When Tom Stolle’s sister-in-law suggested that he and his wife have their son, Jimmy, tested for autism, Stolle recalls, “I didn’t receive the news very well.”
Although Jimmy wasn’t walking at 18 months and wasn’t speaking at age 2, Stolle said he and his wife, Shelley, “just kind of thought he was a late developer.”
“I had no idea what autism was,” Stolle acknowledged. Looking back on that moment, he admits what he mistakenly heard in his sister-in-law’s words was: “My son isn’t all that he should be.”
Despite the shock and pain, “I’m glad she made the point and brought it up because it opened my eyes and Shelley’s eyes to the differences and things that really were unusual.”
They arranged to have Jimmy tested at the renowned Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. The results confirmed that Jimmy was affected by severe autism and associated disabilities.
Stolle, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, said when they received the news about their son’s diagnosis, “I knew our life would be forever changed. I didn’t know what the future held but I felt like my world was rocked.”
Describing their family’s initial transition as “a slow process,” Stolle said, “God used Jimmy to change my heart and change my wife’s heart. I remember yelling at God in the early years of the journey with Jimmy, almost like a little child beating on his father’s chest, saying things like, ‘Daddy, how can you do this to me?’
“But what happened through ministering to Jimmy and having Jimmy in our lives and us caring for Jimmy, we began to learn a little bit more about love. We began to experience love at a deeper level. We began to see people differently which was an amazing gift, an amazing blessing.”
God opens doors
Throughout their journey over the past two decades, Stolle has served in various leadership roles with Maryland/Delaware Baptists, including chief operating officer, director of human resources, associate executive director, chief financial officer and interim executive director.
He was elected executive director earlier this year, providing an expanded platform to highlight the need for ministries to those with disabilities.
After praying for years for God to open doors for such ministry, Stolle said, “One day I realized what God was essentially saying was, ‘I’ve already given you what you need. I’ve given you Jimmy. You just need to tell his story.’
As a result, Stolle shared “the story of Jimmy” during the 2015 Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware annual meeting. Once Jimmy’s story was introduced to the convention, he added, “God began to do some things.”
Acknowledging that “the journey with Jimmy was difficult,” Stolle said, “Through that pain, I began to be really burdened for families that go through similar things and the fact that many churches aren’t equipped or don’t feel equipped to embrace families like mine or others.
“I want to help churches in practical ways learn how to do that,” he said. “You don’t need a degree. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. What you need is love and commitment. If you have love and commitment and you’re willing to embrace these families, you can integrate them into your church.”
In his role as BCM/D executive director, Stolle said, “Hopefully, I can speak with other state leaders and other state execs and emphasize the importance of the inclusion of these individuals, not only in Sunday worship service, but in everyday Christian activities and everyday Christian life.”
Practical ministry steps
He said practical steps on the regional level include hosting an annual conference to train church leaders and volunteers on ways to minister to individuals and families affected by disabilities.
Noting that Maryland/Delaware was the first state Baptist convention in the nation with a funded budget for disability ministry, Stolle reflected, “What would it look like if every state convention in the United States set aside budget funds for this? I think we could do a lot.”
On the local church level, he said such steps as providing a hands-on buddy ministry for those affected by disabilities and a respite night for parents can go a long way in helping families feel “loved, accepted and included.”
Jimmy Painter, senior pastor of Cresthill Church in Bowie, Maryland, has been a close friend and mentor to Stolle over the years.
“For me, it’s very personal,”
Painter said. “When they had their son, Jimmy, … they named him after me. When we discovered that he was affected by autism, it became very personal.”
Painter and his wife, Margot, who serves on BCM/D’s executive team, have helped lead their church to pursue a variety of ministries to those with disabilities — some on the local church level and some in partnership with the state convention.
Diverse initiatives make impact
Among those initiatives, Cresthill has started The Gathering Place, a satellite congregation specifically dedicated to individuals with disabilities.
Cresthill also hosts an annual Night to Shine in partnership with the Tim Tebow Foundation. According to TimTebowFoundation.com, Night to Shine is “an unforgettable prom night experience, centered on God’s love, for people with special needs, ages 14 and older.”
Night to Shine is hosted locally each February by hundreds of churches around the globe. At Cresthill, the event typically attracts 125 to 150 guests and about 300 volunteers.
“Once people are a part of this, they want to continue to always be a part of it,” noted Margot Painter who helps coordinate Night to Shine each year.
One of the unique traditions at Cresthill’s Night to Shine involves midshipmen from the nearby U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, who salute arriving guests with an arch of sabers.
“The midshipmen, after they’re done with their arches, they don’t leave,” she explained. “They eat with the other guests in the dining room and then come in and during the dance, they’ll dance with the other kids. They’ll be a part of everything. The police do the same thing.”
BCM/D, Cresthill and other groups also sponsor an annual “Everyone Belongs Camp,” a three-day/two-night weekend for older children and young adults affected by disabilities.
Involvement in a variety of disability ministries “has been something that has just made our church explode on so many different levels,” Margot Painter shared. Over the years, she added, it has become “part of the DNA of this church.”
“The Bible is quite clear on where Jesus falls on all this,” Jimmy Painter emphasized. “What I would encourage churches to do is get into the Word and take a look and see what Jesus would have us do.”
Even amid the many challenges of raising a child affected by severe autism, Stolle said, “Jimmy has taught me more about love than anyone I’ve ever met.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Jimmy,” he affirmed. “The payoff is much greater than the struggle.”