Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion is a remarkable collection of 64 stories about the way faith communities welcome and affirm people with disabilities in worship, ministry, fellowship, and leadership. Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and other congregations do this not only because it is the right thing to do, but because they are made better by the gifts of all people. This excerpt features Nickleville Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania.
False starts—even bad beginnings—can sometimes lead to good endings. When care providers for people with intellectual disabilities in rural western Pennsylvania brought their members to some area churches, the group home residents were asked not to return—a painful rejection. A few church members had found the newcomers’ sometimes noisy behavior disruptive, or they felt uncomfortable because of the visitors’ physical characteristics or difficulty in speaking.
The caregivers then contacted the Reverend Sue Montgomery about holding a service for the residents at the Nickleville Presbyterian Church, a small congregation with a rich and profound sense of being a family. The Nickleville congregation was receptive. It had, after all, called Montgomery, who uses a wheelchair, to serve as its pastor. And more than fifty years earlier, a family in the congregation had decided not to institutionalize their son when he was born with a disability. Their decision, Montgomery said, flowed from an understanding of what it meant to be embraced in the family of God, including full integration into the church. The congregation’s spirit of hospitality and inclusion had since been extended to all—to people who had disabilities, who were confronting questions of sexual identity, who had served prison time, or who were struggling with addiction.
Still, Montgomery acknowledged, some members of her congregation felt nervous about the new ministry, and some confessed that they were afraid of the newcomers. But four people stepped forward and committed themselves to the ministry, which the church called the Training Towards Self Reliance ministry.
Two years into the program, the gifts the men and women with disabilities bring to worship at Nickleville Presbyterian have been rewarding. The group home residents are considered active participants in the congregation. When they are included in morning worship services on Sunday, they are no longer thought of as visitors. The men and women of Training Towards Self Reliance (TTSR) are a part of the extended church family.
During their “Our Tuesday” morning worship services, they read the scriptures, some of them with a great deal of assistance and others almost unaided. Some have played the piano or sung solos for worship. Others have assisted with morning prayers. They are always in charge of receiving the offerings. One week one of the young men walked down the aisle shouting, “My preacher never lets me do this!”
“It was the defining moment of why we do what we do,” said Montgomery.
The congregation’s group home ministry has now expanded to other group homes in the community, with both on-site worship services and services at the church. “Our Tuesday” worship attendance now includes fifteen to twenty persons with developmental disabilities and fifteen to twenty-five caregiving and administrative staff. Many staff members had never previously attended church in the community, so the ministry helped them learn worship behaviors and etiquette. They now demonstrate to the group home residents appropriate worship behaviors, such as remaining quiet during prayer, finding hymns in the hymnal, and assisting with the offerings.
“We have watched a young man be transformed from a passive, unresponsive participant to one who now actively participates in a variety of ways,” Montgomery said by way of example. “This wouldn’t have happened without hands-on support being given to him during worship. Worship in this ministry, as it should be in every congregation, is a time of communal nurture.”
The TTSR ministry also involves people with disabilities in raising money for the town’s local food pantry. Every week, said Montgomery, “one of our women, as she goes out the door, says, ‘I hope the children get their peanut butter and jelly.’ And each time, she is reassured.”
“Is it easy?” Montgomery asks. “No, but the spirit of inclusion is there, and that can never be destroyed. Are there difficulties? Yes, but tolerance, understanding, and acceptance of differences overcome all the uncertainty and discomfort among regular congregation members. Have we had people afraid? Yes, and they chose to keep their distance. The fear is that at their ages and frail conditions they might be hurt by aggressive behaviors. Their fears are respected and acknowledged. The [group home] staff work with the men and women, and with that staff cooperation, we are assured that everything will be done to support both the men and women with the aggressive behaviors and the members of our congregation.”
Sometimes the smallest things can make a difference. For example, the congregation modified the way it articulated worship. “Our speech is slowed to match the speech patterns of the men and women with difficulties speaking,” Montgomery said. “We have learned to slow down. The Lord’s Prayer is recited much more slowly and is no longer a running of the Indianapolis 500 in speed and pace.”
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Excerpted and adapted from Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion by Mark I. Pinsky, copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
We are pleased to announce the launch of “Amazing Gifts,” a Facebook page dedicated to the discussion of faith, disability and inclusion. The page was inspired by Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion.
The Facebook site is a place to share stories of how people with disabilities have experienced their faith in the context of their disability, and how congregations have gained when they value the gifts that people with disabilities bring along. Alban’s hope is that people from across the faith, disability, and civil rights communities will find this a useful place to post their stories, pictures, comments, and suggestions.
Visit the page here. “Like” us and feel free to post and comment.
Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion
by Mark I. Pinsky
Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion is a new publication by noted religion writer Mark I. Pinsky. Pinsky has gathered stories from churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples across the country, “stories of people with disabilities and the congregations where they have found welcome.” He has taken special care to include the widest range of disabilities, including non-apparent disabilities like lupus, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury, depression, and mental illness.
God’s Tapestry: Understanding and Celebrating Differences
by William M. Kondrath
Theologically and ecologically, differences foster life and growth, but discord within denominations and congregations frequently has to do with the inability of individuals and groups to deeply understand and value differences. In God’s Tapestry, Kondrath shows us how to embrace our true multiculturalism. He demonstrates a threefold process for becoming multicultural: recognizing our differences; understanding those differences and their significance and consequences; and valuing and celebrating those differences.
In God’s Presence: Encountering, Experiencing, and Embracing the Holy in Worship
by N. Graham Standish
Too many worship services, suggests Graham Standish, are perfunctory, suggesting that most churches don’t think much about how to connect people with God. In God’s Presencemakes the case that congregations must restore intentionality and authenticity to worship in a way that will open people to the Holy. Intentionality, he says, reflects a deep understanding of what tradition has attempted to do, what contemporary people are hungry for, what is going on in our culture, and how to connect the three.
From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church
by Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger
Small congregations can have beautiful worship! In From a Mustard Seed , an experienced pastor-professor and an experienced church musician provide a model for faithful and excellent worship in congregations that average 75 or fewer people in weekly worship. While the limitations of small congregations are obvious to their members and leaders, the possibilities for creative music and worship are often greater than we can imagine.
Are you struggling to deal with difficult behavior?
This NEW ALBAN EVENT can help.
Last chance! Registrations close Friday, April 27.
Leader: Susan Nienaber
Marywood Center for Spirituality, Jacksonville, FL
May 1-3, 2012
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