When I Go to Church, I Belong – Elrena Evans

When I Go to Church, I Belong: Finding My Place in God's Family as a Child with Special Needs by Elrena Evans, Rebecca Evans
Also by this author: All Will Be Well: Learning to Trust God's Love
Published by IVP Kids on September 19, 2023
Genres: Children's, Children's Educational, Disability Theology
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Children with disabilities often struggle to fit in, but church can be a place where everyone is welcome and included!When I Go to Church, I Belong follows the story of six children, helping us better understand the experiences and feelings of those with special needs. And it reminds us that even though we have our differences, we also have so much in common.

Written by Elrena Evans and illustrated by Rebecca Evans, this message of inclusion and belonging can be enjoyed by children and the adults who read with them. Also included is a note from the author to encourage further conversation about the content.

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I’ve had this book a month and read through it multiple times and each time came away from it with a sense of unease. When I Go to Church, I Belong is a book written in the voice of a young child with disabilities speaking about their experience at church. Each panel talks about their church and what it does in order to be inclusive of all people. One panel shows us a group of kids where one is using a wheelchair and another has a service dog. We see kids playing in an accessible playground. There’s a potluck where foods are clearly labeled and there’s an allergy-friendly table. The church has a sensory room and a place for kids to dance and walk around during service. There’s a class helper that is able to care for those needing extra assistance. And the final panels of the book talk about how they know they are welcome, they know that God loves them, and they know that their church loves them. It’s a beautiful ideal. So why the sense of unease?

Honestly? Because it’s not what I’ve experienced. Not as a layperson. Not even as a pastor. Studies have shown that 86% of church-going parents with autistic children stop going to church because the church isn’t able to accommodate their needs. Churches are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act and church architecture often reflects this. The last time that I had an allergic reaction to a food came from an unlabeled dessert at a church potluck where I was told there definitely weren’t nuts in it. One study found that a majority of pastors said there were no disabled people in their congregation.

When I Go to Church, I Belong offers up an ideal for special needs children and adults. But it is one that the many, many people do not feel. Because when they go to church, they don’t feel like they belong. Because their body is treated like a prayer request. Because the restrooms aren’t accessible to them. Because they aren’t accommodated or included. My sense of unease comes in that most of the people who read this book probably can’t relate to it. If it had been written as an aspirational what-could-be rather than a statement of what-is, then I think my feelings about the book would be different. Instead, this feels a bit like unintentional gaslighting.

There’s no real story to this book. It doesn’t talk about how the church noticed these needs and changed, or how a family found a place of inclusion after not feeling included in other places. There’s no character development or even plot. It’s just a series of illustrated panels of things churches can and should do to be inclusive. Handled differently, I think the book could have had more of an impact and reflected the reality of most people with disabilities when it comes to their church experiences. We can and must do better. When I Go to Church, I Belong offers readers an aspirational ideal and I commend it for that, but the implicit implication that it is what churches already do is unfortunately inaccurate.