Tent Talk


In walks young David, in full camouflage military gear. He was ready to lead his troops into battle and victory on Sunday morning in the midst of his Sunday school class. David is one of our Beautiful Blessings children: 13 years old, weighing all of 50 lbs soaking wet. David is bright and articulate, with amazing fascinations and often times fixations. David has a complicated diagnosis complete with ADD/ADHD, developmental delays, PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disability), and emotional disabilities. His fascinations and fixations lead him to fantasy play of great power, oftentimes assuming the role of a lawyer, manager and, today, a high-ranking military officer. David has a great strategic mind and delights in the operation of organizations, hierarchy, and power struggles.

David’s self-appointed role came with much power and responsibility. Very quickly, the lead teacher, volunteers and students were assigned ranks of less importance in David’s play. Headquarters were quickly set up with a pop tent, which remains in the classroom for times when students become overwhelmed with sensory input and need a place to escape. The tent was converted into a strategic command base with a chair added and makeshift military supplies. Once free time and guided play had ended, David was determined not to participate in prayer and lesson. In his mind, he was the person in charge. It was at that point – at the power struggle between classroom schedule and David’s military plan – I entered.

One of the most important lessons I have learned in 13 years of disability ministry is there is great value into stepping into the world of a person with disability and not always demanding or requiring they step into our world. I was called into the room to begin negotiations, a situation that, at first glimpse, appeared to be a lose-lose situation: the teacher desiring to begin the most important part of class and a student not just refusing to participate, but vehemently so. Wanting to use David’s interest, strength and area of expertise to enhance his learning and classroom experience, I became not the Access Director, but a five-star general instead. I saluted David, made introductions, and requested permission to enter the room. Permission to enter was granted.

As I engaged David in conversation to get his story and perspective, I used all the military lingo and knowledge I knew to better relate to him and his fascination for the day. I knew that by using his obsessions, we could create a positive teaching experience for him. We reached an agreement at which David would report to a tactical meeting (comprised of prayer and lesson) facilitated by a lower-ranking officer (the teacher). Once we had fully participated in this meeting, we could resume military discussion at tent headquarters. We spent time on our visual schedule posted on the board to help David stay on track and see the reward toward which he was working. Part of the negotiations was I was to be his secretary tasked with taking notes. I quickly asked to be considered for the position of executive administrative assistant to which he agreed after careful consideration.

After David fully engaged in prayer and lesson time, he asked permission to be excused, and he and I headed for the tent. Once inside, he handed me a yellow steno pad (we created an office supply kit for David, as he loves office supplies) and asked me to take notes. I responded with the customary “Yes, Sir.”

I dated the yellow piece of paper and titled it “Military Meeting”. I then asked him for the agenda items. David responded we would be talking about God’s love and grace. I perked up and asked, “David, do you know what grace is?”. He shook his head. I explained it to him as unmerited favor, receiving a wonderful gift we do not deserve. I asked him what he thought God gave us that we do not deserve. His response was “love”. I explained love comes in the form of His Son, Jesus Christ. I then challenged David and asked what we should do with this great love God has given us. Should we share it with his troops, friends in school, and the neighborhood? We had a lively discussion on whether God would want us to share or hide that love. After some coaching, David agreed love should be shared because we have a God who is love; and we are called to love all people, not just his military troops. We talked about how great leaders are filled with love and compassion and what a great leader David is.

This wonderful one-on-one discussion with this very special 13-year-old boy with multiple disabilities only happened after being willing to step into his world of fascinations. By playing into his fantasy and fixation, it created a bond and opportunity to have a significant discussion regarding God and His great love for us.

We entered the tent to have a tactical talk. We left having had a theological talk instead. Priceless.

“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, The Message)


  1. Marianne TUMC wrote on February 14, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    What a beautiful story! This is what it is all about, moving past the behavior and getting to the person. I look forward to sharing this with all of our church school teachers!

  2. What a great teaching moment! Entering their world is something we should all strive for.


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