Making churches more welcoming for the disabled

| June 18, 2012 | 0 Comments

Amazing Gifts” is a great title for a book by Mark L. Pinsky that carries the subtitle: “Stories of Faith, Disability and Inclusion.”

Ginny Thornburgh sent me a copy. She is the wife of former Pennsylvania Gov. and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, whose first wife, also named Ginny, was killed at age 26 in an automobile accident that left a 4-month-old son, Peter, with disabling brain injuries.

When the second Ginny Thornburgh married Dick several years later, she adopted Peter and his two older brothers and began a second career of promoting and protecting the rights of the disabled.

A special interest of hers, beyond promotion and protection of the interests of the disabled, is inclusion of the disabled in faith communities and religious services of all denominations.

In her foreword to “Amazing Gifts,” Ginny Thornburgh writes: “More than 50 million Americans live with physical, sensory, psychiatric, and intellectual disability. But when one is at worship and looks around, there appear to be few people present who have disabilities.”

Of course not all disabilities are noticeable and some are surely present there. But this book tells the stories of 64 disabled people, their families and, most important, their congregations.

It makes a collective case for the removal of barriers of architecture and communication, arguing that “congregational disability work is about justice, not about pity” and shows that “enormous gifts and talents will come to congregations, no matter what the faith, once people with disabilities are included, enjoyed and encouraged to be active and full participants.”

Extending an invitation

Reading this book is like mixing randomly at a crowded reception, meeting interesting people and making new friends. As you move through these pages, you will hear many stories that have a common theme — inclusion of persons with disabilities in the life of faith communities all across the country.

Pastors and seminarians should read this book simply to sharpen their vision and thus see, perhaps for the first time, a special group of people who might want to be in the pews, if invited.

Pastors and seminarians can heighten their awareness of the services that are waiting to be offered to people who surely are special to God, if only God’s ministers are resourceful enough to reach out to them.

Reaching out for Father Joe Metzger of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Norfolk, Va., meant getting fully vested and walking an 11-year-old autistic child through an empty sanctuary so that she would feel comfortable when she received her first Communion with other children a few days later.

At St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Exton, Pa., adult members with Down syndrome serve as greeters, altar servers and Sunday morning ushers. Inclusion for them means inspiration to others.

Jacob Artson, a young Southern Californian with autism, suggests in these pages that any congregant can turn to any other and simply ask: “What is it we can do to make it easier for you and your family to worship with us?”

Just ask that question and the disabled will be there.

Jesuit Father William Byron, a university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, writes for Catholic News Service.

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Category: Opinion