The Works of God

The New Testament Gosepl of John, chapter 9 is the account of the interaction between Jesus and a man who was born blind. The first sentence of the narrative is: As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth.

What I love about this opening sentence is that Jesus saw the man! The narrrative continues as Jesus’ disciples discuss probable causes for his blindness, for they saw the blindness, not the man. Jesus not only saw the man but he entered into a relationship with him and then later Jesus sought him out for a deeper conversation (John 9:35). Jesus’ answer about the man and his blindness illustrates Jesus’ belief in the value of all people, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day….” 

Jesus countered that the presence of a disability in a person presents an opportunity to do the work of God.  Disability presents the opportunity for people to see the humanity, the marvelousness (Psalm 139) of another person. In an earlier conversation with his disciples they said to Jesus, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:28-29). Belief influences action. The actions of those who believe in “Him whom He has sent” should mirror his actions. In our conversation about people with disabilities that would mean seeing their humanity and entering into a relationship with them, just like Jesus did.

 

 

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People First Language

I visited a church that had some members who were interested in creating an outreach for people with disabilities. They proudly showed me that they had removed the last row of pews to make room for wheelchairs, “The wheelchairs can all sit here together.” Because I have a good relationship with the people giving me a tour of their church I knew that they could handle a bit of teasing as an illustration of people first language. I said something to the effect of, “So the wheelchairs sit here, where do the people who use the wheelchairs get to sit?” A blank stare was the initial response. I explained that a wheelchair is not the same thing as a person who uses the wheelchair, just like a pair of shoes is not the same thing as the person who wears them.  A wheelchair is not a person. A wheelchair is a mobility device. Thus we began a conversation about people first language.

People first language communicates that the person comes before a disability or impairment.  “The boy in Sunday school who has autism…” and “The autistic boy in Sunday school…” are two statements about a boy who has autism. However, one of the statements puts the boy’s humanity before the impairment.  “The wheelchair section” is a phrase that describes a place for wheelchairs; “the pew cutouts for people who use wheelchairs” is a phrase that describes where people who use wheelchairs for mobility may choose to comfortably sit. The humanity of the people is spoken about before their means of mobility.

People first language is more than semantics.  It is a concrete way of communicating the value of another person. Using people first language guides our thoughts to first see the person, the friend, the parishioner, the neighbor, the communicant, the confirmand or the colleague and not to first see the perceived limitation. 

Words matter in creating hospitable, inclusive faith communities. Children and adults who have disabilities desire to be where they are welcomed first as people, with considerations for their impairment coming secondary. The words they hear when they visit our faith communities will let them now if they are valued as people first.

The Family to Family Network is one of many places on the Internet to learn more about the importance of people first language. http://www.familytofamilynetwork.org/parent-resources/people-first-language

 

 

Marla’s Faith Journey

Family stories and connections are important to people. They keep us grounded and provide a place for our roots to bring life. Family faith traditions are an example of this rootedness.

Marla has a developmental disability and  lives in a group home with several other people. She is a charming woman who enjoys meeting new people. For years she weekly attended Catholic mass with her family. The faith traditions she grew up with were an important part of her life.  After the passing of her parents Marla found her faith connections even more meaningful. However, because she could no longer spend her weekends with her parents she stopped attending her home parish and began attending mass at a parish closer to her group home. This new parish seemed to be less welcoming of Marla and she began to become less interested in attending mass weekly.

One of the women Marla lived with invited her to attend her protestant church. Marla went and enjoyed the music and friendliness of the people. It was wonderful to see Marla once again eangaging positively with a faith community; however, there was a concern because it was not the faith tradition she was raised in and had enjoyed for most of her life.  Marla shared that she did not want to return to the parish where she did not feel welcome and that she enjoyed the friendliness, music and activities of her friend’s church.  Those supporting Marla wanted to be sure that she had all of the information and experiences she needed to make the decision about changing her faith affiliation from Roman Catholic to a protestant denomination.  Her support staff did some research and located a nearby large parish with young families, activities and a folk mass that was known for it’s friendly and welcoming environment.  This potential parish seemed to offer her the qualities she enjoyed in the protestant church and it was in keeping with her family faith traditions. Marla agreed to attend a mass to see if she liked it. It turned out to be a wonderful connection! Marla was warmly welcomed and invited into their faith family. She is now a faithful member of that parish and even found a cousin who is also a member.

Marla enjoys inviting her friends to attend mass with her. She wants to share this community of faith where she is loved.

Gilda Goings, Spiritual Life Coordinator, Heritage Christian Services

Faith Community Inclusion

Hopefully you have had the opportunity to read a few of our posts that introduce to some of our wonderful experiences and friendships with people who have developmental disabilities.

Our first several posts are intended to invite you into our growing community of people who believe that God loves everyone. No exceptions. God loves the person who never speaks a word. He loves the person who never seems to stop speaking words. God loves people who have forgotten their names. He loves those who sing loudly, those who sing off key, and those who sing with their hands or hum to the melody. In addition to loving everyone God desires each person to be part of a worshiping community. The contributors to AbleFaith are sharing these words and their hearts to open your heart to the possibility of being part of a faith community that embraces all people, just as God does. We are excited about being part of contributing our expereince and knowledge about inclusive communities and worship.

What questions do you have? What has been your experience when extending hospitality to people with disabilities and their families and caregivers?

Tea for Two

I love a good cup of coffee. I also enjoy a nice cup of tea. I drink coffee on the go. I drink tea on the slow. The best tea is made slowly. To be its best tea requires waiting for the pot of water to come to a boil then cool for a minute before pouring it over the tea ball of loose tea. it does not come from a microwave and a paper tea bag. This is solely my observation. I do not know if there is any actual evidence to back up my observation about the process that produces the best cup of tea for me. You see, it is about the process: the few minutes spent waiting for the water to heat, the gathering of the loose tea into the tea ball, the fragrance that is released as the tea and hot water meld, the colors and textures of the used tea leaves, and, finally, the shining swirl as a honey dipper releases its spun gold into the tea.  Yes, it is the process and it makes me slow down. My life is usuallly lived at a fast pace and I need to build elements into it that force me to slow down. The slowing down gives me time to see the beauty of the snow balancing on the clothes line, to deeply listen to a favorite song, to remember Aunt Clare and how she used to bring her own tea bag when she walked acorss the yard for a visit because we only drank coffee in my childhood home.  I value these few minutes to slow down each afternoon.  I seek them out and feel out of sorts if I get too busy for them.

I have friends who I live life at full speed with. I cherish them. But I have one  friend who makes me slow down. Spending time with her is good for my soul. She leans in as I share my stories and her lovely brown eyes invite me to tell her more. She smiles when I tell too many stories about how wonderful my grandchildren are. She will not let me take myself too seriously and will clasp her hands to her face and turn away if it seems that I am starting to do so. She is honest with me and I am refreshed by being with her. We communicate heart to heart.

Like a slow cup of tea, our friendship is never rushed. You see, my dear friend and I do not communicate in traditional ways. She does not talk. She does not use sign language or picture symbols. She relies on my investment of time to get to know her heart and how she expresses herself. She makes eye contact, she smiles, she pulls away, she reaches out to touch me, she sighs heavily, she cries. She communicates with trust. She is a gift. 

Holding the trust of another person is a sacred thing.

 

Beauty of Diversity

There is a human developmental need to learn to categorize things as same or different. Recognizing differences is an important developmental milestone for children. Learning the differences in sizes and shapes is necesssary for developing  spatial concepts. Children need to know that a dime is not the same as a quarter so they are able to participate in our economy. Understanding that play money has to be separated from real money when shopping is important. While it is important for humans to be able to discern differences and classifications in objects, that discernment and separating becomes problematic when used on people.

It is a wondrous thing to see and appreciate the great diversity that makes up humanity. When we apply equal value to all of our differences there is beauty added to the world. The more diversity I see the richer the beauty. Tall, short and average height; black, blonde and red hair; big bushy beards and short scraggly goatees; alto and soprano singers; light and dark complexions; sign language and spoken communication; toddlers, runners and wheelchair users; intorverts and extroverts; elderly, middle aged and young; Monets and stick figures; early birds and night owls; disabled and non-disabled; the math whizzes and the numerically challenged; bald heads and dreadlocks; dancers and toe steppers: these are all equally beautiful ways of being human.

We are diverse and we are all human. We are all created in the image of God.

 

 

 

 

 

The Ties that Bind

The season of Lent is a time of devotion when we focus on strengthening our spiritual ties to God. Connective links to God include:
Prayer: Having a conversation with God and he hears you.
Meditation: Keeping still and listening (What, only a minute has passed??). He will answer you.
Fasting: Remembering that your body may have its frailties, but they don’t have to limit you.
Sacrifice: Having so many things you think you have to do, you can’t find time to work on relationships. Spending time with others requires time and effort; that’s why it is called a sacrifice-got it!
Service: More than attending Sunday worship; service is about meeting a need of another human being.

We work on our relationship with God, but how much effort do we put into our relationships with each other? Jesus said that what you do good for others, is the same as doing good unto him. My case for faith community inclusion for individuals with developmental disabilities is that people of faith, more than any other group, understand that we are all created in His image. Denying any individual access and/or opportunity to worship God and practice his/her faith, denies the same to Jesus. The fact is, God is the author of diversity. He said, “Love ye one another.” It is not for us to judge if an individual with a developmental disability “comprehends” the nature of God. It is enough that he/she wants to be in the house of worship.

My epiphany came the first year I was working with the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities. I was attending a worship service on one of the (residential) campuses, when I noticed a young woman pacing back and forth; first touching a window and then walking over to touch a wall. With a “pastoral” eye, I thought she must be agitated, and was certain this was a distraction to others there to enjoy the worship service. However, after a few moments, I stopped looking at her behavior and observed her countenance. I saw pure joy and peacefulness on her face. She was in a moment of worship – connected to God. It was suddenly obvious to me. I didn’t need to use my intellect or check my theology to know it – I could just feel it!! Furthermore, I found that watching her enjoyment of the service made me enjoy the service even more.

Sometimes we miss what true worship is if we don’t break the attitudinal, architectural, communication barriers that can keep other worshippers out. We will miss so much if we assign some worshippers segregated services or seating in the back. We can miss opportunities and blessings if only the good singers are allowed to sing or only the good readers are allowed to read, etc. The tie that binds us to God is that we love HIM first and then love ONE ANOTHER as He loves us.

Reverend Catherine Patterson
NYS OPWDD Faith Based Initiative

Where Hospitality Begins

We think you will find this personal story shared by our guest blogger Marketta Gregory inspiring and thought provoking. Marketta shares her gentle and insightful words at http://simplyfaithful.com/ .

“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us…” – Romans 12:6When my mama talks about her third pregnancy, she always says that she knew something wasn’t quite right. “It’s nothing,” my daddy would say — right up until the doctor saw that I was blue and fading fast.
Mama had been right. The umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck and arm, and I was choking.
As my parents tell it, the doctor never said a word or asked their opinions, he just reacted as a man sworn to save lives. He got me out as fast as he could, knowing that he might be causing nerve damage in my neck and arm.
Later, he would tell my parents that my arm might not ever grow or move on its own. “But, I figured you wanted her alive,” he told them.
So, my parents took me home to my two older sisters and they waited and watched. Two months and three weeks later, I moved my right arm. I could move my wrist and wiggle my fingers, according to my baby book. By six months, I was crawling — not on all fours like most kids, but I could sit and scoot with my left arm. It was progress.
Eventually my arm did grow, although it’s still a little shorter than the left. I can lift my right arm almost to my chin but my wrist seems to always be bent under a bit, something that has forever bothered me in photos.
One of my earliest memories is of having my picture taken in front of a wagon wheel that was almost as big as I was. The photographer had me rest my right arm on top of the wheel and then tried to flatten out my wrist. Within a second, it had bounced back into its U shape. She tried again. It bounced back.
The older I got, the more sensitive I became to being different — and the more determined I became to fit in. Of course, that’s hard to do when you play trombone and have to use your foot to reach seventh position or when you have to swallow your pride and ask a classmate to sharpen your pencil because the sharpener is mounted too high on the wall. Still, I managed, and I even learned a little in the process.
Ironically though, I never knew what my birth injury was called until my late 20s, when pain in my arm made me seek out a specialist in Erb’s palsy. While I was waiting for that appointment I wrestled with my arm in a new way. What if there was something that could be done now to help my arm?
Would I change it if I could? At almost 30, would I re-teach myself to tie my shoes? Would I discover that I’m not left-handed after all?
No, I decided.
I wouldn’t.
I had my arm to thank for my entire world view — a set of values that helps me empathize with others; a set of values that says there are many ways other than the “normal” way. I was fine the way God had made me. And isn’t that where hospitality begins?
We begin by knowing we are welcomed by God and then the welcome grows.

End the Word

Words have meaning; that is why we use them. They are a tool to communicate ideas, questions, problems, solutions, emotions, opinions, and directions. Words are used descriptively. Sometimes the descriptors are obvious, as in “He is tall.” Other times the descriptive words are allegory: “He is a teddy bear” does not mean a person is a literal stuffed animal, but he is a large man with a gentle personality. The phrase “She is an Einstein” does not mean that the girl is related to the Einstein family, but it means that she is smart in mathematics or scientific concepts. So what about the phrase “She is so retarded.” It is almost always used negatively to mean that a person is stupid, dumb, or clumsy. The problem is, there are actual people with a medical disagosis of mental retardation and the words “stupid, dumb and clumsy” do not describe them. They are capable, kind and hard-working people. When someone calls another person “retard” in a way that is negative or derogatory s/he is making a negative and dehumanizing judgement of all peple who have that medical diagnosis. It is used as a word that diminishes the value of other people. With that in mind, why use it?

I will resisit the urge to get preachy and dive into the question of why a person feels the need to use a negative word to describe themself or another person. English is a rich language. There are many words to communicate our messages that do not hurt and tear down others. Why use a word that is known to hurt and ripples out to negatively impact others?

Spread the Word to End the Word is a global movement sponsored by the National ARC. Please visit their site to learn more about this compaign to end a dehumanizing and degrading word.

I Have to go to My Church

We are delighted to welcome a guest to share a part of her journey where the intersection of ability and faith really hit home with her. Mary Lynn is the mother of an adult son with developmental disabilities. When she was invited to share a story about faith community and hospitality she related a story about the deep connection that her son (who lives in a group home) has developed with his church:

It still brings a smile to my face when I think of it. Mother’s Day was coming and I was talking to my son, David, about spending the weekend at my house. He seemed to be thinking it over, which had me puzzled. Finally, in spite of a serious speech impediment, he managed to tell me, “I have to go to my church, not Mama’s church, my church St. Paul’s.” Of course I agreed. The Pastor at his church had a sister with Down’s Syndrome. He and his staff, as well as many of the parishioners, are very welcoming and inclusive with David and his friends. It is truly the love of Christ in action.