Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Ministry to people with severe intellectual disabilities
What is the goal of a ministry to adults with severe cognitive disabilities?
I was having a discussion with someone the other day, and was talking about some of the pointless things that I have seen people do in the name of religious education of persons with severe disabilities. The person said to me, "Well those with severe disabilities in your class don't understand what you are talking about either." I was taken aback for a moment, because of course that was a true statement. I freely admit that persons with severe intellectual disabilities are not the primary target of any "lesson" I would teach, but that is also by my design. I am teaching lessons currently from the book of Psalms, and I freely admit that the severely intellectually disabled in our group probably don't understand 95% of what I am talking about. But their knowledge development, their understanding of a lesson is not something I am particularly worried about.
My primary focus for that group of people is that they can come to a place where they feel like they are a part, are a member of something. That they come to a place they call church where they are loved. A place where people are happy to see them. A place where they are given good food to eat, are largely served, and can go back for seconds. A place where they are listened to. A place where they don't need to sit quietly and just listen. A place where they can sing. A place where they can see friends. A place where they can make comments, whether or not they are relevant, and be congratulated for participation. A place where they are respected. A place where they are treated as peers rather than the object of ministry. A place where they are treated as adults. A place where they are valued.
That doesn't mean that we never work toward understanding of spiritual things with that group. But the gaining of knowledge is not much of a priority. We do work on teaching people how to pray through modeling, and some guided practice, but even then I am not sure they have any concept of what they are doing. They bring prayer requests and their requests are treated in the same manner as any person's requests, however, I am unsure of what they understand about prayer, for example.
So I guess I have come to understand ministry for this group of people quite differently. I think about the stage of faith they are evidencing. I think about how they enjoy being shown love, and how they demonstrate love for others and try to facilitate both. The focus of the ministry is not knowledge, or the understanding of principles in the same manner that it is for the typical Sunday school class or Bible study. A focus, by the way, that I perceive as being wrong as the predominant focus. We, however, in our knowledge fixation at church feel that that knowledge based religious education must find its way into the severely intellectually disabled Sunday school class. And I guess I simply do not agree.
With a mixed group like ours, we have highly educated individuals who attend (we literally have a brain surgeon) and people who are largely nonverbal and intellectually disabled. In other words, to some extent the full Body of Christ is represented. So we do do a lesson that will hopefully engage those who are able to understand it (which is the majority) while at the same time accepting those who may not understand the lesson as full members and full partners. Those individuals know, for example, that they can interrupt the lesson at any time and often do. In the same way that the lesson ministers to those who understand it as that is their cognitive level, the unconditional acceptance and ability to interrupt and receive interaction from the teacher at any time ministers to those with severe intellectual disabilities.