When asked recently if we can become disciples through the Holy Spirit, Kathleen Sweeney had an answer right away: “Just say yes!”
A member of Northern Lights, a community of intellectually disabled adults, Sweeney was in the spirit of Pentecost as she helped act out a New Testament story about St. Peter and the early Christians at a group meeting earlier this week at St. Joseph in West St. Paul.
Sweeney and 14 other adult members with intellectual disabilities from around the Twin Cities area, along with their friends, family and caregivers, get together monthly for prayer, singing, crafts and games, scriptural dramas and, above all, friendship.
“I like to be here,” said Sweeney who attended with her father, Jim. “It makes me feel good. I make friends.”
Sharing faith and fun
One of more than 1,600 communities in 80 countries that make up the Faith and Light movement, Northern Lights’ mission is about not only faith but fellowship.
“It’s basically getting together and having these special people have some fun” along with sharing opportunities for prayer and singing, said Mary Jeanne Hemesath, a St. Joseph parishioner who has led the group at the parish for nine years with the help of a core team.
The first Faith and Light community in the Twin Cities was founded in Minneapolis in 1987 and eventually split into three groups, one of which became Northern Lights, said Maggie Demco, eastern province coordinator and St. John Vianney parishioner who attends Northern Lights meetings. The new group moved several times before settling at St. Joseph nine years ago.
Faith and Light was founded in France in 1971 by Jean Vanier and Marie-Hélène Mathieu. A Canadian philosopher, Vanier is known for founding in 1964 the L’Arche movement in which the intellectually disabled live together in one of 140 communities worldwide.
Acting out Scripture while wearing simple costumes is one activity Northern Lights members especially enjoy, and many are eager to play Jesus, said Hemesath, who’s been involved with Faith and Light for 23 years.
“We try to get all our members involved because they want to be involved and that is so good,” she said. “I think they get more of the information when it’s mimed out to them because then they understand it more than just reading it from the text.”
There aren’t many social groups for intellectually disabled adults, and Faith and Light fills that need, said Rebecca Susag, vice coordinator of Faith and Light’s eastern province whose daughter, Marta, is a Northern Lights member.
“People with adult disabilities have very few people in their lives who are not paid to be there,” said Susag, who with her family belongs to St. Joseph in Miesville. At Northern Lights, “people care about the Lord and them. It doesn’t get any better.”
Taking their rightful place
After the drama, in recognition of Pentecost, Hemesath gave battery-powered candles to each person, saying, “Be filled with the light of the Spirit,” and led them in a hymn.
Northern Lights is based on Christian teachings and values; the local community is interdenominational.
They know who Jesus is and they are very close to him, Hemesath said. “When we go around into groups and we share what’s going on in our lives and we ask questions of these special folks, they just bring up the word Jesus. He is right with us.”
The intellectually disabled serve in the Church in different parish ministries, said Demco. “Faith and Light wants friends with disabilities to take their rightful place in the Church.”
The Church can serve the intellectually disabled by welcoming them, she said. “So many people just say ‘hi’ and they walk on by. [They just want] to have a few words. If they understood what you say that’s great and if they didn’t, they’ve understood in their own way by your expressions and talking slowly.”
As Hemesath discovered through Northern Lights, the intellectually disabled are a great gift to the non-disabled. “Our Lord gave us these special people to take care of and he did it for a reason,” she said.
Anyone interested in volunteering with Northern Lights should contact Mary Jeanne Hemesath at (651) 455-0781.