By Mary Otte
On Saturday, September 8th, The Elizabeth M. Boggs Center held one of its ongoing workshop/discussion groups focused on building congregational support for the people with disabilities and their families. The event was held at the First United Methodist Church in Westfield, NJ, where both the space and refreshments were provided. The discussion was headed by Bill Gaventa, M. Div., Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Coordinator, Community and Congregational Support at The Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities (and a self-described “deinstitutionalized chaplain”). It centered on developing a deeper kind of inclusion, not asking people to venture into the unknown of “helping the people with disabilities,” but rather to find a common ground that is accessible.
Gaventa shared touching stories of outreach using a special approach. Rather than asking a person in the congregation to spend time making a disabled newcomer feel welcome, church leaders first learned the interests of the new members and then asked, “Do you know anyone who...?” As one example, word went out that a newcomer with Down syndrome was a huge Yankees’ fan, and soon another Yankee fanatic came forward and offered to take him to a few games—they became instant friends and bleacher/pew-mates. In another, a Harley club changed their rules so that a disabled man who’d always wanted to ride a hog didn’t have to own a bike in order to join. When the gentleman passed away, his dreams fulfilled, the procession behind the hearse was twenty Harleys deep, with grieving bikers serving as pallbearers.
The discussion was as lively as educational and, like all of the groups in this series, centered around the interests of the participants. One attendee worked at a ‘sheltered workshop’ (also known as work centers—government programs that primarily or exclusively hire persons with disabilities) and was looking to broaden her religious training and outreach. She was frustrated by the sub-minimum wages disabled “employees” receive and the non-inclusive environment in which they worked. Gaventa had an anecdote for this as well, telling the story of a man, obsessed with breaking glass, who got a job at a recycling plant where that’s what he got to do all day: smash glass, with the added rewards of getting praise and pay.
The Boggs Institute and NJ Coalition have been focused on this specialized area of inclusion for two decades and are a wealth of information. The three and a half hour meeting flew by, and we’d hardly gotten through a third of the materials provided. I left inspired, wondering how I could take steps to further inclusion and with the desire to see these groups packing churches, synagogues, mosques and community halls across the nation.
Since I work for www.parentgiving.com, an elder-care website dedicated to helping adult children provide the best care for their parents, I know that we live in a rapidly aging nation, with just as rapidly dwindling resources. Aging and end of life issues, the new studies on dementia (many focused on Down syndrome patients), finding ways to aid people with disabilities—these topics all intersect at the central theme of caring for others, remembering we’ve all been cared for in the past, and that caring is a gift that gives back tenfold, as long as the caregivers can maintain balance in their lives.
As Gaventa pointed out, “Individuals who do the primary caregiving often talk about the meaning it provides in their lives as well as their need for support and involvement by others. Sometimes caregivers end up being very isolated and caregiving programs segregated, whether in support of people with disabilities or people with degenerative brain diseases. They get labeled as ‘very special’ people or programs. Sometimes that happens in congregational settings. Both caregivers and their communities (including congregations) need to figure out ways for others to share in the support and also in the significant meaning and spiritual growth that can come from caregiving experiences.”
Whether or not there is an upcoming group in an area near you, The Boggs Center is an invaluable resource, from articles, meetups and information to reading lists and inspirational MP3s, with access to the entire Boggs Center resource and video library at: http://rwjms.umdnj.edu/boggscenter/projects/faith_based.html. The Boggs Center also helps support the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Ministries, which has an active listserv to share information, resources, training events, and questions about caregiving and inclusion. The Journal of Religion, Disability & Health...bridging clinical practice & spiritual supports, formerly edited by Gaventa, is filled with enlightening vignettes by a variety of authors and is another highly recommended resource.
I’m glad to have discovered the coalition and Boggs through WHEELIE cATHOLIC and want to give a big shout out of thanks to Ruth for posting about the Westfield event.