As I was leaving a Brevard County Recreation social recently, I spoke to the parents of a young couple that I did not know.  This  young man and young woman were small in stature.  Perhaps their disability was Down.  I didn’t pay that much attention to their disability because I was enraptured with their obvious love for each other.  She was shy and demure.  He was attentive and caring. 

“They are so wonderful,” I said to their mothers as the other partiers gently pushed them out the double front doors.  “You must be very proud of them.”  The group fanned out heading for their cars and vans.  The parents looked at me as though I had fifteen heads.  Neither mother responded to me, not even changing their facial expressions.  But their eyes showed a hint of concern.

Oops! I thought.  I knew immediately that I’d broken community protocol.  You see, parents are extremely aware of the potential for abuse for their children.  These loving, caring and naive young adults are ripe for exploitation.  Unless you know the person and their parents personally, it is unwise to assume that you will receive a friendly reception from parents. 

Having been a part of the mentally challenged community for more than 20 years, I tend to forget that newer parents may not know who I am.  I painfully remember my first ventures into the bowling leagues and dances.  The bowlers or attendees of the social events would rush me with joy and excitement.  They knew me from the agencies that I visited at lunch time and the classes I taught at the agencies.  They knew me from Special Gathering chapel programs and events.  Parents had not met me yet.  They were not as welcoming and charming as their adult children. 

Over the years of being a public speaker, I’d learned how to move into a group where I was unknown and fit right into the group.  But this was different.  There was an invisible, almost impenetrable wall that hindered me from even carrying on a conversation with these men and women.  I understood their concerns and fears but it was hard for me not to mildly resent their rudeness. 

It has taken years and lots of hard work for me to become a part of the parent group in Melbourne and Indian River County.  After more than a decade, some parents in Indian River County are still leery of me because I came on too strong while establishing a new program in Vero. 

Here are some things that make it easier for a person doing ministry within the mentally challenged community to break down the wall of concerns and fears among parents.

  • Be consistent and faithful when attending social events.
  • Don’t rush. 
  • Adopt the attitude, “I’m not going away.  I’m here permanently. I don’t have to be in a hurry.” 
  • Allow patience will blossom within you.
  • Pick one parent to befriend. Chose someone who smiles or speaks to you.  Sit with them.  Allow them to talk with you or ask simple questions.
  • Be quiet for a long time.  Don’t offer opinions but gather as much information as you can about the families.
  • Remember their names and the names of their children.
  • If you know a professional who is attending, having a conversation with them will be a bonus.
  • Because more and more professionals are taking mentally challenged people to social events, develop a relationship with them by speaking with them and offering casual conversation.
  • If you see a new parent, introduce yourself.  Becoming friends with a new parent means that as they are accepted, you will also be more easily absorbed into the parent circle through their friendship.

Remember that eventually you will be the person they will call in the middle of the night.  You will be the one parent’s will consult about the best future for their children as each parent becomes frail and life is tenderly seeping away.  Eventually, you will become like the one pastor in a small frontier community.  Everyone will expect you to minister to those who are hurting, sick or dying within our cloistered sub-culture.

Even if parents are closely associated with a church family, you will be the one minister who has invested their lives into the well-being of the mentally challenged community.  Parents will come to know that you are deeply concerned about their child’s spiritual future. 

The developmentally disabled  population is growing as new diagnoses and new syndromes are found.  We are a vital part of the lives of parents.  It will take time.  However, God will lead you slowly–“line upon line…here a little, there a little.”