I don’t think any Christian Resources Exhibition (CRE) attendees expected to cry within five minutes of arriving (if at all!), but most of us were deeply moved by the opening presentations.
The exhibition opened with a performance by blind singer-songwriter Marilyn Baker, accompanied by children from the nearby Roman Catholic Notre Dame School. The young girls also signed all of their songs using Makaton.
Then 12-year-old Jonathan Bryan and his mother Chantal took to the stage. Jonathan has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and is entirely non-verbal. He uses an alphabet board to spell out everything he wants to say through his eyes. He has written a best-selling book, Eye Can Write and has launched a charity, Teach Us Too, which promotes the right for all children to be taught to read and write, whatever their label or diagnosis.
Jonathan had prepared an opening statement, which was read by his mother. In it he said: “Throughout my life I have known Jesus with me, cradling me in pain, sheltering me from darkness and beckoning me forward.”
Jonathan spoke about how wonderful this year’s CRE focus on churches for all was, because “Jesus is for all”. He said: “Jesus chooses the weak over the strong, the poor over the rich, the humble over the proud. God’s heart is for those on the margins of society, and his church needs to reflect this.”
Jonathan stressed the importance of accessibility in churches, but was quick to point out that we can’t stop there. He said: “True inclusion goes deeper than accessibility. True inclusion enables us to contribute as well as receive. True inclusion values us as part of the body of Christ and we each have a part to play in making God’s kingdom a reality here on earth.”
The last opening address was given by actress and comedian Sally Philips. Sally commended Jonathan for his powerful words and admitted that while she had a first class degree from Oxford University, she didn’t properly understand the cross; that Jonathan and her son Olly (who has Down’s syndrome) understood God in ways she never could.
Sally was also interviewed later that day about her experience of parenting a child with additional needs. She spoke about her son Olly’s emotional giftedness and shared her perception that children with disabilities force other people up to behave in new, different (and often better) ways. She admitted that Olly has taught her to stop valuing independence and instead strive for a more biblical model of interdependence. Sally concluded: “We are not the body of Christ without including everyone.”
As those who champion the next generation, we must think about how we not only welcome but actively enable contribution from our children and young people with additional needs. How can we involve them in our services? What would they like to bring to our youth and children’s groups? What can they teach us about God? We’d love to hear your thoughts – email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.