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

Monday, July 19, 2004

Ruminations on a model for churches

For years, I have wondered about the kind of model I would propose for supporting persons with cognitive disabilities in a local church.  On the one hand, such a model needs to be natural; it needs to be something which is a natural growth out of the life of the church.  Good people have proposed a variety of models which borrow from those developed by the state, state agencies, secular groups.  This is not to say that these groups have nothing for the church, however, it seems the church, a church which really believes in helping other members and fellow men in general could come up with something more .
Recently, I have been ruminating over an idea which I think has some merit.  It has partially grown out of interactions I have had with a homeless man I know.  I can't say he would consider me his friend, although I have provided assistance to him on occasion, have gotten into shouting matches with him on the phone, and have discussed the relevance of the church to the problem of homelessness in general.  Anyway, in spite of problems he faces with mental illness, his feeling is that if some family would take him in, that would be the start of a successful program that would put him on the path of recovery.  The notion of average families helping disenfranchised people is what has struck a nerve with me.
I want people, regular people and their families to know persons with mental retardation for the same reason others want white people to know black people and black people to know yellow people.  That reason is that when such people get to know each other, stereotypes, fear, distancing, negative attitudes, fall away and are replaced by understanding, acceptance, empathy and caring.  I want every family in my church to know a person with mental retardation by name.  I want the children of every family in my church to have had lunch with a person with mental retardation and to know that person by name.  I want every person with mental retardation to know the phone number of a family in my church whom they can call when they have a problem, who will be there for them, who will care about their problems, who will help them out on occasion.  I want that because that will change the person without disability, will change the person with disability, will change the church, will change the community and perhaps most of all, would be an evidence that we as a church are finally being obedient to the example of Christ provided for us.
DC Talk the musical group has stated, "a physical world creates a spiritual haze."  That is so true.  I never cease to wonder at the indignation of families of persons with disabilities, or persons with disabilities themselves at the treatment they receive from those around them.  These same people were oblivious to the experience of disability till they experienced it themselves.  But people without disabilities are only that way for a while, they will eventually have a disability of some sort either themselves or within their family.  For example, I see a further degrading of my already poor eyesight, and if the Lord gives me 20 more years, I can't imagine what my knees will be like by then.  The certainty of disability is right up there with death and taxes.  Yet a physical world creates a spiritual haze.  How might we cut through that spiritual haze?
Perhaps some sort of a program which links families with disenfranchised persons of various types might be the answer.  Not everyone can make the committment required to be a member of a L'Arche community, however, everyone can make some sort of committment to a neighber.  People will be able to deal with more or less severe disabilities according to who they are.  I for one can work with a mentally ill, homeless man, or another emotionally disturbed man whom I used to know because of who I am, my personality, etc.  Others would be scared or threatened.  But there are plenty of sweet adults with down syndrome, for example, who could use a friend, a family to fill their lives.  The interaction would not be one sided either.  Both would gain.  There are children/adults with autism and their families who would gain from interactions with other families.  Families who would take the time to learn how to baby sit for the autistic child sometimes.  There are group homes in the community where sweet adults with severe developmental disabilities live, where a visit a couple times a month would make a huge difference.  Yes there are staff at these facilities, but anyone who has ever been in a hospital knows the difference between being visited by the nurse and by a family member or friend.
So what am I proposing?  As the title states, this is just ruminating, but some kind of linkage between persons with and without disabilities, particularly interactions in which regular families get to know persons with disabilities and their families.  I would love to pull any 5 year old child at my church aside and ask, do you know someone with mental retardation, someone with a disability?  I would literally cry if I could consistently hear, "Yea, Rosa is coming to our house for a barbeque today!"
We can get there.


Anonymous said...

These thoughts really have inspired me. A church could develop something like this: Each family adopts, in a way, a person with a disability. This would involve making a commitment to include this person in activities that ones does as a family. A family would take their new friend to church every Sunday, invite them over for get-togethers like barbeques and birthdays, join them for holidays, and anything else that one would do for a beloved member of their family.
Now my thought is where does a family find their new friend? There could be a ministry in each church that families could become involved in. It would first be sort of an interview process to make sure the family understood the kind of commitment the ministry entailed. Then the ministry team would match this person with a member of the community, from a list of interested persons perhaps. Then the family would attend a little class, taught by this ministry, about how to lovingly and safely interact with a person with a disability and about the specific disability of the family’s new friend. Then the first meeting of the family and new friend is with a ministry leader, and then the relationship building begins.
I know many families at my church that could at the very least commit to taking a fellow child of God to church every Sunday, sitting with them, and socializing with them afterwards. My husband and I would be willing to do that. So the next obvious question is what people will start this ministry? Is there a larger organization that could teach something like this to churches?

Jeff McNair said...

There are not a lot of resources at the moment but they are developing. I am personally involved in the devleopment of a certificate program through the Joni and Friends organization. Be watching their website http://joniandfriends.org as things develop. You might also find other useful resources there.