One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)
Few images of Jesus resonate so clearly as this: Jesus with his disciples, scolding them, declaring “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them!” Children of all shapes and sizes. Big and tall, short and stout.
Boys and girls. Long, straight hair and short, curly hair. Blue eyes, green eyes, and brown eyes. Black, Brown, and White. Toddlers to teenagers.
Children with ADHD. Children with dyslexia. Children with autism. Children with Down Syndrome. Jesus welcomed them all.
Cornerstone Church in Grand Island, NY is welcoming them too.
A Unique Childhood
Cornerstone’s Outreach Pastor Vinh Nguyen grew up as a child torn between welcoming Jesus and other religious beliefs. “I actually grew up with a Buddhist background. We had a church family that helped sponsor our family into the country when they immigrated here, and they asked if they could take us kids to church. So, every Sunday you’d have this older couple show up in their station wagon full of Asian kids as they toted us off to church.”
Vinh talked about the struggle of balancing the teachings of Jesus with what his family believed. “I lived torn between two worlds. Things would be very ritualistic with the ancestral worship and the altars and the shrines at our house.”
That kind of upbringing can be difficult to navigate. But God has a way of getting one’s attention, no matter how confused they might be about what to believe. “When I was a teenager, God just really gripped my heart. I hit a very, very low point and it was there where He met me and kind of just reoriented my life.”
A Unique Call
Nguyen was an athlete growing up, becoming the captain of numerous soccer teams in his teens. He was the captain of his wrestling team, even going on to wrestle in college until an injury sidelined him. But the idea of sports ministry wasn’t one that came to mind. “I’ve always been an athlete and always loved sports. But sports ministry was not really my thing. I went to school to be a pastor.”
Vinh and his wife Michele spent time serving in pastoral ministry in Arkansas and in New Orleans where he became spiritually exhausted. They moved to New York where Vinh could work on his Ph.D. It was there that they discovered Cornerstone Church.
The church had recently invested in transforming a lot behind the church into a field for sports ministry. Vinh soon found himself interviewing for a part-time role on staff at the church as the lead for sports ministry.
“I said, listen. How are your other applicants? I’m the least qualified for sports ministry. I don’t know how to do sports ministry. I know nothing about it. I preach. That’s what I do. So, if there’s a better person, you need to hire them. And two weeks later, he was like, you’re our guy.”
Vinh approached the new role by spending time in the community and listening to others. “I just went around and I talked with other parents who had kids in sports and I’d go to their sporting events. I’d meet them and say hey, what are you guys looking for? What would be good? I kind of inherited the Upward Basketball program that was here. I’m always asking what can I add this year? What can we do to improve? It’s the largest kind of outreach program we have.”
Upward Sports has existed at Cornerstone for 16 years. Not until recently, however, has the sports ministry taken a unique shift: intentionally reaching out to children with special needs.
A Unique Outreach
“The thing that drew us to Cornerstone in the first place was their ministry called Rock Stars which was a ministry for special needs kids. We have a daughter who has Down Syndrome and so we were like, oh, the church has a special needs ministry. Let’s go there.”
In the 2019-20 school year, 11.4% of students in the Grand Island Central School District indicated disability. “The special needs community is really heavy in this area,” says Nguyen. “The community is just saturated. So, it just kind of called for special needs outreach.” Nguyen saw an opportunity.
While the Rock Stars program at Cornerstone did well at meeting the needs of disabled children, Nguyen was concerned that the focus was becoming more on the things the children couldn’t do as opposed to what they could do. “I thought, maybe God has created them to contribute in a different way. We just aren’t seeing it. So how can we integrate and incorporate them? And so that gave me the idea. Let’s start with sports.”
Nguyen knew the hurdles that would have to be crossed to make this happen. First, he met with the current parents of the Upward Basketball league at Cornerstone to gauge their receptiveness of his idea.
Nguyen presented his plan: not creating a separate league for special needs children, but incorporating them into the current league. “Would you guys be okay if I brought in special needs kids so that your players can learn how to interact and how to help these kids along?” Nguyen’s question to the parents hung in the air like a balloon filled with uncertainty.
“I think we underestimate our children sometimes because they just impressed us beyond belief. They took all of these kids on. They made sure they got passes. Even kids on the opposing team recognized it. Their coaches helped coach them through it. And parents all bought into this league.”
Children of all abilities, from kindergarten through tenth-grade play basketball at Cornerstone. From Nguyen’s experience so far, it’s not just the children feeling the positive impact of inclusion in the league. “There’s the aspect of the loneliness of the parents of special needs kids…they feel very alone in trying to navigate life and getting their kids to be out there and included. They could be afraid or uncomfortable in public. But we’re setting up contexts and situations now where people are recognizing the difference. People are realizing that you don’t start of by seeing a person with a disability. You just start off by seeing them as a person and every person matters.”
Just as Jesus welcomed every child running up to him, Cornerstone is making sure they don’t exclude any child wanting to be involved. “It’s kind of restoring a sense of humanity to that person—the image that God has created in them—and giving others that framework to work from.”
A Unique Opportunity
With that inclusion comes a tremendous opportunity to share the love of Christ. Nguyen talks about the benefit of integrating special needs children into their sports ministry programming. “Our benefit is we get to integrate the gospel into it. We can integrate the Jesus factor.” That’s something other sports programs outside of the church don’t do. “That’s really significant,” states Nguyen.
The experience has yielded some incredible moments including fans from both teams erupting when a child finally makes their first basket or touchdown of the season, to a child struggling emotionally and finding comfort in a security guard dog. “It’s been cool to see it from the aspect of our church members buying in and our coaches being able to teach more important values than just winning a basketball game.”
One of the aims of Cornerstone’s sports ministry is this: To provide an all-inclusive program where special needs kids can be integrated with neurotypical kids to learn and play flag football, basketball, cheerleading, and have exposure to the gospel.
Vinh Nguyen and Cornerstone Church are doing something simple but incredible. By listening to the needs of their community, they’ve incorporated children varying in their abilities together not to win games, but to glorify God.