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

 

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.

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.

Encouragement as Hospitality

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. Thessalonians 5:11 ESV

There is a neat tradition at Heritage Christian Services. For over 15 years, the individuals at all of the day habilitation programs in the Buffalo, New York area set adise a day to intentionally go out and encourage someone in their neighborhood or faith community. This day of encouraging is in addition to routine volunteering that they do on a weekly basis in the community with Meal on Wheels, food shelters, animal shelters and much more.

One year each person made a care basket for their faith community leader with yummy cookies, music and gifts. The individuals at their work places boarded their vans and traveled to each of their faith communities. When they reached someone’s church or synagogue the person rang the door and handed the basket to their pastor, priest or rabbi. They shared with them how much their faith community leader had encouraged their faith and thanked him or her as they handed them a beautiful basket. One Pastor almost cried and said he had a difficult week and how much this act of kindness made his day!
Another pastor said she saw her friend walking up to the door of the church and felt like sunshine was coming her way. She had just lost her dog the day before.

There is nothing like surprising someone on an ordinary day and letting them know how much they mean to you.

This group of individuals were able to bring hospitality to the very people that share it with them every week and it was a delight!

After their day of encouraging the people from each day program got together with each other to tell their stories, share a meal, dance, sing and have a devotion of thankfulness together.

Contributed by Diane Sturmer, Spiritual Life Coordinator, Heritage Christian Services, Inc.

A Happy Heart Offers Hospitality

“A happy heart makes the face cheerful” Proverbs 15:13a

Mark Bruinsma, one of the founders of Heritage Christian Services was an incredible example of hospitality in his faith community. Mark had Down’s syndrome and had an amazing impact on his faith community. He was a world changer. Even years after he entered heaven, I have met people that shared that Mark was the reason they came back a second time to visit the church.

Mark was known to take time to give a big smile and a warm hug to each person who came into the lobby of his church. He also took time to ask questions to learn about each person he met! He had a neat way of making people feel welcomed and valued. People said they wanted to experience more of the faith community that Mark represented.

This winning combination gave Mark the role to welcome new visitors for decades. This joy was also seen when he would lead the choir and congregation in his favorite song “How Great Thou art.” Many said that Mark’s happy heart and cheerful smile drew their hearts toward him and brought them into a closer relationship with God.

Contributed by Diane Sturmer, 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.