Interdependence

Every profession has its acronyms. We throw them about so freely it may sound like a foreign language to an uninitiated listener. Acronyms can be confusing. In some conversations the phrase, “I am opening an IRA’ means that the person is setting up an Individual Retirement Account. In the context of my professional life of supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, “I am opening an IRA” means that the speaker is part of a team of people opening an Individualized Residential Alternative home for people with disabilities. There is quite a difference

One of the acronyms in the field of supporting people with disabilities is referred to as The 3IPs. Independence, Inclusion, Individualization, and Productivity.

  • Independence- every person has the right to be as independent as possible
  • Inclusion- every person has the right to be included in the mainstream life and to share a community’s common places
  • Individualization- every person has the right to be honored as a unique autonomous person with specific dreams, gifts, goals, tastes, choices and purpose
  • Productivity- every person has gifts and talents to share to contribute to the community

I would like to propose that there is a fourth I, making it 4IPs. The fourth I is Interdependence. We each need each other. You need my gift for words and I need your gift for numbers. The musicians and artists among us are vital. We all need the gift that some have for growing food . We need those with the gift of listening. We need the encouragers, the thinkers, the teachers, those who can analyze and those who synthesize. We need the slow movement people and we need those who charge into the world at lightening speed. We need the brick layers and the surgeons. We need the dog walkers and horse whisperers.  We need those who pray and those who act, those who smile and those who provide a strong shoulder to lean on.  The knitters and weavers, the dolphin trainers and the doll makers, the egg gatherers and the snow shovelers- all are needed. We each need  these people so that we can not just be alive, but so that we can thrive!

Interdependence. We need the diversity of life to make life. Independence does not happen in isolation. The only way to be independent is for interdependence to be strong and healthy. Every person needs every person. Those without and those with disabilities need each other because all are gifted with purpose. We are gifted for the sake of each other. We are not complete without each other.

Interdependence- every person needs every other person; no one can be left out.

The apostle Paul wrote eloquently in 1st Corinthians 12:

 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work… 12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

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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.

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

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

Hospitable to Strangers

Hebrews 13:2 “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.” NLT
Reading is one of the joys of life for a man who attends a day program at an agency that supports people with developmental disabilities. He expresses his joy of reading and love for books by reading stories to children at a nearby child care center. As I asked about his experiences he shared with me that he started reading to school children several years ago. He said that he has always been welcomed with open arms and has felt his efforts have been greatly appreciated. He doesn’t do this for the applause or the pats on the back he may receive. He does it for the smiles on the children’s faces. He does it with a servant’s heart and certainly enjoys being welcomed into their world. He does it in such a wonderful way that he is missed on the rare occasions he is unable to make it. Many parts of his story touched my heart but his comment on how welcomed he feels upon arriving was particularly inspiring. The excitement of the children as they greet his arrival, how each pair of eyes and ears are focused on the story being read encourages him. The enthusiasm of the children and staff as they welcome him as their guest motivates his heart. How my friend feels when soaking this all in is called hospitality.

Encarta dictionary defines hospitality as, ‘kindness to visitors; being friendly and welcoming; generous treatment offered to guests or strangers.’ This describes exactly what my friend feels each time he visits. That should describe how we respond when we come into contact with people in need whether they be guests or strangers. If done properly, with the right heart attitude you will provide for another’s need and you will certainly be blessed. Don’t do it for the applause or the pats on the back you might receive. Do it as unto the Lord, with joy in your hearts. Who knows, you may find that you have entertained an angel or at least turned a stranger into a friend.

Contributed by Larry Havlen, Spiritual Life Coordinator, Heritage Christian Services, Inc.

Faith, Hope and Inclusion

Faith, Hope and Inclusion: Believing Together is the thought provoking name of an event that Heritage Christian Services sponsored through funding from New York State’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD).

When we started to plan this community building educational outreach to local clergy and caregivers we struggled with what to call it. We did not want to use the word disabled, or any of its derivatives, in the title because we believe that relationships and community are outside of the confines of disability or impairment. As our planning team talked about the word inclusion one of the ideals of inclusion that we kept returning to is that included people are honored, valued  and loved people. Faith Hope and Inclusion grew from the New Testament words: Now abides these three things- faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.

Faith. No one is excluded from having faith. People with disabilities have the capacity to express deep faith: faith in God, faith in God’s unconditional acceptance, faith in their ability to contribute and make a difference, faith to belong in a community of believers.

Hope. Hope is deeper than an optimistic outlook; it is the belief that the God of love is present and at work in creation. Hope steers the human heart. Hope gets us up and out of bed in the morning. No person is excluded from having hope.

Inclusion. Belonging… being seen as part of all, every, everyone, everybody and the world. An included person is valued and is missed when she or he is not there. An included person is a loved person.

Believing Together.  By definition a community is more than one person united by a common belief, interest or activity. A faith community is united by a common spiritual or belief system.  It is expected that the members of a community work together to strengthen their community; relationship and respect, including and encouraging, differences and dignity flourish in healthy communities. When people with disabilities are included in communities of people who are believing together the community is strengthened.

Faith, Hope and Inclusion: Believing Together. Together we will learn who, what, when, where, why and how to include people with disabilities and those who love them in our communities of faith and beyond.