What Could Be Better?

Well friends, it’s been quite a while since I last posted anything.  Lately, I have been going through a time that all writer’s dread “the gridlock of writer’s block and the doldrums or lack of creativity.”  However, this all came to a halt when I was asked by my good friends at the Anabaptist Disability Network (ADN) to come up with a webinar on the topic of what L’Arche has taught me.  At first, I felt that everything I could possibly say about L’Arche and it’s work has already been said, but I realize how, that one can never truly plumb the depths of what my six plus years in the disability sector have taught me.  I offer you now a glimpse into this life and what I hope will be some practical advice for churches which aim to follow suit:
[Note: The question beneath comes from a previous post: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/wheres-the-justice-in-that-the-social-exclusion-of-adults-with-learning-disabilities-and-what-the-church-can-do-to-fix-it/ the context being a conference I attended in Belfast in the spring of 2016]

Key Questions:  What does our shared vision of Christian community look like? Who is present in our biblical vision of community? How can the inclusion of vulnerable people better reflect the Gospel vision and therefore strengthen our church community? How can we more closely approach this vision here and now within our church? Given the actual makeup of our membership, might we unintentionally or unconsciously be putting some groups of people outside of this vision? What would be better?

How I would answer these questions: 

   1) What does our shared vision of Christian community look like? Who is present in our biblical vision of community?
Many churches talk about being a place where everyone would be welcomed and included, but is this really the case?  In a disability theology conference I attended in Belfast (2016) the presenter stated that we can answer the question of who is included more by looking at WHO ISN’T THERE rather than by who is there.
On an initial level this means thinking of the physical parameters which may either preclude or make worship difficult.  Such as: is the church fully wheelchair accessible, are the ramps being properly cleared of snow in the winter, what are the seating arrangements like?  Often people with disabilities are relegated to the back rows as there is no space in the sanctuary.  This means when people stand to sing they end up just seeing a row of backs rather than words printed on a screen.  What is the lighting like?  What are the acoustics like (many people with autism and other spectrum disorders are easily over-stimulated and have sensory troubles).

On a secondary level this means thinking of internal and cultural values, prejudices, and stereotypes.  It takes a long while to break these down.  Inclusion is not a “right away” matter, but rather is one that requires consistent thought-out action and planning.  Some barriers may include: people with disabilities may be noisy, may not have social skills, may not understand concepts such as personal space, may have safeguarding issues, may come with caregivers and/or be completely dependent on a caregiver for all aspects of their personal care, may be non-verbal and/or use other means of communicating, may interrupt a service (we had one person in L’Arche say that a pastor’s sermon was boring and going on too long because he was talking too much!)

  2) How can the inclusion of vulnerable people better reflect the Gospel vision and therefore strengthen our church community?

The concept of L’Arche as an intentional Christian community has taught me that Jesus welcomes all to come to His table.  In the Gospels, Jesus often interacted with those whom the world deemed unworthy or even worthless.  In L’Arche, all are welcome to participate to the best of their abilities.  Some of the people in our community go to a weekly church service.  They help out with tasks such as being an usher, handing out bulletins, helping to tidy up afterwards, being a greeter, pouring tea and coffee, and even singing or reading Scripture.  Others do not attend a church but are spiritual in their own way.  We have a nightly prayer time where a candle is passed around and everyone is encouraged to say who they would like to pray for. For many people with disabilities,routines are important, and this is a cornerstone which differentiates L’Arche from other care facilities.  In L’Arche we also realize that people with disabilities are the bedrock and cornerstone of our community.  This is why they are referred to as “core members.”  In this sense, we ask them what they would like and we try to include them in decision making.  Although it might not always be appropriate in a church setting to have a person with a disability at every meeting, there are still ways to hear what they have to say.  Even if someone is non-verbal, they may be able to use picture mats, storyboards, or electronic communication programs (such as on IPads) to explain what they like or don’t like.  If a church is having a disability ministry, I feel it is important to ask the people who would be involved in that program what they would hope for and be interested in, rather than simply choosing on their behalf.  Also, because in our society, many times people with disabilities are silenced and not given a voice – so by giving someone options and a chance to share their own thoughts and feelings we are thus empowering them and at the same time building peace and working towards social justice ideals.

Including people with disabilities is not just good for them and their own social skills, but also is great for the church!  People with disabilities often have a very deeply rooted sense of spirituality.  There is a certain pureness, a certain love, and a certain curiosity that they possess. People with disabilities don’t just challenge us to theologically and intellectually understand the Gospels, but also to practically live it out.  In my work in L’Arche I have learned that the people I work with don’t care that I have a master’s degree, that I have published a book, that I have traveled the world, or that I had a certain GPA.  All they truly are interested in as that I love them unconditionally.  I think sometimes we can misjudge how much people with disabilities understand or don’t understand theologically.  Obviously, there is a wide spectrum and differing abilities, however, in L’Arche I have often encountered profound questions of heaven, salvation, justice, and stewardship.  These questions should not be swept under the rug, but should be engaged with in a healthy way, allowing for questions, allowing for dialogue, and allowing for opinions and fears to be share openly.

Working and living with people with disabilities has also taught me the true core of the Gospel which to me is love, forgiveness, and tolerance.  Love for someone who is completely different to you.  Love has to go beyond mere words but must pierce at the true place of the heart.  Forgiveness because in community we make mistakes daily.  Sometimes I may say or do something hurtful, but usually people with disabilities are the quickest to forgive and forget.  Once I had a fall out with a young woman with Down Syndrome.  After glaring at each other all day, I went up to her while she was cooking.  I apologized for how I had treated her.  She responded “That’s ok.  I forgive you.  We’re still best friends!”  We never spoke about it again.  This is so counter to our society where grudges are sometimes kept and grievances brought up long after the fact.  In L’Arche we also use the dinner hour for a time of peaceful chatting and sharing.  Dinner is a sacred time where we do not allow interruptions such as television or cell phones.  We don’t talk about anything heavy or distressing.  This keeps our dinner a time to look forward to and a time to build our community.  One of my friends who isn’t from L’Arche came for dinner one day.  After observing our dinner and prayer time she commented “you know, if all families did this, there would be much less divorce in our world.”  Lastly tolerance.  Tolerance to me indicates that while I may not understand or approve of someone, I don’t let it become a dividing wedge.  L’Arche forms a multi-cultural community and in the past 6 years, I have had the privilege of living with people with over 30 different nationalities.  In this time I have learned that even though we may all have different customs, traditions, dress, or interests, in the end of the day we are all the same.  Many of us value the same things and while the way we go about it might be slightly different, it is obvious that our foundations remain identical.

 How can we more closely approach this vision here and now within our church? Given the actual makeup of our membership, might we unintentionally or unconsciously be putting some groups of people outside of this vision?   

When I was a children’s pastor I was told that new parents often will decide for or against a church based on its nursery.  For new parents, their most important priority is generally the safety of their children and all else (including worship style, minister, preaching) comes second.  Although I do not have a child with special needs, in my own experience as a carer, if I were to choose a church today it would have to be one that caters to and fully accepts people with disabilities.  To me, this means that there are options available.  For example, if a person cannot sit through a whole service quietly, is there a place they can go which would be quiet and provide the needed time away?  If there is no specific class for people with disabilities, is it possible that they might become a helper and leader in the children’s Sunday School (if this is appropriate and something they’d wish to do?)  If there are people who are afraid or simply don’t know how to interact with people with disabilities, it might be helpful to have someone mentor them (maybe even the person with a disability themselves).  If there is a safe church policy, I feel it vital to include working with children with disabilities and vulnerable adults both in the written manual as well as in any oral training sessions.  If a parent would like to register their child with a disability for Vacation Bible School or Summer Camp a plan should be in place such as would facilities be available, would a carer be able to come along, or is there anyone trained and equipped in the church for this.

What would be better?  

As noted, making the church more accessible is a long thought-out process.  Don’t beat yourself up if the church can’t become totally inclusive and accommodating right away.  Every step is a step towards progress and should be celebrated.  Maybe just focus on one or two goals a year and then depending on how they go continue from there.

Here are some practical suggestions, though, for anyone who’d like to begin or continue the process of an accessible church:

For churches that have no experience or information on helping people with disabilities
* Consider a course.  Many communities offer free (or low-cost) courses, conferences, or seminars.  Check with your local organisations that help children and adults with disabilities to see if they offer any.  Consider sending the pastor, elders, Sunday school teachers, etc.
* Consult ADN for resources.  The website has many good resources and there are also field associates from various locations who would be happy to assist through phone, email, or in person informal or formal.
* Consider having an ADN field associate share a message at your church.
* If a L’Arche community is close by, email to ask if you can join for dinner.  Many L’Arche communities also offer weekly (or sometimes more than weekly) chapel services and prayers and it may be of interest to see what these are like.
* Get in touch with other churches (regardless of denomination) that are doing work already with people who have disabilities (remember we are the same kingdom)
* Consider some books dealing with disability theology or practical worship aids.  If your church has a library, perhaps consult the librarian to see if they would be willing to include some of these resources.

For churches that are considering having a disability ministry 

*Consider doing a survey.  Ask the people with disabilities in your church (and their parents or carers) if they would be interested, what they would like, and what their hopes and dreams are.  Consider using a visual survey rather than just words as some may have limited reading ability or comprehension.
* Consider practical aspects such as time, finance, and staffing (or volunteers) as well as any safeguarding concerns
*Partner up with others – don’t trailblaze alone.  Once again, ADN is a great place to get resources and to encourage you and your church on this journey.
*Consider sensory worship (if possible what can be seen, heard, felt, tasted, smelt? Many people with disabilities require more than just the auditory in church.  At the same time, please be careful not to over-stimulate or have “too much going on at once.”)
*Don’t be afraid of mistakes – that’s how we learn!

For churches that already have a disability ministry 

* Consider ASL or Makaton training classes (many in the Deaf community would love to attend church but are unable to due to the high cost of interpreters)
* Being a parent or carer for adults with disabilities can be demanding and stressful.  Consider having a special evening away once or twice per year to honour this.  Additionally, when possible it is preferable to have someone other than the parent assisting their child with special needs in Sunday School.  This gives parents a needed break and a time for worship, and is also usually better for the child.
*Consider online apps where people can communicate with one another if troubles arise during church or Sunday School hour.

Working with people who have disabilities may be challenging at times, but in my own experience looking at my past 6 years in L’Arche, it has been one of the most rewarding and powerful things I have ever done.  I truly believe that God will bless us as individuals and corporately as a church as we seek to include all who desire to know Him.  Soon, I feel we will discover that people with disabilities have actually blessed us much more than we have ever blessed them.  God bless you and your churches on this incredible life-giving and inspiring journey.