Having a family where we deal with autism and Alzheimer’s, I’ve become rather attuned to thinking about sensory issues; sensory overload, sensory deprivation, sensory confusion, sensory needs. One thing I’ve noticed is that these conditions share some characteristics. One of these is that the filters, the defence mechanisms, the protective barriers we put up as “normal” people in the face of things we find difficult, or in the face of our anxieties, just aren’t there for people with sensory difficulties. Fears and anxieties for these people are writ large.
I was reminded the other day about how difficult doors, or thresholds can be. My son used to find going through unknown doors very difficult, particularly solid doors that gave no clue as to what lay beyond and we would have to use a social story to help him get through them. As I was guiding my mother who has Alzheimer’s into our church centre for our Just as I am Service, I could feel her begin to shake as we approached the entrance door. Even though the door has no step my mother had to really gear herself up to cross the threshold.
I never consider these things to be “abnormalities” but rather as learning pointers to help me understand more about how different people see the world when some of the normal protective filters are taken away. “Normal” people may share the underlying anxiety, but we have simply learnt to deal with it, or learnt how to squash or hide our fears.
But these fears or anxieties may come roaring into focus when it comes to crossing the threshold of a church. Often our doors are big, heavy oak, there is a sense for newcomers or visitors that you don’t know what you will find on the other side. Add into this too the sense of moving from secular to sacred, of outside noise to inside stillness, and all the myriad emotions that might have prompted you to come to a church in the first place, and you have a heady mix of reasons not to push open a door.
There may be a very warm welcome the other side of the door. There may be the friendliest congregation, the kindest sidesmen and the best coffee, but if the church looks locked and the door looks just too scary to push then people will never find the inside welcome. Our welcome needs to start outside with a person meeting and greeting, our welcome needs to start with signage that might tell people “turn the handle to the right and push hard!”, our welcome might be the notices we put in our porches. Our welcome might actually start with a cup of coffee with a friend – days, weeks, months before we invite someone to walk through the church door with us.