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Christians believe in helping the least of these, but what happens when our best efforts aren’t good enough? The story of a mother who grows tired of her mentally impaired son being an outcast at church.



#19: Where the Gospel Meets Special Needs

Note: The Love Thy Neighborhood podcast is made for the ear, and not the eye. We would encourage you to listen to the audio for the full emotional emphasis of this episode. The following transcription may contain errors. Please refer to the audio before quoting any content from this episode. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Hey guys, it’s Jesse. Okay, so it is currently December, and in the life of most nonprofits, one-third to one half of all of the donations for those organizations, they come in in the months of November and December alone. And Love Thy Neighborhood, we are no exception. We need your help. The only way for us to continue to make these podcasts and to do our boots-on-the-ground ministry is through support from folks like you. Now, we have some really great and exciting news, and that is that we have had a community of generous donors come together to create a $50,000 matching grant. What that means is that anything that you donate to us between now and the end of the year will automatically be doubled all the way up to $50,000. So, to donate and support our ministry, head over to We can’t do this without you. Thank you so much for your generous and compassionate support of our work. Alright, let’s get to the episode.


JESSE EUBANKS: I want you to imagine something with me. And for some of you, this may not be that hard. I want you to imagine that you’re driving. On your way home. And as you’re driving, you start thinking about home and all the things that home means — love, acceptance, community, support. And you arrive and you get out of the car and you walk up to the door of your home. But when you step through the door — something is not right. Your family members keep giving you annoyed glances. While they’re all together, you are sent to a separate room away from everyone else. It’s like they don’t want you there. When you ask them, they tell you ‘Of course we want you here! You’re welcome here!’ But their actions are saying otherwise. How would this make you feel? Rejected? Different? Like a burden? Well thankfully, you don’t have to feel any of those things because this is just a made-up scenario. But not for everyone. You see, for people with special needs and disabilities — when they go through the doors of a church? This scenario can become very real.


JESSE EUBANKS: You’re listening to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks.

RACHEL SZABO: And I’m Rachel Szabo. Every episode we hear stories of social justice and Christian community.

JESSE EUBANKS: Today’s episode is where the gospel meets special needs. We’re going to explore what it’s like to be both part of the special needs community and the church community and how one pastor was suddenly faced with reconciling these two groups.

RACHEL SZABO: And a couple things we do wanna note. First, our stories today do focus mainly on children with behavioral and mental disabilities. And second, you’re gonna hear us use both the word disabilities and the words special needs. Now, these terms mean slightly different things, but for the sake of simplicity we’re gonna be using those terms interchangeably throughout the episode.

JESSE EUBANKS: Welcome to our corner of the urban universe.


JESSE EUBANKS: Okay so, back in 2010, there was a survey done with more than 400 parents of special needs children. And the purpose of this survey was to discover — What are the stats when it comes to families with special needs and their communities of faith? And one of the questions that they actually asked was ‘Have you ever left a church because your child was not included or not welcomed?’ And sadly, one-third of the respondents said yes, they had left a church because of those reasons. 

RACHEL SZABO: Wow, one-third of families experienced their child not being welcome at church? Like welcoming is what churches do, like it’s what they’re known for. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, and those are just the parents who ended up leaving because of it. But another study says that more than half say that they’ve experienced their disabled child being excluded at church.

RACHEL SZABO: Wow. Well, but I doubt that this is an intentional exclusion. I don’t think churches are out there saying ‘Yeah, we don’t wanna welcome special needs or disabled kids!’ Like I don’t think that’s what’s happening.

JESSE EUBANKS: Well no, and I don’t think so either. And it could just be that we’re just like ignorant of the need. But being ignorant doesn’t exclude the need for intentionality. And Jesus is actually pretty clear about intentionality for the disabled.

In the gospel of Luke chapter 14, Jesus is having a meal at a Pharisee’s house. And we’re told this Pharisee was a “ruler of the Pharisees,” so he’s probably a pretty prominent guy and has probably invited other prominent guests. And in verse 13, Jesus tells the man this — ‘When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,  and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you.’

RACHEL SZABO: Which sounds super sweet, right? But then when you think about what Jesus is actually saying — Okay, so I’m a part of this prayer group and we meet in different people’s homes and we have a gentleman that is blind that is a part of this group. And so anytime we meet, we’re constantly having to tell him ‘Hey, y’know, the couch is on your left’ or like ‘Hey, you’re running into the television’ or ‘You’re about to run into the table.’ And so what Jesus is saying like sounds sweet, but if you think about the reality of what he’s talking about, having an entire party of disabled people would just be mass chaos. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Right. I mean if you think about the practical implications of what Jesus is suggesting — inviting a bunch of dependent people over to your house — like no wonder folks with special needs often don’t feel welcomed in the church. Like it’s a lot of work for the church.

RACHEL SZABO: Yeah, and I can totally see where this becomes a problem because not all churches are gonna be equipped to put in that amount of work, that kind of investment. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Right, but here’s the thing. If you’re the parent of a special needs child? Like that investment — it is not optional.

ELAINE MOORE: Like when he was a baby, I would read to him like two hours a day.

JESSE EUBANKS: So this is Elaine Moore, and her son Jonathan was born with a chromosome abnormality. And Elaine says, as a mom of a special needs kid, it’s something you have to think about constantly.

ELAINE MOORE: So it’s kinda just always, kinda always on your mind that you need to be very vigilant about, y’know keeping up with all this and just doing whatever you can to make sure that, y’know, your child gets what they need.

JESSE EUBANKS: So this chromosome abnormality means that her son Jonathan has mental disabilities. So he doesn’t talk much. He reads way behind his grade level. It’s actually a bit similar to Down syndrome. But when it came to church? Elaine and her family were in a bit of a unique situation because Elaine’s church did include folks with special needs. In fact, they had a special needs Sunday School class.

ELAINE MOORE: They would do a craft and maybe have a really brief Bible story and then it was kinda like more like daycare.

JESSE EUBANKS: So essentially, not much was expected out of the special needs kids in the class. 

RACHEL SZABO: Well which makes sense. Y’know, different kids are gonna have different abilities, and so if you’ve got an entire classroom of special needs kids, what you expect out of one kid you can’t expect the same out of the other kid. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Well, it was actually when Jonathan started showing signs of wanting something more than daycare that Elaine was actually met with opposition.

ELAINE MOORE: Even though he didn’t talk very much, it was really evident when he was about eight or nine — he was telling us that he wanted to get baptized.

RACHEL SZABO: Wait so if he doesn’t really talk very much, how does she know that he wants to get baptized? 

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay so, one of Jonathan’s favorite books was actually the gospel of John. And Elaine had a copy of it that was only the first few chapters.

ELAINE MOORE: But it had like beautiful illustrations and Jonathan would want us to read that to him like oh, a couple times a day and it would take like 30 minutes to read this book cuz it was like several chapters. And he just wanted to read it and read it and read it. Kinda near the end it was talking about John baptizing Jesus, and he would say ‘I want to do that.’

JESSE EUBANKS: And it was like not a fluke, like he made this clear more than once.  

ELAINE MOORE: Yeah, that was really neat. We were really excited.

JESSE EUBANKS: So Elaine and her husband, they go and met with the church leaders. Now at this church, part of the baptism process was the person getting baptized would write out their testimony. Really, really common practice. But for Jonathan — that was a problem.

ELAINE MOORE: And at the time developmentally, y’know, he was still working on his letter skills and stuff. He couldn’t really write, and so basically we would’ve been writing it for him. 

JESSE EUBANKS: And so no one really could ask Jonathan about it either. I mean he didn’t have anywhere near the language skills to articulate his thoughts on this. 

ELAINE MOORE: So they said, ‘Well, y’know, we can’t feel sure that he understands this’ or whatever, so they wouldn’t let him get baptized. And we’re like ‘Well, I mean we’re not gonna force the issue,’ but we felt like he was ready.

RACHEL SZABO: Well, but I can see where this church is coming from. Like these pastors are caring for people’s souls, and I wouldn’t want to be baptizing somebody if I was not sure they really understood what they were doing.

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, but the truth is this. They offered spiritual care for folks with typical abilities. But for those with special needs, the pastors aren’t offering deep spiritual care. They’re offering, y’know, she said it, they’re offering basically “daycare.” So they had nothing in place for real spiritual development for kids with special needs, which is something that a guy named Todd Robertson thinks needs to change.

TODD ROBERTSON: There are a lot of people with special needs that are incredibly capable individuals that are created in the image of God.

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay so, Todd is the Director of Missions at the Louisville Regional Baptist Association. It’s a network of like over 150 different baptist churches here in Louisville. And one of the things that Todd does is try to educate and equip churches for caring for those with special needs. And the reason is because Todd’s own son Nicholas was born with a disability called Angelman syndrome. 

TODD ROBERTSON: So Nicholas is 21 now. He’s never spoken a word that’s intelligible, and so he doesn’t speak. He doesn’t walk independently. Still in diapers.

JESSE EUBANKS: But even though Nicholas can’t speak or walk or really do much for himself, Todd still believes his son and everyone in the special needs community has value that’s worth investing in.

TODD ROBERTSON: That need to have the church do more than say ‘Well, we’ve got a babysitting service for while you’re here.’ Y’know, that need to be recognized as capable in their own right, as value to the community in their own right.

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay so going back to Elaine, this is what she wanted for her son Jonathan — I mean for him to be valued and included in their church community. But it didn’t seem possible at their current church. And so Elaine and her family became part of that statistic, that statistic of one-third of special needs parents who end up leaving a church. They left their church. But they left in hopes of finding something more for Jonathan. 

ELAINE MOORE: That he could actually go to classes with, y’know, just regular kids and, y’know, maybe at some point, y’know, he’ll be able to be baptized here.

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay well, the church that they started going to actually didn’t have any special needs ministry in place at the time, but the church was willing to listen and to try. So Jonathan began attending Sunday School with other typically developing kids his age. But, it was right around the same time that Jonathan was going into middle school.

ELAINE MOORE: It was funny at first because at the time he was just starting middle school and we were letting him mainstream into some classes.

RACHEL SZABO: Now when she says mainstream, mainstreaming is when kids with special needs or disabilities don’t attend like a separate class — they attend a typical class with other typically developing kids, right?

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, spot on. But apparently one of these mainstream classes had some kids in it who had, in Elaine’s words, “salty language.” They liked to cuss. Which Jonathan then transferred over to his other class, which was Sunday School class.

ELAINE MOORE: His first Sunday School teacher asked if he had Tourette’s because he was saying a lot of curse words, which he never said at home. (laughter)

JESSE EUBANKS: Um, okay so they finally were able to switch his class at school so that he could get away from the cussing kids. 

RACHEL SZABO: That’s good.

JESSE EUBANKS: Jonathan stopped cussing at church as well. And things in general, like they were going well. But what the church didn’t realize was that as they were helping Jonathan their involvement with special needs was about to go way beyond Jonathan. 

JARED KENNEDY: And in sort of a flat, deadpan way, she delivered the evaluation results to us. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Coming up — things are about to get really personal. We’ll be right back.


JESSE EUBANKS: Welcome back to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks.

RACHEL SZABO: And I’m Rachel Szabo. Today’s episode is where the gospel meets special needs.

JESSE EUBANKS: Elaine’s son Jonathan has special needs, and they just began attending a new church that was willing to work with Jonathan to have him participate in typical children’s church. And the person spearheading this endeavor was the children’s pastor, a guy named Jared Kennedy.

JARED KENNEDY: It’s like 15% less likely that someone who has a disability will attend church in America. So to me, this is, this is where it really becomes a justice issue.

RACHEL SZABO: Wait, did he say 15%? Because I mean like that’s bad, but that’s still like, that’s not a huge number.

JESSE EUBANKS: Well it’s not a huge number, but, y’know, imagine that you’re one of those 15%. I mean if that’s your kid, that matters. And so Jared didn’t want Jonathan’s family feeling like they were not welcomed. And so, he started putting together a plan.

JARED KENNEDY: There was no program to it. It was just like we were gonna help Jonathan participate, and so we just began asking questions like ‘What can we do?’

JESSE EUBANKS: But the way that Jared was really going to find out how to include kids with special needs was actually going to be through a way he was not expecting. So at the time, Jared and his wife had two daughters of their own.

JARED KENNEDY: And when you have children, you go to the pediatrician every several months and they actually go through the developmental checklist with you and they check off like ‘Oh, they’ve hit this milestone. They’ve hit this milestone. They’ve hit this milestone. Do they have 12 words yet? Do they have 15 words?’

JESSE EUBANKS: And then their youngest daughter, Lucy, started falling behind.

JARED KENNEDY: We kinda got to a point about one and a half she stopped hitting some of those milestones, especially with respect to language and responsiveness. I would come home from work and my older daughter would come to me and say ‘daddy,’ and Lucy just never really did that. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Granted, it’s not uncommon for different kids to be at different stages in development. But it was pretty clear something about Lucy was just off. So they talked to lots of doctors, they asked lots of questions, and when Lucy was around three years old she went to see a therapist for an evaluation. And then the therapist called Jared and his wife into the room.

JARED KENNEDY: We sat before the doctor, and in sort of a flat, deadpan way she delivered the evaluation results to us.

JESSE EUBANKS: And the results were that Lucy was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The therapist also said that Lucy was on the more severe end of the spectrum.

JARED KENNEDY: We asked questions about ‘Well, what does this mean in terms of her development and when she’ll hit certain developmental markers?’ And they said ‘We have no idea. We can’t tell you. We know that she’ll grow and progress, but we can’t tell you what that’s gonna look like.’ They also told us how high the divorce rate was with parents of kids who have disabilities. It’s basically just like ‘get help.’ Y’know, it’s not just that your child needs therapy and support. You do too.  

JESSE EUBANKS: And so one afternoon Jared went from having to learn what it would look like to care for special needs kids in his church because of his occupation to now having to learn what it would look like to take care of his own daughter.

JARED KENNEDY: It’s probably the toughest day of my life honestly.

RACHEL SZABO: Man, that’s gotta be hard. I mean just hearing Jared say that. That’s gotta be a devastating moment.

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah. I mean receiving a diagnosis for your kid, like it is, it’s a life altering moment. I mean the trajectory of your life gets changed forever. And so naturally, there’s some grief in that. So remember Todd Robertson, the missions director whose son Nicholas has Angelman syndrome? I asked him what getting the diagnosis was like for him.

TODD ROBERTSON: When you have a special needs kid, what you grieve is the ideal. You grieve this fantasy that you’ve created for what your kid’s gonna be like, what your kid’s gonna accomplish, all the things that they’re gonna do, how they’re gonna be like you, how they’re gonna be better than you, all of these different things that you think about, and then what your family dynamic is gonna look like and all of the aspects of that.

JESSE EUBANKS: And Todd says like all of these questions start popping up in your mind that you really don’t have good answers to.

TODD ROBERTSON: Y’know, we certainly went through those questions of ‘Did we do something to make this happen? Was there something that happened in utero? Was there something that one of us did?’

JESSE EUBANKS: And often as Christians, we tend to give advice and solutions without letting someone simply experience grief.

TODD ROBERTSON: You’re kinda grieving this ideal and trying to figure out what the future is gonna look like, and you’ve got, y’know, one half of the people that are just devastated as if your kid’s dead because they’re not gonna be typical and then the other side, y’know, certainly in the Christian community, then you’ve got folks who wanna say ‘Oh well, just, as long as you pray hard. If you’ll just pray the right things, it’s gonna get all better.’ 

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay so, Todd was sharing this and actually in the studio with him was his wife Kim. And she ended up sharing something that I think is really relatable as a parent.

KIM ROBERTSON: I used to pray ‘God, just, y’know, help him catch up or help him to just be able to take some steps’ and just all these things, and it would just stress me out. And um, finally I just started realizing ‘Okay, I need to change the way I’m praying here’ and realize that maybe this is what God’s will is for Nicholas, and so I just began to pray ‘Okay, God. If this is the way Nicholas is going to be, then help me to be able to deal with it.’

JESSE EUBANKS: But what’s really hard about being a special needs parent is that you aren’t afforded the option to sit in that grief for very long. Like you’ve just got work to do. You have a child to take care of. And so going back to Jared and his daughter Lucy — after he and his wife grieved, like it was time to get to work. So, Jared started researching. And he enrolled Lucy in something called behavioral therapy. 

JARED KENNEDY: All of that behavioral therapy happened after hours, and so for years Lucy would go to school during the day and then she’d come home and behavioral therapist would work with her from three to six every night in our home. 

JESSE EUBANKS: But just progressing at home wasn’t going to be enough because Jared was a pastor. And so for his family, going to church was not optional. And yes, he had learned how to accommodate Jonathan well. But being severely autistic, Lucy’s needs were even more complex. 

RACHEL SZABO: Yeah, y’know, in fact, I found this stat that when it comes to autism and the church, it’s actually estimated that kids with autism are almost twice as likely to not attend church as their typically developing peers. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Right, it makes total sense. I mean if you have autism and it’s a really loud environment and a chaotic environment and it’s socially, y’know, you’ve gotta be pretty adept at navigating a lot of different personalities, like those are all things that are really challenging for people on the autism spectrum. So if Lucy was going to participate in church, there were going to have to be people in the congregation who understood Lucy’s needs. And so not only did the therapist work with Lucy at home but also offered to train anyone else who was willing to learn.

JARED KENNEDY: In addition to that, they trained friends of ours to work with her for three hours every day. And so for years, we hired church members who came into our home for three hours every single afternoon.

JESSE EUBANKS: And one of those church members was a lady named Kelly Stivers.

So Kelly didn’t have any prior experience working with special needs kids. Her mom did teach a special needs class in school, so she did have like an awareness about it. But she had actually never done it herself.

KELLY STIVERS: I was a server at the time, I was waiting tables, and I knew I had the flexibility to do it and it seemed like a good fit. I would be working with one child. They’d train me…

JESSE EUBANKS: And so Kelly started coming each week to Jared’s home to care for Lucy and work on her behavioral therapy.

RACHEL SZABO: So the behavioral therapy, like what does that look like? Like what does that mean? What is she doing with Lucy every day?

JESSE EUBANKS: Well I asked her what therapy was like, and here’s what Kelly had to say.

KELLY STIVERS: Basically how it works is we have certain goals that Lucy is working toward, so early on like one of the ones I can think of is to throw her own trash away. But it works through positive reinforcement, so ‘Okay, we’re going to do it for you and show you what the correct response is and then we’re gonna help you do the correct response.’ And so if I said ‘clap your hands,’ then I would grab Lucy’s hands and I would clap them together. And then I would say ‘clap your hands,’ and if she didn’t go to clap her hands, then I would kind of touch her hands and get her to clap until she could do it independently.

JESSE EUBANKS: And y’know, I asked Kelly if there were ever any days where she wished she hadn’t taken this job. And she said that even though there were hard days where Lucy would constantly cry or be extremely stubborn, spending time with Lucy — she counted it as a joy.

KELLY STIVERS: She would light up when you got there and she’d be so excited to work with her therapist and so she’d come and take my hand and like lead me up to the room that we did therapy like ‘Alright, I’m done playing down here. You’re here now, so I’m ready to go upstairs.’ And she’d literally take you by the hand and start walking you upstairs.

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah so like there were all these like really sweet moments in the midst of like a pretty difficult situation, and so while Lucy worked on progressing at home, Jared worked on figuring out how these things could translate over to a church context. 

JARED KENNEDY: We went to a conference. It’s the weirdest thing. There’s this children’s ministry expo that takes place in Lexington, Kentucky at Rupp Arena every year.

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay so once a year right here in Kentucky, there’s this huge expo and it’s basically like anyone who sells anything related to kids’ ministry — so curriculum companies and furniture companies and puppet companies — everyone’s there displaying their products in hopes that you’ll like buy their stuff. And that’s really all it is, like you walk around, you look at stuff, you buy things. There’s like no teaching sessions, no workshops, no trainings, anything like that. Except this year that Jared went where there happened to be one random workshop. And it just so happened that the workshop was on special needs ministry. 

RACHEL SZABO: You’re kidding me. 

JARED KENNEDY: They had invited a lady from Atlanta to lead just like a one-day workshop in the middle of the day on special needs ministry. And just learned about ways that churches can be more inclusive for kids.

JESSE EUBANKS: And so Jared went to learn what he could about including kids with special needs. But right out of the gate, the conversation was not exactly encouraging.

JARED KENNEDY: One of the first things they said was if you have a special needs child you shouldn’t be leading this, so we (laughter) Um, but, y’know, by God’s providence like I’m the pastor over this area and I have a child with special needs.

RACHEL SZABO: But wait, but why did they say you shouldn’t be leading this type of ministry if you have a special needs kid? I don’t understand.

JESSE EUBANKS: Well for one, being a special needs parent, like it takes a lot of your time and energy already. But also conflict of interest — like of course you’re going to be biased toward your own kid. But actually Jared thinks it’s having gone through the experience himself that really helped him in ministry.

JARED KENNEDY: The Lord gave us a real gift in Lucy in that suddenly we were really aware in ways we’d never been aware before.

JESSE EUBANKS: And so Jared continued to learn. He attended as many conferences and spoke to as many people as he could. And basically what he learned was that when it comes to special needs ministry in the church, there are three foundational components. 

Okay, so the first component is some sort of support group. So remember Elaine and her son Jonathan? Well Elaine actually helped start a support group.

ELAINE MOORE: People would come up to me a lot and ask me questions.

JESSE EUBANKS: So when Elaine would bring Jonathan to church, it was noticeable that he had special needs. So other special needs parents would ask Elaine for advice — ‘How do you deal with this thing?’ or ‘What do you think about this?’ So she became a safe space for this group of parents who didn’t know who to go to. 

ELAINE MOORE: Maybe we should start, y’know, a group so we can kind of have a planned time so people aren’t feeling like well they’ve just gotta catch you for a few minutes, y’know, on the fly in between services or maybe we should have something, y’know, that’s there’s just more time.  

JESSE EUBANKS: So Elaine started a mom’s support group for anyone with a special needs child. 

ELAINE MOORE: Very informal and everybody’s just kinda sharing things, and, y’know, if they have specific prayer requests or whatever, kinda sharing that.

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay so the first component is a support group. The second component to special needs ministry is what Jared calls inclusion.

JARED KENNEDY: Some kind of including ministry, like a buddy ministry where you help kids who have developmental delays, accommodate them to participate in worship and in children’s ministry as much as possible.

JESSE EUBANKS: So Jared’s church was already doing this somewhat with Jonathan. But for Lucy, she required more attention and more help. And so Lucy was one of the first kids to test drive an official buddy ministry at her church. And Lucy’s first buddy was actually Kelly Stivers, the church member who had been trained to work with Lucy at home. Here’s Kelly talking about the buddy ministry in the church.

KELLY STIVERS: A lot of it is just helping her participate with the regular classroom. If they’re doing music time, helping her do the motions and learn the songs. And it’s good to have an extra person to kind of help that child stay with the group and stay engaged in the group or to chase them if they escape. (laughs) 

JESSE EUBANKS: So component one is support group, component two is inclusion, and then there’s the third component.

JARED KENNEDY: Some level of respite care, which is essentially babysitting, care for kids that allow the parents to have time who are kind of constantly in that caretaking mode time to be away.

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, so like a great example of this is my sister. For many years, she was the dean of a special needs camp and it was a two-day, one-night camp for children and adults with special needs who were still living at home with their parents. So their parents would bring them to the camp, and then they would stay overnight. And maybe it was like a 36-hour camp. But what you would see is the next day is you would see these parents come back to pick up their children, and you could just tell like that they just felt rejuvenated, like they just had, y’know, just a little bit of margin probably for the first time in a long time. So getting back to Jared. Today, Jared’s church now has anywhere from six to ten kids with special needs who regularly attend. 

RACHEL SZABO: Man, that’s great. Like I think this whole thing is really beautiful, y’know, like including these special needs kids in with the church. But there is one thing that I’m kinda wondering about. So what I’m wondering is — how much are these kids actually retaining? Y’know, we’re acclimating them into these classes. They’re essentially learning the same things that all the other kids are learning. But is that really making a difference? Like does it matter that we’re including them in these classes, that we’re including them with these other kids or not? 

JESSE EUBANKS: Well actually I think the people qualified to answer that are Jonathan and Lucy. Stay with us.


JESSE EUBANKS: Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks.

RACHEL SZABO: And I’m Rachel Szabo. Today’s episode is where the gospel meets special needs. So we’ve heard from Jared, who said that having his own daughter with special needs has helped him see the importance of having special needs ministry in his church. But I wanna know — what’s the purpose behind it all? Is it just so we can be a more welcoming environment? So the church can say, ‘Hey, look how including we are of these kids’? Or do we really expect these kids with special needs to one day put their faith in Jesus and trust God?

JESSE EUBANKS: Well okay, so remember way back at the beginning of the episode, when Jonathan was eight or nine and wanted to be baptized? 

RACHEL SZABO: Yeah, and the church was not comfortable with doing that and so they said no.

JESSE EUBANKS: Well now, at this point in the story, Jonathan is actually in high school. And he’s been going to youth group. And he begins to bring up again that he wants to be baptized. And so Elaine and her husband talk to the youth pastor.

ELAINE MOORE: Y’know, his immediate response was he was very, y’know, excited and that he, y’know, he wanted to meet with us. So, y’know, met with him and showed him, y’know, Jonathan’s testimony that he had written out. It took a really long time cuz that’s hard, y’know, for him to write.

JESSE EUBANKS: So the youth pastor essentially says like ‘This is awesome. Like let’s do it!’

ELAINE MOORE: He knew that Jonathan was sincere in his faith and, um, that was a difference. And there wasn’t really a question about, y’know, does he really believe this because you could see, you could see the evidence of it.

JESSE EUBANKS: And so just last year, Jonathan was baptized. And for his mom Elaine, it was one of the best days of her life.

ELAINE MOORE: It makes me so happy. Yeah. Cuz it was, it was really hard, especially when he was younger not knowing how things would turn out. Y’know, he is never gonna completely be able to take care of himself. Y’know, he can like bathe and dress and feed himself and stuff like that, but any kind of, y’know — like he’s never gonna be able to drive or certain things he’s not gonna be able to do, so that can be hard as a parent. But then there’s beautiful things too, like his ability just to, y’know, worship with abandon and not be worried about what anybody thinks and that really childlike faith.

JESSE EUBANKS: And in fact, it’s baptism that also has had a profound impact on Lucy too. Here’s Jared.

JARED KENNEDY: We sometimes take the kids from our children’s wing in the elementary class into the balcony to watch people be baptized so they can see what a baptism’s like, and that Lucy went and gathered for that and was just amazed.

JESSE EUBANKS: Lucy’s buddy Kelly was with her that day in the balcony, and she was watching Lucy as Lucy was watching the baptism. And Lucy’s reaction made Kelly realize this is definitely all worth it.

KELLY STIVERS: She was very intent on watching the baptism. I remember having a sense of like she understood what was going on. When you’re in the midst of it and you’re trying to keep them in the classroom and you don’t know if the lessons that we’re teaching them and the gospel that they’re understanding it, and for me it was a moment of ‘she gets it.’ And for me, it was just so thankful for how God spoke the gospel to her even if it’s different than how I would imagine or how I respond to the gospel. Just so thankful.

JESSE EUBANKS: And even for the folks who will never speak and will never be able to give any sign as to what they’re thinking and feeling, like Todd’s son Nicholas, we can be confident that they need to hear the gospel too.

TODD ROBERTSON: Do we really believe that God is sovereign, or do we just believe that God is sovereign in the places that it’s convenient for him to be sovereign? ‘Cuz I think that’s again, I think that goes back to that ideal thing, right? Y’know, so many parents would say ‘I just wanna hear my child, y’know, pray to receive Jesus.’ We’re probably not gonna have a moment like that with Nicholas. The best that I can do is to say ‘God, I trust you and trust that you love my son far more than what even I do whether we see the same outward expression of that that we would expect with someone with typical abilities,’ that it’s enough.

JESSE EUBANKS: People like Nicholas, like, there’s a mystery to it, y’know. But as Christians we believe whether we make our bed in the depths of hell or the heights of heaven God will be there with us. And that means that people like Nicholas, God is speaking to him and he is communicating to him in ways that we don’t understand. But we believe that Nicholas and God do. 

RACHEL SZABO: Yeah, well and I think it goes back to what Todd also said earlier, y’know, that these are folks who have value, who have worth, that are created in God’s image. And so I don’t think it really matters what their capabilities are. I think they’re necessary for a community. Like I think that if we don’t have any special needs folks or folks with disabilities within our community, like we’re missing out on something.

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah absolutely because then all of a sudden we become like about efficiency, and it’s about, y’know, accomplishment and getting things done. I think there’s so many ways that people with special needs bless our lives. Y’know, you think of iron sharpening iron. People with special needs, like they are iron that sharpen us, refine us, change us. Like they are a gift to us. Is it hard? It’s totally hard. Is it worth it? Definitely. 

And so even today, Jared would not say that his church has arrived at caring well for those with special needs. In fact, he and the other pastors are still learning what it looks like to include folks.

JARED KENNEDY: Recently, we’ve had people ask like which small groups that meet in home are accessible for someone who’s in a wheelchair. We don’t even know, like, y’know, I mean that’s not something we’ve typically asked.

JESSE EUBANKS: But the reality is it isn’t just about us helping those with special needs. It’s also about those with special needs helping us. Here’s Kelly one last time.

KELLY STIVERS: I really think one of the biggest benefits is it preaches the gospel to the other kids and it shows them how to interact with people with special needs. It shows them how to love each other well, um, how to look past differences, and remembering when I see other people ‘okay, their identity is not the autistic boy.’ Y’know, it’s ‘he has a name, he has his own personality,’ and just seeing their worth changes how you interact with people.

JESSE EUBANKS: So in Luke 14, Jesus tells his host to throw parties for the disabled. And he says to do this because those are the people who it looks like you won’t get anything from in return. But Jesus actually ends by saying this — ‘For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.’ And this, this is exactly what Jared believes.

JARED KENNEDY: There is a beauty that comes to the least of these. I genuinely believe Lucy will be beautiful in the resurrection of the righteous, and she’s gonna be able to pay back these people who have come into our home and served her over the years in ways she can’t repay right now.


JESSE EUBANKS: So we have an incredibly moving story that we were not able to include in this episode. Todd’s 21-year-old son Nicholas actually has a twin brother. His name is Nathan, and he recorded this beautiful story for us. We actually played this story at our Live Event this past May. And I encourage you to go check it out. You can find this bonus content by going over to If you would like more resources on this topic or to hear past episodes of this podcast, visit our website at


JESSE EUBANKS: Special thanks to our interviewees for this episode — Elaine Moore, Todd Robertson, Kim Robertson, Jared Kennedy, and Kelly Stivers. 

RACHEL SZABO: Our senior producer and host is Jesse Eubanks.

JESSE EUBANKS: Our co-host today is Rachel Szabo, who is also our producer, technical director, editor, and is also still single and ready to mingle.

RACHEL SZABO: I hate you.

JESSE EUBANKS: Music for today’s episode comes from Lee Rosevere, Podington Bear, and Blue Dot Sessions. Theme music and commercial music by Murphy DX. Also, wanna encourage you. Murphy DX has plenty of singles now on Spotify. So make sure you head over to Spotify and add Murphy DX to your favorite playlists.

RACHEL SZABO: Apply for your social justice internship supported by Christian community by visiting Serve for a summer or a year. Grow in your faith and life skills.

JESSE EUBANKS: Which of these was a neighbor to the man in need? The one who showed mercy. Jesus tells us, ‘Go, and do likewise.’ 


This podcast is only made possible by generous donors like you!


This episode was produced and mixed by Rachel Szabo.

This episode was written by Rachel Szabo with Jesse Eubanks.

Senior Production by Jesse Eubanks.

Hosted by Jesse Eubanks and Rachel Szabo.

Soundtrack music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions, Lee Rosevere, Podington Bear, and Murphy D.X.

Thank you to our interviewees: Elaine Moore, Todd Robertson, Kim Robertson, Jared Kennedy, and Kelly Stivers.