by David Morstad
Some years ago, I was involved in a symposium called “Bridging the Gap”. Its purpose was to gather providers of disability services and faith community leaders together for a day in order to create connections and raise awareness of people with disabilities and the value of faith community connections. The experience provided an example of the need for introduction and honest conversation.
When asked, “What is it that keeps us from working together more effectively?”, the answers were uncomfortably candid. The owner of a small agency that operated group homes said simply, “We don’t know who you are. When you [local church groups] knock on our door, we don’t know if you’re there to seriously welcome us; or if you’ve come to do a healing service in our front yard. To tell you the truth, we’ve seen both. Forgive us if we’re a little skeptical of everyone.”
When asked the same question, one of the clergy answered, “Frankly, it used to be easier to find people with disabilities. We’d go to the local [institution] on Sunday afternoon and it was a great fellowship experience. Now, those places are closed, and you’ve done such a good job of blending into the community that we have no idea how to find you.” Others affirmed what he said and went on to suggest that, because institutions for people with disabilities were far less common, the need for faith communities’ outreach was somehow less necessary; that needs were, to a great extent, already being met. Both points of view are understandable, but it’s getting us nowhere. Perhaps it’s time for a new introduction, a fresh start.
For faith communities, the answer probably isn’t so much, “Where do I find people to serve?” Rather, it is the opening of an honest conversation with families you already know. Developmental disabilities alone are simply far too common to not be present in the congregation already. There’s also the matter of disability that is, for the most part, not as visible to people. It is estimated that 19% of any community in any part of the country have a disability. Family outreach support materials abound, but the materials available from Lorna Bradley, Kathleen Bolduc and Jolene Philo are great places to start.
For professional service providers, not only is spirituality a normal part of the human experience (and professional organizations have gone on record saying so), but faith communities are rich sources of natural support networks. For a glimpse of what is possible, check out the Putting Faith to Work project of the National Collaborative on Faith and Disability.
It’s time for a new look at one another and the chance to plan for great things.