Ash Wednesday Tears

I shed some tears today during the Ash Wednesday service at a local church. These were not tears of repentance for sin (although I could shed tears concerning my sins). These were tears of joy for community.

Almost three years ago the congregation at East Rochester United Methodist Church (New York State), dived off the deep end to become an inclusive congregation. They put mission ahead of margin and invited a local human services organization (Heritage Christian Services) to share their building. The organization serves, among others, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The East Rochester church opened their doors to become a day habilitation site for a handful of people who volunteer in the community and use disability services.

Since the doors opened the two groups have sought to become one community. They built bridges of communication, accepted diversity, overcame stereotypes and asked deep questions. The church people invited their new tenants to join their midweek Bible study and potluck luncheons. The new tenants invited the church people to volunteer with them as they made bread for communion and sorted clothing donations for charity. They celebrate holidays together, and (as Methodists are prone to doing) they often share a dish-to-pass meal. There have been some bumps along the way, but they believe that the relationships are worth the effort to overcome the bumps.

The pastor at East Rochester UMC has been diligent about including me in worship planning for the holiday services and events that include both groups of people. When we began our planning of an Ash Wednesday service I made the suggestion that we create a service that would be universally accessible and participated in by all of the attendees. Pastor Todd Goddard did not have to think twice about working together to create a non-traditional service for this traditional Christian observance of the beginning of the Lent season.

The service began with a prayer in unison and the singing of “Have Thine Own Way Lord.” After the song we introduced the four interactive stations that we created in the sanctuary and narthex.  The four stations ran simultaneously and the worshippers had as much time as they needed to prayerfully participate in each station. Rocks represent disciplines to commit to practicing; strips of cloth serve as reminders of the work that Christ did for each of us; woven ribbons express love for God and neighbor; and, ashes represent God’s love for us with the ancient words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Here is where my Ash Wednesday tears happened. I watched as these two formerly separate groups of people worshiped as one. They assisted each other, prayed together and loved as one. Where there had been fear their was love. Where there had been distance there was acceptance. Names were spoken. Hugs were given. Ashes were received.

One devout man stood in the center of the sanctuary, gazed heavenward and repeated, “I love you God, praise you God” as the other worshippers silently bowed their heads at the simplicity of his expression of love.

Our Lenten discipline- community.  Being the beloved community.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday rocks and water station
River rocks and drift wood, made smooth by constant washing

 

Special Needs Ministry for All

This is the third post in our on-going conversation about special needs ministry. Our most recent conversation defined what special needs ministry is: Reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons.
This raises a question- if special needs ministry boils down to including people, how is this category of ministry any different from general ministry? Isn’t one of the purposes of a faith community to include people? Isn’t a community intended to offer people a place to belong and to connect? A vital faith-community should be a place where all people, regardless of age, gender, size, ability, social status, employment or financial status, are welcomed.
A ministry directed solely at addressing the perceived needs of people with disabilities misses the mark of honoring the unique needs and gifts of all of the community members. The core values of special needs advocacy can be applied to every person in our faith communities.
One of the core values of people with disabilities is the necessity of their presence in the world. In the recent histories of humankind people with disabilities were hidden away in back rooms or locked behind tall institutional fences and walls, and dependent upon paid professionals for survival. In general, they were not allowed to be part of the greater world. As the wrongness of the institutional model of care and living became evident people with disabilities advocated for their right to be part of the greater society, to have a place in our communities, to be present and their worth honored. The core value of presence and worth of all people is rooted in the ancient Scriptures that tell us that God created humanity in His own image: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:27). People with varying and differing abilities are all created in the image of God. If all people are God’s image bearers, than should not all people be welcomed as unique expressions of God’s image ? As unique expressions of God’s image all people come to a community with unique abilities and gifts. All people should have the opportunity to be present. Presence is not ability or disability dependent.
Another core value of people with disabilities is the validity of their voices and experiences. Every person comes to our faith communities with personal stories, dreams, fears and gifts. Each person’s story that has brought them to our communities of faith has to be listened to. The stories may include exclusion and pain; they may be experiences of understanding and acceptance; they may be stories that are familiar and comfortable, or they may challenge our personal stereotypes of people with different abilities or social statuses. The stories and experiences are real and have shaped each person. The stories of all people need to be heard.
The final core value I want to touch on is the “nothing about me without me” mantra of disabilities advocates. Would faith community leaders make plans for youth ministry without including the youth of the community? What about senior citizen ministry or single parent’s ministries? In the development of intentional, informed ministries the voiced needs and desires of the target group are the guide. The same listening strategy needs to be employed if developing a ministry for people with special needs. Their voices and experiences have to be included, even if their voices tell us that they do not want a separate ministry, but that their experiences and gifts belong in the greater community of faith.

Special needs ministry and general ministry share a definition: Reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons. Special needs ministry is all people’s needs in ministry.

What is ‘Special Needs Ministry’?

Our most recent conversation introduced a new series called Back to Basics in regards to the intersection of faith and disability. The first topic we looked at was the meaning of the phrase developmental disability. The second topic we are going to discuss is ‘What is Special Needs Ministry?’

When people refer to special needs ministry they are referring to how a faith community includes people with developmental or physical or mental illness disabilities into their worship services and the practice of their faith. What are these different disabilities and what do they mean to ministry? In our previous post we discussed that a developmental disability begins in utero, at birth or in childhood; the disability may impair the body, learning needs, communication and/or behavior; the disability will likely be lifelong (i.e. autism or cerebral palsy).

A physical disability may occur at any time in a person’s life and the impairment may impact fine and/or gross motor skills, communication, vision or auditory processes, cognitive processing or varying degrees of pain and the ability to function in a typical manner. The effects of some physical disabilities are visible (i.e. loss of a limb) and some are not (i.e. arthritis or autoimmune disorders). Mental illness refers to a chemical imbalance in the brain that impacts thinking processes, emotional skills or communication abilities (i.e. obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety).

It is possible for there to be overlaps from one or more classifications of disability to another. A person may be born with a developmental disability and acquire a physical disability later in life; or a person may have a physical disability and also live with a mental illness. A person may have a physical disability and no cognitive delays. The UN has found that 15% of the world’s population has a significant physical or mental disability.

What do these three definitions, that are broad categories for over 15% of the world’s population, mean to people of a faith-community who have a desire to reach out to people with disabilities in their communities? There is a saying within the autism community: If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. This means that attempts to understand a person starting with her or his label is limiting. The focus of special needs ministry needs to be on the person; the person is more important than her or his impairment. The impairment is real and cannot be trivialized, but it is only one facet of a complex person.

Back to the title of this post: What is Special needs Ministry? It is reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, to offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons. It is offering a safe place to discover who God created them (us) to be and to use the gifts and talents that God has given. Hmmm, special needs ministry sounds a lot like how we share God’s love with all people.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Recently I was asked some questions about special needs ministry. The questions were birthed from the sincere desire to provide excellent pastoral care but originated from a heart with very little knowlege and almost no relationships with people who have developmental disabilities.  I have been in relationship with people with developmental disabilitis since my childhood and a professional in the field for over 35 years.  I sometimes forget that assumptions, myths and old-school ideas may be all the information that a person or a faith community has for basing ministry with people with developmental concerns. Sometimes I incorrectly assume that the person I am in conversation with has more knowlege or experience than they actually have.

So, let us get back to the basics!

What is a developmental disability? The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines developmental disabilities as: a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas; these conditions begin during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime. In layperson’s terms a developmental disability begins in utero, at birth or in childhood; the disability may impair the body, learning needs, communication and/or behavior; the disability will likely be lifelong.

The term ‘developmental disability’ is a very broad term that includes people with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, many chromosomal aberrations and those who are diagnosed within the autism spectrum, and a myriad of others who have delays and disabilities of undiagnosed origin. The disability begins in childhood and remains throughout the person’s lifespan. For example, a child with Down syndrome will grow to be an adult with Down syndrome; she will never out grow her medical diagnosis. However, while she will always be a person with Down syndrome, she is first and foremost a person with gifts, talents, dreams, purpose, depth, relationships, knowledge and life experience that all combine to make her an amazing person.

Of interest to me regarding our on-going conversation about faith and disability is the knowledge that while disability impacts a person’s body and learning or thinking processes, it does not touch a person’s spirit! A person’s spirituality is their expression of their broader values and beliefs— “beliefs and practices that connect [them] with sacred and meaningful entities and emotions (1).” A person may have profound developmental disabilities and still be a perfectly whole and sound spiritual being!

In future blogs in this series we will explore spirituality, faith and disability with an eye for laying a firm foundation of the basics of understanding them.

(1) Alzheimer’s Association, Learning Institute, Rochester, NY

Fairytale or Real?

The story unfolds in such beauty that it seems like a fairy tale. Perhaps it is just a fairy tale, or perhaps it really is a true unfolding tale that will someday end with, “and they all lived happily ever after”.

Once upon a time a charming prince wanted to go somewhere to learn more about God and make friends. He visited a church with lots of smiling people. He enjoyed the lovely music and the opportunity to make new friends; but, alas, there was a problem. You see, the prince does not talk and when he is happy he likes to bounce in his wheelchair. His bouncing wheelchair makes noise. The music and the smiling people made him very happy so he bounced in his wheelchair to share his joy. Sadly, this was not a place where people bounce when they are happy and they did not like it when he bounced. The prince left and stayed at home and listened to joyful music by himself.

One day a kind maiden in the kingdom invited the prince to visit her church so he could learn about God, make friends and be free to bounce when he was happy. He went with the maiden, but he was unsure if he really would be welcomed. Would people shake his hand at the exchange of peace? Would people turn and shush him when he sang? Would he be asked to leave if he was happy and bounced? He was surprised to have a delightful time! The smiling people from the church helped him off his horse drawn carriage (a.k.a. a wheelchair accessible van), and held the doors open for him as if they already knew that he was royalty. The maiden proved herself to actually be his ambassador as she introduced him to her friends. The smiling people seemed genuinely happy that he was there, but would the smiles disappear if he started to bounce? He quickly learned that no, the smiles would not disappear and the shushes would not happen! He was free to be himself! The pastor even said during his sermon that he was happy to have the prince present!

Now, almost every week the prince goes to church. Friends from his church visit him at home and share their music and hearts with him. He has his own offering envelopes so that he can help make a difference; he sings as only he can sing, he prays, he listens, he bounces, and if he cannot be there on a Sunday morning than the people tell him that they missed him.

Is it too soon to write, “and they all lived happily ever after”?

National Day of Prayer

ImageRomans 15:6 “So that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Can you imagine it?

Can you see it really happening?

Can you hear it?

Imagine what?

See what? Hear what?

One voice of praise rising up from many.

People of many colors, many vocal qualities, many languages, many tribes and nations.

People of many abilities. People of differing abilities.

People of many socioeconomic backgrounds.

Many united in one voice and mind to glorify God.

Including the voice of the silent. Including the voice of those who have never heard sound.

Including the voice of those who speak with their eyes and hands.

Including those with labels to categorize their intelligence.

A lifting up of the voices mixed with tears, voices from toddlers and the very aged.

Voices of those forgetting who they are, and the voices of those who care for them.

Voices singing, voices praising, voices begging, voices wondering.

Voices that echo off mountaintops and voices lost in noise.

A lifting up of voices from prisons and brothels, universities and hospitals, park benches and fox holes.

Voices rising from woven corn stalk and plastic covered huts, voices from McMansions and voices from Red Cross shelters and UN refugee camps.

Many praying with one mind and one voice together glorifying the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Note- Picture is from chapel at Fairport Baptist Home, Fairport, NY

Celebrating World Autism Day

I thought about the title of this post for awhile before deciding on “Celebrating World Autism Day.” At first I was going to title this “Honoring World Autism Day”, which would be a correct view of the day, but I decided to use of the word celebrating. Celebrations are happy, joyous gatherings with cake and balloons. Celebrations are a joyous recognition of something wondrous, such as the birthday  of a loved one; so ‘celebrating’ is the correct word.  What are we celebrating joyously with cake and balloons? The joy of sharing the world with wonderful people who have autism.

What is autism? The autism advocacy group Autism Speaks defines it as “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Wikipedia describes autism as a disorder of neuro development. People who have autism interact with and interpret the world differently than more typical people. People who have autism are complexly different and complexly similar to other people. Today we are celebrating those differences and similarities. Today we are celebrating the lives of the 1 in 68 children who have autism around the globe.

What are we, as people of faith celebrating? All people are amazing gifts from God to each other. Today we are celebrating the wonderful gifts that people who have autism bring to the world. We are celebrating the opportunity that we have to journey through life with people who have autism, their families and their caregivers. We are celebrating the joy of sharing our faith with people who interpret the world differently. We are celebrating God at work across the entire spectrum of humanity.

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.

 

 

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