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

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Value added

I had a discussion this morning with several friends who also are persons in leadership within a local church. They described difficulties they were having regarding their efforts at integration of a person who is mentally ill into the youth group. In the course of the discussion, they related how the person monopolized the discussion, implying I guess that content wasn't able to be covered and that others did not have the opportunity to participate as well. There were other issues relating to the hostility of the person when offered help and the frustration among other members of the group my friends were trying to serve. Their concerns were all legitimate concerns.

However, when I had the opportunity to chime in, I spoke of how in my experience, persons with disabilities change those around them, and changes them often for the better. In Jean Vanier's "Becoming Human" he states,
That is why it is dangerous to enter into a relationship with the Lazeruses of our world. If we do, we risk our lives being changed (p. 71).
Persons with challenging disabilities surely do change those who aren't currently experiencing disability. Take this youth group for example. At the moment the person has changed the group by causing much concern on the part of the leadership. The person has caused the leadership to look at the person and make the determination of whether the person is worth their efforts or not. It has caused the members of the group to wonder whether they want to continue to be a part of the group. The person has caused the leadership to make a judgement of whether the content or the person is more important. The person has caused the leadership to wonder how far they are willing to go. All this just because of the person's presence there.

But I think a significant part of the problem that people have in these types of situations is that they see the person who doesn't fit in easily as a detriment rather than as a potential value added. As a man of 50, I can tell you that I remember very little of the content of the Bible studies I have participated in (even those I've led!) but I remember a few of the people in the groups. The leadership is very hung up on the content of the Bible study/youth group, but I will guarantee you that what the members of that group will remember for the rest of their lives is the person with mental illness in their group. Potentially they will also remember how a group of people in leadership treated that person, made that person feel like a part of the group rather than as a crazy person who needed to be tolerated. Perhaps they will learn how to interact with such people in the future because of the experiences they gained while in the youth group.

Perhaps the leadership might see the presence of this person as an opportunity to grow themselves and change the group members. You see, this perspective sees people who present challenges to the status quo as a value added rather than a detriment. I have the opportunity through the enfolding of an atypical person to promote real changes in the lives of those who want youth group to be only what they want it to be. I have the opportunity to challenge others with the trials and blessings of ministry. I have the opportunity to help others to understand service. These are the value added in addition to the obvious benefit of loving and supporting a person who is disenfranchised from all of the culture including the Christian subculture.

As is typical, however, rather than taking the opportunity to really change lives for a lifetime in a way that people will remember for a life time, I choose to lead a Bible study or youth group in the manner in which it has always been led. Oh we will have video games and lights and great music and great teaching. But instead of really demonstrating and thereby teaching others the benefits of truly loving others, those who are difficult to love, who won't get better and who will always be social skill deficient, who will always be mentally ill, I choose to make sure I get through Biblical passages about love and caring and acceptance.

One of my friends said that whenever someone tries to help the person with mental illness in the group, the person grabs a hold of him or her like a "freaking vise" (my translation). Well, duh? If I have been rejected because I am difficult to understand and someone finally shows me a little compassion, how would you think I would respond?

Please don't get me wrong. I am NOT saying that ministry to people with mental illness is in any way easy, because probably most often it is not. What I am saying is that the church must not reject those people, particularly when their behaviors are not dangerous, just annoying. I, we must model acceptance and see people who challenge us as those who most likely have been rejected by everyone (including us), those who need to be loved, and those who have much to offer to us, if only opportunities for growth.



Impossibleape said...

Wonderful observations

I especially liked your point regarding how little about sermons and prepared lessons we retain but how much we remember and emulate the examples and attitudes we see in our role models.

You are a role model and a teacher that I will remember even though I have known you only in story.

God Bless

Anonymous said...

After reading several entries, I connected with Value Added. I have a family member who is schizophrenic, bi-polar, and a dry alcoholic (no longer drinking). He has been unable to hold a job, divorced and has not seen his two minor children in a decade. He grew-up in a church and went to a church but did not continue as an adult. He is labeled “Crazy Jack”. Although he is not fit to be a parent with full custody, he is not dangerous- only difficult. His close friends, not church goers, have given him much needed support. In fact, no church has offered him support. I will continue to respond to the entry Value Added.

I understand that integration can be difficult. Someone mentally disabled may not understand that others want to learn, have input, and desire to finish a lesson. If the disabled person can not participate they may get angry. Many people have been angry at the disabled person. Why can’t they be angry in return? They have something to say and want to be heard. How can integration take place to meet the satisfaction of all participants in the group (any group)? As you mentioned, lessons of love and acceptance are needed.

This opportunity gives others “added value” in life experience. Teaching a youth group or any group is as important as teaching the disabled individual. (I wish I had more information describing the characteristics of the individual, but based on my knowledge I will continue.) After teaching lessons on love, acceptance and patience, hopefully individuals would open their heart to the disabled. It is time to apply the lessons.

Once the disabled person is accepted into the group, perhaps they will not monopolize time and get angry when feeling rejected. The disabled person would be included into the group and not secluded. The individual would not to have to talk to feel included in the group because s/he would be included. This experience would be a life learned lesson that would be remembered by the others in the future therefore the inclusion of the disabled would have added value.

Understanding, loving, and helping a person with disabilities can change others. It teaches empathy, and gives others the opportunity to give and help others. More importantly is makes people aware of how and where they can help the disabled. I agree with the added value of inclusion as long as the person being included is not dangerous. In my own life experience, meeting Mark, Mark, Joyce, and Ryan was definitely added value not a detriment and will be remembered for a life time.

*Side note, a quote from Jean Vanier’s “Becoming Human” reads “That is why it is dangerous to enter into a relationship with the Lazeruses of our world. If we do, we risk our lives being changed.” (p.71) The opposite of this is also true. In a previous entry Déjà Vu All Over Again, I believe Ed’s pastor’s wife will have a great deal of input into her husband. You stated that this was a great church and the pastor’s wife was interested in disabled ministries. I believe the pastor’s wife and the Lord will open the pastor’s heart and mind to a ministry for the disabled. Your input was not a waste.

Anonymous said...

I had never thought about it until reading your blog that people with disabilities do change those around them, whether it's just for the moment or an everlasting impression. I don't have any experience with disabled people; I have never had anyone in my life with a mental or physical disablity, (which seems odd). But there have been times where I have been in a situation, whether it's been a meeting, a study group, or even riding public transportation, where I've had to share time with a disable person...And I can remember THEM to this day. Why do I remeber them? I think it's because I feel sorry for them, even though I shouldn't and they probably don't want me to, but I think it's human nature. They wake me up and make me realize that I am blessed for what my capabilities are and how dare I ever feel sorry for myself. At the same time I look at them in awe and with envy because the ones I have met are so strong mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and I wish I could be as strong as they are in those ways.

As far as saying the church should not reject disabled people, well I agree to that as well. However, this may be a similar situation to finding teachers to teach special education classes in schools: It takes a special kind of person to teach and be tolerant to special needs people. Not all pastors, ministers, and people in these leadership roles are emotionally fit for teaching to a metally ill person.

C.Zuidema said...

I think its really cool that you take the time to not only work with the disabled but educate others about the disabled. I do agree that people with disabilities will change your life. After hanging out with your special friends, I realized that they are some of the most loving caring people I have ever met. All they wanted to do was to be my friend.

I also agree that we should see spending time with the disabled as a blessing and not a burden. They are greatly affected by whether or not we accept them. If we simply take the time to talk to them, it may improve their social skills. I will never forget the night that I got to spend with your friends as it was an eye opening experience and very touching.

I admire that you choose to teach people passages on love and acceptance in your Bible study. Is'nt it ironic that the disabled and people with disabilites have more patience and acceptance for us than we do for them. Why is it so hard for us to take time out of our day and spend it with them?

I really admire your passion for what you are doing. I am so glad that I got the opportunity to realize where the church is goin wrong and what kinds of things need to be changed. I enjoyed reading your writings and I hope to keep myself informed on the current issues that are goin on today.

Jered said...

Hi, I read you post after searching for some advice on tuning Bible studies to include the mentally disabled. At the Youth group I teach, we have 5 mentally disabled people, two of which cannot even talk, the other with about 7 year old communication skills. They come just to be there I think, they have been coming there since before I came (7 months ago. They always stand off to the side and talk while we do the lesson. I teach the high schoolers, while they talk an d play games 15 feet away. I have always wondered how to include them, one failed attempt ended with their leaving.
Last week I told them to quiet down while we read and talked, and at that point I felt bad. Now, I want to include them, as I agree with everything you say, but the reality is they are on a much different level. Either the High schoolers get fed or the others get fed, one lesson cannot be taught to both.

So what do I do? I thought of some opportunity to include them, have the high schoolers maybe teach or talk to them, but that is awfully awkward and comes off staged from my experience. The pastor and I have talked about finding someone to teach them, but we have not found anyone. What would you do?

Jeff McNair said...

Good questions Jered. Let me try to respond a bit...
One of the most basic questions to ask is what is the point of the youth group? Is it the development of knowledge about the Bible, or faith development, or making people feel welcomed at the church, or what? The "value added" nature of this entry will be determined by how you see the point of the youth group. If it is all about working on knowledge through studying theology, or memorizing verses, or whatever, your mentally retarded class members will be somewhat left out as your group would be largely like a public school classroom with simply a change in the topic for the class. However, if you saw the class differently, as a way to increase the faith and understanding of everyone involved, you might approach the class differently. Maybe pairs of group members without disabilities might be assigned to those with mental retardation to assist those individuals to feel more integrated into the class. They might help to funnel the talking of the disabled members toward topics of discussion for that day. You might also alter topics such that they relate to your goal of having the disabled members be more included in the group itself. So, for example, if you were studying love, as in the example, you would think through how one makes someone who has been traditionally excluded feel loved. You might also talk about faith development, and what faith is for a person who is severely mentally retarded and how that can be moved to the next level. In the process of understanding faith development, your members who aren't disabled will grow as well. They will be assisting others, being servants, and understanding their own faith development at the same time.
Those are just a couple of responses off the top of my head. Email me at jmcnair@calbaptist.edu if you want to continue the discussion.