This is the second installment of our reality show series about Jennifer Towler, 38, and her 19-year-old son Bradley, who has autism. Jennifer has a seemingly impossible vision for her son: She prays he’ll be an evangelist sharing the gospel to the disabled. We’ll chronicle the challenges of raising and ministering to someone with autism, the happenings in the Towlers’ home, and the joy and endurance found in God’s faithful promises.
LOS ALAMITOS, Calif.—How do you share the gospel with severely autistic people? What can the church do for people who cannot sit still for more than five minutes, who scream and mumble during the sermon? Unlike with babies, a parent can’t just whisk them out to a cry room, nor does an autistic adult belong with the Sunday school kids. The social etiquette and behaviors that most “normal” people mindlessly follow don’t come as naturally for people with autism.
For many years, Jennifer Towler couldn’t attend church regularly because of her son Bradley. He wasn’t just disruptive—Bradley can get aggressive when he’s agitated, and as a big-boned guy, he wasn’t the most welcome presence in nursery rooms or Sunday school. The few times Jennifer did take Bradley to church, the new and unpredictable environment unhinged him. He started hitting people and flinging off his clothes. So Bradley stays at home with a caregiver, while Jennifer attends services and Bible studies at The Rock, a Foursquare church in Anaheim, Calif.
Jennifer has been to several churches that offer a special needs ministry, but she was disappointed with their “blanket gospel.” She said the activities the classes provided— arts and crafts, games, and prizes—were “more like babysitting.” It’s not that the church doesn’t try, Jennifer added. The people have been very kind and sweet to Bradley, but he gets lumped together with a large group of others with various disabilities. What he needed was a one-on-one worship session, his mom decided.
Jennifer has more ambitious prayers for Bradley than entry-level salvation. She desires him to have “a tailored gospel that brings a solid understanding of the gospel into his life, that will change his life.” That, for obvious reasons, is a challenge for Bradley, whose mind and means of communication work differently.
While Jennifer was praying for Bradley’s spiritual needs, Minjung Lee, 31, was praying for her vision to develop a gospel-focused ministry for people with autism. Minjung is a recent graduate from the University of Southern California with a bachelor's degree in psychology, who now works as an administrative assistant at the Korean American Special Education Center in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. Jennifer met Minjung in August 2012, and since then, Minjung and her husband, Samuel Kim, have been visiting Bradley every Friday morning to worship with him at home.
During a typical worship session with Bradley, Minjung must sit close to him to force him to look her in the eye, or he gets easily distracted. He still does, so she constantly cups his face gently, pulls it toward hers, and reminds him, “Bradley, eyes on me. Focus, focus.” Because Bradley doesn’t respond well to variety, Minjung sticks to the methods that do work— songs, pictures, and stickers that repeat the same key content over and over: “I’m precious. Christ is in my heart. I am God’s child. Holy Spirit is in you.” And sometimes Bradley responds, “Ever, ever, ever!”
Bradley reacts better to music and visuals than words. So instead of quoting John 3:16, Minjung sings it with hand motions, and gets him to sing or hum along and follow her gestures. When she sings the word “heart,” she brings her palms to her chest, and when she sings about Jesus, she makes a cross with her wrists. As she preaches, she uses colorful pictures that illustrate the gospel and encourages interaction and active responses from Bradley. She often asks Bradley to repeat after her, and gets him to paste stickers of the cross onto his “heart” in an activity book.
Bradley has had significant progress since Minjung and Sam’s weekly visits, Jennifer told me. Not only is he less aggressive, for the first time, he seems to accept the gospel message with sincere conviction. “He’s starting to get it,” Jennifer said. “He understands who he is, who God is, that God is working through all this. After Minjung taught him to pray, he prays by himself. When he’s in torment, he will say ‘Jesus sets me free, Satan go away.’”
Each Friday is different. Sometimes, Bradley abounds with gentle sweetness, bouncing over to kiss Minjung and Sam when they arrive. During such good days, he hums along to the praise music and responds eagerly to Minjung’s words. When she praises him, he grins and claps his hands in joy. But some days, Minjung can barely get him to sit down. He shrieks and seizes and brays, sometimes rigid in one spot, other times flailing and charging around the room. Minjung and Samuel can’t do much to calm him down during those moments, so she waits patiently while Samuel bows his head and prays.
One Friday, when Bradley was once again acting up, Minjung turned to me and said, “He really, really wants to focus and worship, but something’s going on in his head. It’s like he’s in constant battle in his mind and spirit. But then sometimes he sings ‘Jesus loves me’ to himself. Those are the moments when I know he has the Spirit in him, and he’s fighting.” At that instant, Bradley gave an especially agonized howl. Minjung’s face crumpled and sighed, “How hard it must be for him!”— but implicit in her sigh, was the unspoken “How easy it is for us, to take the ability to worship for granted!”
Autism ministry requires more faith than any other ministry, because “with someone like Bradley, it’s always so up and down,” Minjung told me. There’s no instant gratification in this ministry. It’s a gradual, long process with fruits that some may consider minimal or inconsequential. But Minjung said she’s less concerned about Bradley’s behavior than she is about his restoration of worship: “We use the word ‘disability’ to define certain abnormalities and inabilities. But I believe the very definition of ‘disability’ is the inability to worship God. We all get distracted from God, but I believe every human has the ability to restore God … including those with autism.”