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

Monday, July 24, 2006

Its about relationships

Kathi and I had a great time yesterday. We had lunch with one of the pastors and his wife from our church, and our PAID ministry support person and her husband. It was great time. The pastor, Kurt, asked me where I would like to see our church in 15 years. As I thought through that question, and listened to the discussion that ensued, I was once again impressed with the fact that what are needed are not programs but relationships. It is not about building programs that include people, it is breaking down the barriers that exclude people from existing programs. Ben (the husband of our ministry support person, Rachel) talked about how he wished that people with disabilities were just known by others in the church, to the point that needs would be met on a simple intepersonal level.

We all talked about the distancing that can come from programatic approaches to helping persons with disabilities. That whole question is something that I have thought about a great deal and I have come to the conclusion that we need both. We need to be people who introduce those with disabilities to those who haven't experienced them yet in order to break down the "otherness" feeling that many nondisabled persons have about those who are experiencing disability. That is all about relationships and experience and personal interactions. Those types of engagement will lead to experiential knowledge which will break down many of the barriers which have been constructed. Why do I not feel uncomfortable with people who act atypically? Probably more than any other reason is because I have been around many people over my lifetime who have been atypical actors. I have know people whose behaviors range from those with very minor social skill deficits where you just notice a very subtle difference, to those who smear feces or publicly masterbate, or violently punch themselves in the face. Through experience, I have learned to redirect them, or try to give them alternatives to their current behavior when asked to do so. But largely, I have learned to accept them. Sure, I get mad at people and enjoy the company of some over others. But the opportunities I have been provided through my experience have allowed me to see the person behind the atypical behaviors. By seeing the person, the otherness starts to fade. But these changes that have been wrought in my perspective came over time through personal interactions.

There is still a place for programs that focus on inclusiveness of persons with say, cognitive disabilities. Places where they can have the scriptures explained to them in a clear but not demeaning manner. Where they are treated as adults, but given information at a slower pace. But I think I would even sacrafice those types of settings (as useful as they are in building spiritual knowledge and understanding in persons with cognitive challenges) for simple ongoing interactions with other people. Many of the lessons we teach in our Light and Power class, for example, could be facilitated by friends explaining the sermon to friends. Additionally, as people experience more severe forms of mental retardation, their church involvement does not revolve around some sort of spiritual formation. It relates to them coming to a place where they are loved and accepted. Where they feel a part of something while they have a donut and coffee (see Fowler's "Stages of Faith").

So I think where I would like to see my church in say 15 years, is a place where there are many relationships between people independent of their differences. Where differences perhaps cause you to do a little planning (assisting a person who uses a wheelchair, for example) but doesn't in any way stifle relationships. Yes, there are structural changes which need to occur in the church, but rather than just prescribe structural changes from the outside, people will desire to see changes when they see their friend Sally excluded from opportunities for service or whatever within the church. Their righteous indignation would fuel the desire open things up. But as Kurt (the pastor at our lunch) said, it has to get into the DNA of the church. DNA is very difficult to change.



Ruth said...

I wanted to thank you for your blog. I just started a blog for Catholics with disabilities/inclusion issues at http://wheeliecatholic.blogspot.com . I'm a quadriplegic myself and have noticed a need for more ministry with the disabled. thank you for your work and, as I can see from your blog, great commitment to people with disabilities.


Jeff McNair said...

Great to have your input Ruth. We will check out your blog. I hope you will contribute to our discussion here in the future,