It’s a Sunday morning, and Kurt and Lynn Lueken walk into church, check their daughter Erika into her classroom, and then head to service.
This may sound like every family’s typical Sunday experience, but it isn’t something the Luekens have always been able to do. They don’t take it for granted.
You see, their daughter Erika, 40, has Down Syndrome and Autism.
“Erika has a difficult time sitting through service, as much as she tries; consequently, Lynn and I become distracted, making it hard to focus on the service,” her father says. He noted that in the past, it became “a challenge to persuade her to even go.”
Roughly a year and a half ago, though, the family started coming to Fellowship after learning about the Embrace Special Needs ministry. Erika then began attending Embrace’s adult Sunday morning class.
Now, she is always eager to go.
“Erika gets ready the night before church. She feels good about herself. We’ve noticed her talking about Jesus more and praying more on her own,” Kurt says. “She’s 40 years old, and she’s never been this excited and at peace about going to church.”
According to her parents, Erika is an extrovert’s extrovert. So, it’s no wonder that one of her favorite aspects of Embrace is seeing and interacting with her classmates. As the Luekens put it, “We often compare her to The Little Mermaid, as in she just wants to be ‘where the people are.’” Too, Kurt says that she likes the independence it affords her, as well as participating in classroom projects. Erika sums it up best what she loves about class: “to learn about God.”
The annual Under the Stars special needs prom has also been a highlight of her time in Embrace. “Erika’s favorite part of the whole evening,” Kurt recalls, “was the red carpet stroll with paparazzi and applause — and I think for mom and dad too! […] For Lynn and I to see how happy she was arm in arm with her friend taking that walk and their smiles was an indescribable moment.” He adds that the experience “touched the lives of those who attended and their loved ones beyond description.”
The ability for Erika to thrive in a safe classroom has proven just as impactful for Kurt and Lynn. Notably, rather than expressing bitterness or sorrow for years’ past — when attending church was difficult, and they hadn’t found a program for people like Erika — the Luekens only relayed feeling immense gratitude and contentment for their present circumstance.
“We have a total peace where we are right now. God is sovereign and has directed our paths every step of our journey,” Kurt says. “I can’t tell you what a blessing it is for our family that Erika enjoys a class while Lynn and I can be encouraged by the hearing of God’s Word. [The sermons] stay with us throughout the week, and we find ourselves not only discussing the teaching, but [also] applying it in our lives the best we can.”
Embrace currently serves around 40 individuals with special needs each week (and their families), half of which are over 18.
“It is so exciting to watch our adults with special needs class grow,” says Special Needs Pastor Amy Moore. “So many of these individuals and their families have had a limited opportunity their entire lives to be actively involved in church. The Lord is moving…and at Fellowship, we are just offering up the space for the Lord to work in the special needs community in Central Arkansas.”
Outside of Embrace, Erika has a wide range of interests — from drumming, dancing, and bowling, to online shopping, playing video games, and watching the NFL (go Bucs!). Not to mention, she could take you on in a game of croquet!
She also has deep compassion for people and animals. Her parents say it brings her joy to write letters for those in need of a little cheering up, donate items, and hold the door open for folks. She has even spent time volunteering at an animal shelter. That’s perhaps what makes her so adept at wrangling the family’s spirited chihuahuas, Kila and Lady.
What Erika’s mother Lynn loves most about her, though, is “her amazing ability to love and genuinely forgive.” For Kurt, it’s “her determination and how she makes us laugh all the time.”
Although she requires a bit more love and assistance, the Luekens note Erika’s level of awareness and sensitivity, how much she really perceives about the world around her. That she experiences the gamut of emotions, deeply. “She is not that different than the rest of us.”