COLUMBIA — Four years ago, Kimberly Matthews was living in an emotional fog. Her older child had just been diagnosed with autism, her love life was in flux, and she desperately wanted spiritual nourishment.
Matthews, a nurse practitioner, had just taken on a new role in her job and was trying to figure out where her relationship with her children's father was headed. Rooted in the Christian faith of her childhood, Matthews pressed on to find to a church home for her and her children. She longed to give them the spiritual grounding that her parents gave her.
"If you really enjoy your faith, you want to go to church, especially during hard times," she said. "I needed someone to give to me."
Matthews grew up in the Assembly of God denomination in Farmington but has since visited Pentecostal, Methodist and other Christian churches. She said she wasn't as concerned with the particular denomination as she was with finding a place that met her family's unique needs.
She had mixed experiences during her church visits. She remembers people in some congregations shooting unfriendly looks at her when her son, then a toddler, had outbursts during the service. Others were welcoming but didn't know how to react.
"A church should be able to help you grow and help you get through the pain," she said, but she hadn't yet found that kind of support system.
Part of the trouble was that Matthews didn't have a diagnosis for her son, Thomas Jackson, and was struggling with issues related to his development.
When people are diagnosed with diseases such as cancer, Matthews said, others tend to help out. Since they can't see the cancer, she said it's not as intimating, but most people don't know what to do with autism or other developmental disorders in children.
All Matthews wanted was a helping hand, but she said few were offered to her. Although friends and family members tried to help, they didn't have any idea what to do. Before Thomas' diagnosis, Matthews struggled to know how to help him as a parent. She said he wasn't communicating verbally then and would often have "meltdowns" in public.
Her emotional tide began to take a turn for the better when Matthews attended a cousin's church in St. Louis, which she often did, in late summer 2005. Until then, only two people had recommended that Thomas be tested for autism. At church that day, she heard the mention of autism for the third time, when a brave Sunday school teacher took a leap of faith and suggested that Matthews' son be evaluated for developmental delays.
Matthews said it took hearing the word "autism" a third time to push her to have him tested. Knowing that there might be a way to help Thomas, she came back from St. Louis with a renewed sense of direction and a greater desire to find a church home.
She visited five churches before settling at Family Worship Center, which she started attending in November 2005. She is now a regular there. She admits the transition wasn't easy and has had to learn to open the lines of communication between her and the church leaders.
"At the time, they didn't know my heart," Matthews said in reference to her conversations with pastors Vicki and Tom Leuther. She said they needed to understand her perspective in order for her to build trust in them and become fully integrated into the church family.
In fall 2007, she made an appointment with the pastors at Family Worship Center and shared her experiences in other churches and how she had sacrificed her own spiritual growth in order to make sure Thomas was acclimated to his Sunday school classroom.
She told them that the Sunday school teachers at Family Worship Center had often called her out of the worship service to help with Thomas. Matthews explained that she had begun staying in class with him instead of attending worship. Being in class with him allowed her to help the teachers integrate him with the rest of the children. The times when she was in the service, Matthews said she was unable to relax for fear that she would be interrupted at any moment.
During the meeting, the pastors made it clear that they wanted to work through the situation and recommended that she set up a meeting with children's church directors Lauraine and David Contreras. Eventually, she did share her concerns with them.
Before communicating her needs with the church leaders, Matthews felt that she was at an impasse. Their willingness to stay the course kept her at Family Worship Center. Before then, she said she would have left the congregation at the slightest miscommunication.
"I drew my line in the sand and said, 'I'm not leaving,'" Matthews said.
She wasn't used to having church members who were willing to work with her. She said it was their openness that inspired her to push forward. The Contrerases began observing how Matthews handled Thomas' autistic episodes and started researching autism on their own.
They sought educational resources through Judevine Center for Autism, now TouchPoint Autism Services. Soon, with Matthews' help, they started funneling information to the children's church teachers, helping them understand how best to work with Thomas.
"It's not a one size fits all," David Contreras said. "It was new to us, so we had to get educated on autism."
Contreras and his wife seek the guidance of parents in order to meet the needs of each child, whether disabled or not. He said there was definitely a learning curve and credits Matthews with having patience and grace in allowing them time to learn.
Family Worship Center has about 10 special-needs children within its congregation, and the Leuthers said they have a desire to minister to children and adults with disabilities. They view the church as a place where people can work through difficult seasons in life.
"I'm not the hero; the real heroes are right there," Tom Leuther said, pointing in Matthews' direction. "I'm there to support the parents."
Recently, Matthews and three other mothers started a support group for Family Worship Center members with disabled children. Group members have children affected by autism, attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and Weaver syndrome, which causes overgrowth and muscle stiffness in affected individuals. Matthews said the goal is to be more than just a support group — they want to inspire, empower and educate themselves and others.
According to the Autism Society Web site, 1 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 3 and 17 have an autism spectrum disorder. The site also reports that the disorder is the fastest-growing development disability.
"Someone, somewhere in Missouri, got the news (about an autism diagnosis), and their heart is heavy," Matthews said. "I want them to know they're not alone."
When asked what gets her through the down days, Matthews cites Scripture, 2 Chronicles 20:17: "Ye shall not (need) to fight in this (battle): set yourselves, stand ye (still), and see the salvation of the Lord with you, ... for the LORD (will be) with you."
Her church has become her family, and going forward, Matthews said she's "anticipating healing, empowering, educating and anything else God wants to do."