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«Sally Patton UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION BOSTON Copyright © 2004 by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. All rights ...»

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This woman probably thought the members of her congregation had done all they could to welcome the boy, yet when children are considered valued members of the congregation, the noises they make in the service are expected and accepted. The baby

12 Welcoming Children

crying and the child fidgeting or occasionally wandering down the aisle are part of what happens in a community.

Children are accepted as vital members of our faith communities when we embrace the idea that they are connected to our souls.

When we forget this, we cut out an essential part of who we are and why we are here. In her book The Gift of Faith: Tending the Spiritual Lives of Children, Unitarian Universalist minister Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar emphasizes that children are spiritual beings born with an innate connection to the sacred and the holy. It is the parent’s responsibility to nurture the child’s spiritual nature. Nieuwejaar feels that the parent can do this best in a religious community that provides the sacred space for deepening the faith of both parent and child. The essential role of a congregation is to be a place of hope, to help us remember the sacredness of all life, and to nurture what

educator Thomas Armstrong calls the “radiant child”:

This is the essence of the radiant child. Belonging to both heaven and earth, the radiant child dances into our lives as a bridge between dark and light, body and spirit, ego and Self, the individual and God. The radiant child spans and sings this wholeness in every fiber. We would all be wise to listen.

Even better to sing and dance along!1 A religious community that cherishes its children invariably learns to cherish all life. When we make the world safe for children, we make the world safe for everyone. Imagine the astounding changes that would occur if government leaders decided to pass only laws that made children safe. This would have revolutionary consequences, as war, pollution, pesticides, and poverty are clearly not safe for children. The world would be made safe for absolutely everyone. As Gabriela Arrieta, a thirteen-year-old from Bolivia, told the United Nations at its first children’s summit, “We want a world fit for children, because a world fit for us is a world fit for everyone.”2 Before a congregation can minister to children with special needs, it must first weave children into the overall fabric of the 3 Accepting All Children into Our Faith Communities church community. Only after a congregation has assessed and embraced its ministry to all children will it be ready to create a ministry for special-needs children and offer a religious education program that is inclusive.

Creating congregations that are safe for children and thus everyone means confronting feelings of discomfort and awkwardness around adults and children with disabilities. Even talking about disabilities can make people uncomfortable. What we often fail to recognize is that people and children with disabilities are us.

Any one of us can have a car accident that leaves us disabled. Any pregnant woman can have a child with special needs. The emotions surrounding disabilities are complex; they may include an unspoken relief that the disability happened to someone else and not us. This is an honest feeling, neither bad nor good, and acknowledging it can free us to see people with disabilities as human beings with their own needs, wants, desires, dreams, weaknesses, and strengths.

In our congregations, the subject of including children with disabilities can be divisive. Too often, the needs of children with disabilities are pitted against those of other children, especially when resources are scarce. Some people may feel that too much time, attention, and resources are needed to accommodate one or two children with serious disabilities. The question is often asked, How can we, as responsible and caring Unitarian Universalists, respond to the needs of children with disabilities without jeopardizing the needs of all our children? Perhaps a better question is, How can our congregation benefit from the participation of children with differing needs and abilities?

The notion that “God does not make mistakes” is held by many people of faith and often used in reference to adults and children who have a disabling condition. Even for those who question the existence of God, this notion has profound implications for children with special challenges. Believing that children with disabilities are not mistakes is essential to our ability to minister to or parent them. We must be able to see the wholeness of spirit 4 Welcoming Children instead of only brokenness or deficits. Otherwise, we lose sight of the whole child and his or her unique gift to the world.

Judith Snow, a woman who can move only her thumb (which she uses to drive her wheelchair), travels the world speaking about the giftedness of people with disabilities. In her book What’s Really Worth Doing and How to Do It: A Book for People Who Love Someone Labeled Disabled (Possibly Yourself), she offers inspiring insight into what it means to be different and also have gifts. Snow says that the common use of the word gifted connotes extraordinary abilities but that gifted has a broader and more ancient meaning.

She writes, Everyone has gifts—countless ordinary and extraordinary gifts. A gift is anything that one is or has or does that creates an opportunity for a meaningful interaction with at least one other person. Gifts are the fundamental characteristics of our human life and community.

There are two gifts that all people have and that every other gift depends on. The first is presence. Since you are here, you are embodying the possibility of a meaningful interaction with someone else.... Secondly, you are different from everyone else—in countless ways. Difference is required to make meaning possible.... This means that human interaction arises from presence and difference....

Walking is a gift. It offers the possibility of meaningful interaction. Not walking is also a gift—also creating the possibility of meaningful interaction. Speaking is a gift. Not speaking is also a gift. It is a different gift. Seeing and not seeing, hearing and being deaf, behaving in ways people expect and disturbing others... all gifts. They are different with different potentials but all gifts arising from difference. All gifts add to the mosaic of the potential available community.3

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brought Tyler to church early to listen while I practiced with the choir. While he was waiting, our senior minister asked him to help set up the candles of concern. The minister chatted with Tyler about the purpose of lighting the candles and suggested that if he wanted to light a candle, he would have time to prepare a concern to share with the congregation.

The service began. I was sitting in the choir loft, and Tyler and his sister were sitting in the pews. When it was time for the candles of concern, Tyler immediately got up, gave his name, and said that he was lighting a candle for his teacher, who had just had a baby. I was overwhelmed with tears of gratitude and joy. Because of Tyler’s comfort with and trust in the adult church community and the thoughtfulness of a minister who knew he needed time to prepare for such a courageous act, my son was able to overcome his fear of appearing inadequate in front of people. This was a moment of transcendence for Tyler, made possible by an adult worshiping community that weaves its children into the fabric of its life. It was also a moment of transcendence for me, a moment of healing and feeling touched by grace.

In their book Engaging in Transcendence, Barbara Kimes Myers and William R. Myers write, Often we want to “give the ocean” to young children when splashing in the “puddle” is enough. We fall into this trap by the ways we choose to share our adult faith with our youngest children. In our hurry to communicate our faith, we often assume that words are the most effective vehicle. Yet by using only words, we may fail to engage children in those common mud-puddle experiences where God is most visible, such as sitting on a loved person’s lap and hearing a story, helping to bake bread, sharing a doughnut, or going with someone for a walk. These are the simple ways by which adults nurture and tend to the religious experiences of children.4 These authors believe that the actual experience of the divine is achieved in an atmosphere of support and affirmation created in a 6 Welcoming Children caring adult community. Young people experience the sacred when they are part of an intergenerational worshiping community that encourages trust and relationships of intimacy.

Ministry to all our children flourishes as a result of creative inclusivity. In ministering to children with special challenges, we remind ourselves that all of us and all of our children have different ways of learning and responding to the world. We often find that the old ways of teaching are not the best ways to educate and inspire our children. Working with children with special needs can help to prevent us from becoming complacent and can challenge us to grow, learn, and expand our own spirituality.

Creating a ministry for children with special challenges usually does not occur in any systematic way. In most cases, a family with a special-needs child starts coming to church and the religious education director and teachers scramble to find a way to include him or her in the existing program. Some churches handle the challenge well, while others constantly struggle to find ways to involve these children and youth. The experience of Betty Skwire, a former director of religious education and now a special education teacher, is typical of what is happening in our churches. In her view, Special needs children in our RE programs are a big issue. So far, I have had one severely autistic child, one deaf child, a number of children with minor behavior disorders, and two children with severe birth defects. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t.

It is important to put together a systematic process of looking at the church’s ministry for children with disabilities and their families. This process may go hand in hand with assessing the church’s ministry to adults with disabilities. Often a church’s efforts to accommodate a family with a special-needs child, especially one with a mobility impairment, will force the congregation to look at how they welcome adults with disabilities as well.

7 Accepting All Children into Our Faith Communities Raise Awareness and Offer Sensitivity Training All congregations can benefit from some training about people with disabilities. Identify where there is resistance. There may be a need for churchwide training, or you may only need training for parents and teachers in how to work with children who have certain disabilities. Also identify the area of most concern in your church. Is it making the building accessible, or is it training teachers to address learning differences? If the issue is accessibility, then the whole congregation needs to be part of the education process.

Many congregations become so stuck on funding major building renovations that they overlook what can be done with interim accommodations and an inclusive religious education ministry.

While it is important to make the building accessible so that everyone can use it, the ongoing needs of children with emotional and learning differences must also be considered.

Once you start the process of examining accessibility in your church, you will probably discover people with special talents and expertise who can help develop training. Do not forget the parents of children with special needs; they know where to go to find information and get help. Emily Green, a former director of religious education, felt fortunate to be able to minister to children with special challenges because of support from people within the church who were special-needs teachers, psychologists, and pediatricians as well as from other concerned adults and parents of special-needs children. She emphasizes, “It’s never easy, but it’s always well worth the effort! Don’t overlook the talents in your own community.” Activities to raise awareness are easily incorporated within Sunday services, discussion groups, coffee hour talks, miniforums, and adult religious education programs. Ministers can offer sermons on disability awareness. Testimonials from people within the congregation are also very effective ways to raise awareness. One activity that works extremely well in many different settings involves asking questions of the group. Ask people to raise their 8 Welcoming Children hands if any of the following questions apply to them and to leave their hands up until all of the questions have been asked: “Who has a disability?” (A few people will raise their hands.) Then ask, “Who knows someone with a disability?” (A few more people will raise their hands, but most will not.) “How many know someone who has had a heart attack? How many know someone who suffers from arthritis? How many know someone who struggles with learning to read? How many know someone who is depressed?

How many know someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol?

How many know someone who is in chronic pain? How many know someone who has asthma? How many know someone who is constantly anxious? How many know someone who is hyperactive and totally disorganized? How many know someone who uses a cane or a walker? How many know someone who uses a hearing aid?” Continue asking questions until everyone has raised his or her hand.

This activity clearly demonstrates that people with disabilities are not other people but rather our friends, our families, and ourselves. All of us will probably have to cope with disability in our lifetimes —our own or that of someone we love. Creating an accessible church is about creating a welcoming church for ourselves.

Another effective way to raise awareness of disability and accessibility is to invite people to share their struggles in school. Having people remember their own school experiences can help generate empathy with children’s struggles. Discussion can center on the different ways children learn and the different gifts they bring to the faith community. Teacher training about individual learning styles and special needs is critical for the successful integration of specialneeds children into the religious education ministry.

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