For the past 24 hours we have noticed three words keep popping up: "All Are Welcome." Today we heard it as a hymn in Mass; yesterday we passed by a Church and saw the words printed on a banner; and this weekend we were presenters of a catechetical workshop about inclusion for families with special needs titled "All Are Welcome."

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We feel strongly that the church can and should be a welcoming place for all families including those families of children with special needs. Perhaps, we feel so strongly about this because there have been times that we have felt unwelcome even at Mass. 

"All are welcome" by David & Mercedes Rizzo for Copyright 2016 David & Mercedes Rizzo. All rights reserved.

This happened rather unexpectedly  when our daughter, Danielle, who has autism, extended her hand to a parishioner for the sign of peace.

Although Danielle was a young teenager, it was the first time she made this gesture independently. We are always prompting Danielle and assisting her during the Mass, but this day she spontaneously extended her hand at the appropriate time during the liturgy and attempted to say the word peace. As Danielle is non-verbal, her peace was hard to understand and not too clear. But of course we understood it. We could not believe the milestone that we had just witnessed. We had been working a long time on Danielle accomplishing this skill all by herself and she finally had done so. We were ecstatic.

However, the woman withdrew her hand and gave an audible sign of disapproval. We asked ourselves why she might have done that. Possibly, she mistook Danielle's verbal approximation of the word peace as disrespectful or irreverent, we do not know. Talk about taking the wind out of our sails! We almost forgot about the progress Danielle had made and in that instant we felt unwelcome.

"All are welcome" by David & Mercedes Rizzo for Copyright 2016 David & Mercedes Rizzo. All rights reserved.

Everyone wants to feel welcome. This is particularly true of special needs families who are already concerned that they may disrupt the quiet of those around them at Mass. Fortunately, things are changing for the better as more and more people are reaching out to people with special needs in a welcoming manner. Recently, our family felt particularly welcome when we attended a special needs Mass in a neighboring  parish and our daughter Danielle was asked to help take the gifts up. When she returned to the pew she was beaming. A woman sitting next to us, someone we had never met, tapped Danielle on the shoulder and gave her a thumbs up sign and whispered "good job!" This made Danielle and the rest of us feel happy and welcomed and included.

We have encountered many people in church who make us feel welcome and know that we will meet many more. So if you see a family at Mass and you wonder why their sign of peace is a bit off, just be kind, extend your hand and make them feel welcome. And remember, a smile can go a very long way.

Copyright 2016 David and Mercedes Rizzo.