine. I have volunteers in the church who, after the greeting time, will take A.J. to the back pew, where he can lie down or move around without disturbing too many people or distracting me. He is welcomed with open arms at children's church, where he can stack blocks or write letters, or at times simply run back and forth to get his energy out. He loves coffee hour and who wouldn't, when it is the one hour of the week that I do not care how many cookies he has? People are excited when they experience the developmental milestones he has made, when he smiles, when he says hi, and when he gives hugs.
Our congregation has grown in our understanding of welcoming and accepting people of all abilities. We recently received a grant to hold an inclusive day camp for children with disabilities and their typically developing peers.
For me, my identities as pastor and mom are intertwined. As A.J.’s mom, I am constantly advocating for him, whether it is to be included in activities typically developing children are included in, or in school, to have the best resources available for him to grow. It is no different in the church. Every Sunday, I am advocating for my son to be included as a child of God in the church. Every Sunday, I pray with my eyes open.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is currently pastor of Burien Community Church (American Baptist) in Burien, Washington, and is also on staff at Open Gathering Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ new church plant. She previously was senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Framingham, Massachusetts. She wrote a chapter in the Modern Magnificat: Women Responding to the Call of God, edited by fellow RevGal Jennifer Harris Dault, and writes weekly worship resources at Rev-o-lution (rev-o-lution.org). She is married to Rev. J.C. Mitchell and is the mother of A.J., who has autism.