“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Church's protective function

I recently had the opportunity to attend a training on the sanctity of life put on by the Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agenty at Syracuse University. The training was outstanding and was very eye opening on a variety of levels, however, one of the lessons to me was that I came away with an insight into the potential protective function of the Church in a variety of areas.

First in terms of advocating and looking out for the safety of persons with disabilities, whether it be from bad people in the community, or human services, or even a stay in the hospital. The presence of the a community member in those settings works wonders in terms of changing the perceptions of those around a person with disabilities.

Second in terms of the unborn. If people with disabilities were really enfolded into the local church, people would not be able to make the arguments they make to justify the killing of unborn babies. Quality of life (although it is largely a spurious argument) is believed as an argument by many. If it could be demonstrated that people who are involved in churches are happy and enfolded, it would go a long way to protect their lives before they were born. It would also go a long way in assisting parents to want to have a child with a disability if they are considering terminating the life of an unborn child. They would see an environment where they were supported which would translate to support for their own child.

Other areas might be envisioned as well. But to the degree that we as the Church are not including and supporting persons with disabilities is the degree to which we expose them to devaluing and even death. Go back and look at Ezekiel 34 again. Because we have not brought them in, we place them at risk.


Monday, October 03, 2005

A movement of lay professionals

The desire to facilitate a movement of lay professionals is not necessarily an effort to indict the church, but rather for disability professionals to lead by example. In contrast to the way that individuals with disability are not represented in churches in a manner which reflects their numbers in the community, Christian special educators, Christian social workers, Christian rehabilitation counselors, are represented in the Church.

It is we who are in the know about persons with disabilities. Arguably, it is we who have dropped the ball, and not lived up to our responsibilities. As the Bible says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). We who have been given much knowledge and significant experience with the disenfranchised in society, hold a special responsibility to recognize their absence in the Church and rectify that situation. We need to be doing the work of inviting them in, introducing them to our congregations, and as appropriate, developing programs for them. In the same manner as we might be critical of a person with financial abilities not coming to the aid of her church should it need financial guidance, we as human service workers should be held accountable. The Church is disobedient, but then it has been disobedient in this area for a long time. There have been pockets of incredible insight and programs that must delight the Heart of the Lord, but there is also incredible ignorance, uncaring and a lack of concern. The Church is disobedient because we have been disobedient.

Church leaders speak of all people being created in the image of God, of all souls being equal, of the value of every human life, but as we look around our congregations, we don’t see the diversity typical of the community represented in our congregations. Where are the nearly 20% of persons nationwide who are disabled? Where are the 10% of persons with “severe” disabilities? Where are the people with mental retardation? “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8) might be a fair characterization of the church in reference to persons with disabilities.

Those of us who are attempting to change the Church face barriers from our pastors, barriers from our denominations, barriers from those who sit next to us in the congregation. But rather than trying to overcome barriers, we dismiss ourselves from our responsibility in the name of church/state separation, or the rules of our organizations relative to clients, or the ignorance of our congregational brothers and sisters or our pastor. Or we say that our training and our work with persons with disabilities is our job and our church life is our church life. Personally, I need to see the chapter and verse on that one. This cannot be something that our Lord would condone. Can we as believers say that we are unwilling to serve in a particular area, especially when that area is our area of strength, the area we are devoting our working life to? Can we as believers say that we are unwilling to serve, when partially due to our lack of service, the Church lives in disobedience?

We hear pastors, or children’s program leaders, or Christian school administrators tell us that programs are too expensive, or too time intensive, or require persons having a lot of training. How do we respond to these excuses for living in disobedience? The last question is the easiest to dispel for the disability professional. Simply say, “I have a lot of training and I will run your program.” However, the types of things that are required to open the Church really don’t take a tremendous amount of training. Are church programs for persons with disabilities too expensive? A survey of pastors of churches running such programs says they aren’t (Sanchez & McNair in preparation). A survey of people who attend Christian churches say they are not (McNair in preparation). As a professional in the field of special education, I would agree with both of these groups and say that such programs are not expensive. Well aren’t programs too time intensive? Well, service is time intensive, but programs for persons with disabilities aren’t any more or less intensive than other programs.

However, the toughest protestation to the initiation of a program for persons with disabilities is that “Its just not a priority right now.” So ala Matthew 25, church leaders indict themselves. That will be my response in the future should I ever hear that excuse again.

We, the experts, need to act like the experts we are. Imagine going to your pastor to correct his interpretation of the Greek on a particular biblical passage. My pastor wouldn’t take too kindly to my attempted correction, and he would be right to not listen to me as I have never studied Greek or Hebrew, or systematic theology. But he has never studied the education of persons with mental retardation, or behavior management or best practices in the delivery of human services. I am the one who needs to take the lead in this discussion. I should know enough about my Bible to tell her/him where to get off should she/he talk about such a ministry not being a priority (I don’t need Greek or Hebrew to do that). But I have to be the one to go forward on these issues.

I had a discussion with a pastor and a couple of his staff members once. At one point in the discussion, one of the people in attendance said, “Nobody stays up at night wondering how to teach people with mental retardation about the Bible.” I responded, “I do,” which was the absolute truth.

Special education professionals live disability, particularly special education classroom teachers. They do, because if they don’t, they will be eaten alive by their students, or the student’s parents, or their administrators among others. But that preoccupation with persons with disabilities and the types of services they require, needs to be carried over to the church setting so as described in Matthew 25, they can be obedient to God’s command there and elsewhere to minister to the least of these.

Pastors, you need to confront disability professionals with their responsibilities in the church. You need to bring people with disability into the Church and support the efforts of those who do the same. As leaders in the Church, you are disobedient yourselves, and are allowing those within your purview to be disobedient as well.

Did Christ see people with disability? Very often these people are also poor. Did Christ have any interest in the poor? We read the stories of the extent to which Jesus went to minister without considering the context or the effort on his part to get with these people. Jesus’ interactions with persons with disabilities are breath-taking, and they were intentional on his part. We trivialize these interactions when we use them simply as illustrations or metaphors of spiritual principles. These were real people confronted by a real God, and these confrontations with real people by a real God are ubiquitous in the New Testament.

So don’t miss the priority Christ gives to these people as an example for you as a church leader in terms of the priority you should give to these same individuals who are living in your midst today. If you say that these people are not a priority, you indict yourself and diminish the service of those who do work with the disenfranchised.

And professionals in disability, don't miss your responsibility to help a disobedient church to become obedient. If you, if we do not facilitate the inclusion of persons with disability into the church, who do we expect will? We are the experts.


Sunday, October 02, 2005

Interfaith Disability Pre-Summit summary article

Rev. Bill Gaventa prepared this summary article for distribution about the wonderful Interfaith Disability Pre-Summit which was held just recently in Washington D.C. I provide it for your information. Bill also indicated that this article is "For Immediate Release: (Please feel free to adapt to your own publications, add information or perspectives, etc.)." Bill is once again to be congratulated for conceptualizing and pulling off this marvelous meeting.


Interfaith Disability Pre-Summit Draws Over 100 to Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday, September 20, more than 100 representatives from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and public and private provider and advocacy organizations involved and interested in religious service and supports with people with developmental disabilities and their families met for a first ever interfaith summit at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. The gathering was a “Pre-Summit” because it occurred just before a first ever national summit between eleven national disability networks organized as the Alliance for Full Participation. (www.allianceforfullparticipation.org)

The Interfaith Summit involved the representatives from the National Council of Churches Committee on Disabilities, the AAMR Religion and Spirituality Division, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, the National Apostolate for Inclusion Ministry, the Religion and Disability Program of the National Organization on Disability, Friendship Ministries, YACHAD (The National Jewish Council for Disabilities), the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Consortium of Special Educators in Central Agencies for Jewish Education, the National Association of Christians in Special Education, the Union for Reformed Judaism, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and Lutheran networks including Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services, Inc. and Mosaic, Inc.

The highlights of the Presummit included three presentations by national leaders in disability advocacy to the interfaith gathering. The first was Patricia Morrisey, Director of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities. The second was Chester Finn, the President of SABE (Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, Inc.). The third was Sue Swenson, the incoming Executive Director of The Arc. All of them were asked to address ways that faith communities and networks could address major needs and goals being discussed at the Alliance for Full Participation.

A second highlight was a presentation by Jeff McNair of the results of an Interfaith Survey conducted over the summer of 2005 designed to research the perspective of faith communities and networks on the issues and needs being addressed at the Alliance for Full Participation. More than 70 people and networks responded to the 10 page survey, leading to more than 150 pages of comments, ideas, and suggestions. The Executive Summary of the Survey can be downloaded from www.aamrreligion.org. (Or use your own website if you put it there) and the full results of all the responses can be viewed at to http://jeffmcnair.com/Presummitsurvey.htm.

A third highlight was the incredibly high energy in the meeting, and the networking between individuals and groups. That was assisted by a reception and shared dinner, with a celebration of the presentation of the Henri Nouwen Award by the AAMR Religion and Spirituality Division to Sara Simon, a pioneer in Jewish supports with people with developmental disabilities, and the first ever Jewish recipient of this award. Meditations led by Gerry Hendershot, Ginny Thornburgh, Sister Gabrielle Kowalski, James Vanderlaan, and Rabbi Matthew Simon closed the evening, along with written statements of commitment by more than 50 participants about what they would do with their experience in the pre-summit.

Without a doubt, though the highlight of the day was a poem composed and read by Nate Hajdu, a direct support professional who works with Charlie Swenson. Sue Swenson invited three of the direct support staff from Jubilee, Inc, a Mennonite-based organization in Maryland who supports her son, to come and talk about the ways that their faith shapes, and is shaped, by their work with people with developmental disabilities. All three were articulate and moving, but the poem “My Friend Charlie,” read by Nate Hajdu about the spiritual journey on which Charlie had led him was simply a profound, moving, and sacred moment. (The poem is attached.)

For more information about the Pre-Summit, please contact one of the following sponsoring partners:

• Bill Gaventa, AAMR Religion and Spirituality Division, and The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities.732-235-9304. bill.gaventa@umdnj.edu
• Jeff McNair, National Association for Christians in Special Education. jmcnair@calbaptist.edu
• Nella Uitvlugt, Friendship Ministries,1-888-866-8966, friendship@friendship.org
• Linda Larson, NCC Committee Coordinator, 763-300-6163. Lindjhl@aol.com,
• Jan Benton, National Catholic Partnership on Disability, 202-529-2933, 202-529-2934 (tty), jbenton@ncpd.org
• Barbara Lampe, National Apostolate for Inclusion Ministry, 1-800-736-1280. qnafim@aol.com
• Ginny Thornburgh, NOD Religion and Disability Program, 202-293-5960, religion@nod.org
• Sr. Gabrielle Kowalski, AAMR Religion and Spirituality Division President, 414-410-4109. gkowalski@stritch.edu
• Gerry Hendershot, Cornell University Institute for Policy Research, ghendershot@earthlink.net
• Jeffrey Lichtman and Jason Lieberman, YACHAD, National Jewish Council for Disabilities, (212) 613-8229. krackol@ou.org.
• Sara Simon, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Consortium of Special Educators in Central Agencies for Jewish Education, and Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. srsimon@erols.com
• Rabbi Richard Address, Union for Reform Judaism, Rfaddress@aol.com
• Linda Ogden, Mosaic. 319.653.5192. cell: 319.461.3435 lynda.ogden@mosaicinfo.org
• Earl Bleke, Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services, Inc. 920-206-4408, ebleke@blhs.org