Do Good

Everyone deserves a moment with God: Special needs and the Church

by Gabriel Ong // July 27, 2017, 12:07 pm

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Several years ago, a life group in Hope Church Singapore found itself with four unique cell members – each of whom had special needs. With no experience in caring for people with special needs, a few leaders in Hope Church decided to meet and pray over this life group’s new situation.

They then set out to serve and disciple their Friends – this is how members with special needs are addressed – through informal meetings. 

Thus was birthed SHINE, a ministry that now conducts a church service for almost 20 people, which includes both Friends and their family members.

“God goes before us – we just follow,” says Edison, one of SHINE’s founders. It’s a bold and radically different sentiment from what he once thought in private: “Can’t ‘they’ just go somewhere else?”

Edison setting up tables and chairs for the service.

Edison is the first person I meet early the morning I visit the church. He’s a large, cheerful man in his 30s, preoccupied with moving dozens of chairs and tables around the auditorium we were in.

As he offers me a firm and sweaty handshake, I notice Yingqi and Tivona – SHINE’s co-leaders – also working hard alongside him.

I realise they aren’t even setting up for their Friends yet — service would not begin until much later. SHINE’s volunteers are setting up for a session they call Heart Prep — a short thematic study of the Bible and a time of prayer for the service ahead.

There’s an air of excitement and anticipation in the air.

After Heart Prep, we proceed to the ground floor, by the busy main road. Eventually an old battered bus pulls in, filled with Friends who disembark to ebullient high-fives by Aaron, an experienced volunteer who had been waiting with a well-worn wheelchair.

The wheelchair is for Ah Wen — one of the more challenging Friends whom SHINE serves. Ah Wen is in his late 20s, severely autistic and non-verbal. Ah Wen isn’t physically disabled, but he needs to be strapped to his wheelchair because he hits people when he’s moody.

Ah Wen has to be strapped to his wheelchair to prevent himself from hitting others or himself.

He also has to wear a helmet because when he can’t reach other people, he hits himself on the head, either with his hands or whatever he’s holding. Ah Wen is a very large man – he’s taller than everybody in SHINE – and he’s very strong.

That morning, Ah Wen refuses to get out of the bus. His mother looks on for a minute, before trying to pull him onto the wheelchair. But when she attempts to do so, Ah Wen resists, tugging at her blouse with surprising force.

After they finally manage to move him off the bus, Ah Wen has to be held by male volunteers as they strap him into the wheelchair, tying his hands to its armrests as gently as they can. Such physical restraint is practised with love in SHINE, with the consent of Ah Wen’s mother. It’s for his safety — as well as the volunteers’.

Once he is fully secured, we head up to the service upstairs.

For caregivers, coming to Hope’s SHINE ministry must be an indescribable relief, like stepping indoors during a storm.

As we wheel Ah Wen to the lift, we pass by a group of youths who glance over furtively. They can tell that Ah Wen has special needs, and are visibly uncomfortable with his grunting and involuntary shaking. None of them will look him in the eye.

Ah Wen is the biggest and loudest person in the church’s hallway – yet he is invisible.

As we enter the doors, Ah Wen’s mother sighs, “这两天我真的受不了了.” The last two days have been unbearable.

I can’t even begin to imagine her daily routine with Ah Wen – even just getting from the bus to the lift was an ordeal. For such caregivers, coming to Hope’s SHINE ministry must be an indescribable relief, like stepping indoors during a storm.

With Ah Wen safely taken care of by SHINE volunteers, his mother collapses into a chair, relieved to finally have some time to herself. Every morning the struggle begins anew, but for these three hours in SHINE, it’s like there’s a divine ceasefire. 

I’d never seen it this way till now. A mere three-hour “sacrifice” for some of us might well be the most treasured and anticipated block of time in the lives of these Friends and their loved ones.

Edison and Yingqi with Ah Wen.

Worship begins, and strangely enough I can no longer hear Ah Wen acting up. He isn’t grunting anymore, the way he had been on the ground floor. I glance over to see Yingqi and Edison kneeling by his wheelchair.

They stay with him the whole service, praying over him, just being with him. Not once do they leave his side.

Whenever Ah Wen grows restless and starts to shake, Yingqi holds his hand and reassures him gently. She is a petite young woman, and it’s a beautiful display of kindness and boldness.

Ah Wen stomps his feet, and Edison intuitively knows that he wants a leg massage. He crouches in front of his wheelchair to ease his discomfort.

Witnessing such acts of love, I realise I’m seeing the people I first met earlier in the morning in a new light. To my mind, they’ve transformed into superheroes of the faith, all in the span of a few hours.

If God won’t turn His face from any of us, why should we look away from others in His church? How could we?

After worship, I ask Tivona if there are cases of Friends they are unable to take on.

“There are no rules and no exclusions,” she says, although SHINE volunteers must exercise wisdom in the way they minister to various individuals.

Despite the caveat, I see unconditional love in her answer. 

My mind is filled with thoughts as the service ends and I head home on the train.

When we walk into a room before our Father God as His children, does He love one more than the other? Does He look at an athlete admiringly, but pretend a person like Ah Wen isn’t there? 

If the answer is no – and surely it’s a resounding no – then we, too, must love all our brothers and sisters equally.

If God won’t turn His face from any of us, why should we look away from others in His church? How could we?

Edison and the SHINE ministry volunteers.

I think back to something Edison shared during our conversation. It was about a dream he had about Ah Wen: “It was me and Ah Wen in heaven. And Ah Wen looked at me and said, ‘Edison, thank you. Thank you for all your help to me when we were on Earth.’

“And I just cried and cried. I woke up crying.”

I see now that the need is so great. The harvest really is plentiful (Luke 10:2).

Some of us still perceive our Friends as people with broken minds, broken bodies. But we are all broken vessels – and in the spiritual realm I don’t believe they’re any more broken than we are.

So it makes perfect sense that we worship one God, under one roof, as one Church.

SHINE is a Special Needs Ministry from Hope Church Singapore. It aims to embrace people with special needs in God’s love, empowering every individual to be whom God has created them to be. It runs services every fortnight, on Saturday mornings. For more information, contact shinehopesg@gmail.com or visit their Facebook page.

We’re trying to find out how many churches in Singapore have services dedicated to those with special needs. If your church has one, or if you know one that does, email us at hello@thir.st with the details!

About the author

Gabriel Ong

Gabriel isn't a hipster, but he loves his beard and coffee. In his spare time, he'd rather be on a mountain.