Loved by God
Ministry to people with special needs shares God’s love, and the love of the church
In Grace’s bedroom in New York, her mother has placed several Bible verses on display.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” says one, a passage from Matthew.
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession,” reads another, from Deuteronomy.
These are important messages for any child to hear, but they have special meaning for Grace, who has autism and is nonverbal, and her mother, Janet Paduano Cardillo.
Through the ministry of Colonial Church of Bayside, New York, both Janet and Grace have come to know the love of Christ. And Janet, in turn, has used her special-needs experience to help Colonial Church start its Friendship Club, a ministry for Bayside residents with intellectual challenges.
“We really love it,” says Paduano Cardillo, a Colonial Church deacon and RCA disability advocate, of the volunteer work she and Grace put in to organize the Friendship Club. “[Colonial Church] is always encouraging me to pursue God’s call for my life. I never really understood what my purpose was, but the veil is being lifted from my eyes. I truly believe that this is God’s plan for us, to share his Word with a church that loves all people, no matter what their abilities may be.”
The Friendship Club at Colonial Church started in 2013, thanks to the efforts of Paduano Cardillo, pastor Jack Donahue, ministry co-leader Minha Kim, and a handful of other Colonial volunteers. Every Wednesday evening, the club’s friends—adults living at a local group residence—and their caregivers come to Colonial for a time of songs, Bible lessons, crafts, prayer, and discussion. Attendance is voluntary, and club attendance averages five to 15 friends each week.
Club lessons vary in topic and have included the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and “Who is God?” Group discussions focus on getting to know each other, with Jesus at the center. Praise songs often involve repetition with a simple message, or YouTube videos so that the friends can watch the songs again at home during the week. Sometimes the group plans special events, such as during Easter 2013, when church musicians performed an Easter cantata for the friends, followed by a time of fellowship.
When planning lessons and activities, “we need to think outside of the box and consider our friends’ needs,” says Paduano Cardillo. “We want to think about how we can assist our friends in applying the word of God in their day-to-day lives, which look very different from yours or mine.”
Paduano Cardillo knows this reality firsthand, as she’s raising an autistic daughter as a single mother. They first encountered Colonial Church a few years ago, when Janet enrolled Grace in the church’s vacation Bible school program.
“My daughter and I were welcomed and embraced,” she says. “They went out of their way to help us. It was through this church reaching out to me and Grace that I now know Christ.
“There is often such a gap between the church and families struggling with special needs. That’s why it is our church’s desire to share the love that my daughter and I have been given to other families. This is what God wants us to do, and we must answer his call with an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’”
“It is my strong belief that the outreach to these special needs people is pleasing to the Lord,” says pastor Jack Donahue, who often leads lessons at Friendship Club meetings. “I have fallen in love with these friends. They are warm and loving, and, like the rest of us, they enjoy the experience of being made to feel important and wanted. It is my great desire to be their pastor and let them know how much they are loved by God—and by us.”
“A church is only complete when all people are welcome, and all people are seen through the eyes of the Lord,” says Paduano Cardillo. “It’s amazing when a church recognizes that people with special needs can be part of their ministry community too.”
Janet Paduano Cardillo is willing to answer questions or provide assistance to those looking to develop a similar ministry in their church. Contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.