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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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How could I know That perhaps it wasn’t A problem, a disease, But a unique gift, With strengths hidden Beneath the weakness, Making you no other Than your own self.

Siblings’ unique experiences can foster a special sensitivity, compassion, and caring toward people who are perceived as different. Many siblings as well as parents are drawn to careers that involve helping or advocating for children with disabilities. In 24 Welcoming Children Changed by a Child, Barbara Gill writes, “Let me remember that first and last we are mother and son, father and daughter, a family.

I will not let the cloud of disability block the sun of that truth.

Birds sing in this experience too, and my child and I deserve to sing with them.” 5 Ministers and Religious Educators as Listeners Giving children with disabilities, along with their parents, siblings, and even grandparents, the opportunity to be heard is the best support we can provide. Children with disabilities and their families rarely get this opportunity. Professionals are constantly telling them what to do, what to expect, and where to go for services. It is a rare professional who will actually listen without dismissing concerns and feelings.

Being a good listener is an art that requires a nonjudgmental attitude. In Power Dialogues, The Ultimate System for Personal Change, Barry Neil Kaufman identifies the three components of a

good listener:

• To be present is to be fully and completely attentive, curious, and energetic. A good listener is free of thoughts about oneself and other concerns.

• To be nonjudgmental is to make no judgments about what the person is talking about: no right, wrong, good, or bad. Being nonjudgmental also means being free of assumptions and totally accepting of what the person is saying, trusting that they know best for themselves.

• To be nondirective is to have no agenda and no expectations as to outcomes, to trust that the person is their own best expert.6 Listening and creating an atmosphere of trust may be all people need to find the inner resources to care for themselves creatively and compassionately. Ministers and religious educators can also ask families how they can best help. Rather than assume you know what would be helpful, let the family members tell you.

25 Ministering to Families Support Circles Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are using the model of small group ministry or covenant groups to meet the ministerial and spiritual needs of their members. Reverend Calvin O. Dame suggests that small group ministry fosters shared understanding in which everyone is called to participate in the ministry of the congregation, which deepens “spiritual resources, strengthens connections to the congregation, opens up the vision of service and beckons participants onto a path of mature spiritual growth.”7 The small group ministry model is the structure for creating support circles for adults and children with disabilities, which can be instrumental in building a truly inclusive faith community.

Support circles would include people who want to examine and deepen their own contribution to the faith community as well as explore the spiritual side of inclusion as a healing process. The focus of a support circle is on the adult, family, or child who is vulnerable to exclusion, and the purpose is to listen and help bring dreams to fruition.

A good example of a support circle in action is Judith Snow’s Joshua Circle, which is comprised of the people who provide daily care for her. The benefits for Judith, who has multiple disabilities, are obvious. She receives the constant care she needs to function independently of a hospital. This independence allows her to be meaningfully employed and to be a guiding light for inclusive communities. The people in her Joshua Circle also enjoy several benefits. They find the experience immensely gratifying as well as challenging, and they have grown emotionally and spiritually from knowing Judith. In her book From Behind the Piano, Mike

Green, Judith’s friend and colleague, explains it this way:

Inclusion is a spiritual practice. It is a practice of the heart.

You have to do it to get it. I am realizing more and more that inclusion is not primarily something learned through the mind but something discovered through intentionally putting oneself in structures that foster the experience of valuing differences.8 26 Welcoming Children In order to function effectively, a support circle or covenant group requires a facilitator. The minister or religious educator can work with parents of the special-needs child to identify someone within the congregation who is willing to send out invitations to other members of the congregation and to oversee the group once it is has been formed. The invitations to participate in the support circle will require personal contact and explanation. Once the group is organized, the facilitator needs to convene each meeting and keep the discussion focused on the family’s needs, their dreams for their child, and their participation in the life of the congregation.

The task of the support circle is to help these dreams become a reality. Dreams may include having meals or transportation provided, errands done, extra help offered if they are feeling overwhelmed or the child is in the hospital. Dreams may also include more involvement of the child in religious education programming. In that case, the support circle could find a way to provide aides and mentors, if needed.

Helping dreams come true may also require advocacy and sensitivity training within the larger congregation. Church members may need help and encouragement to adopt a new perspective on people with disabilities. Developing support circles is one small but important step toward the creation of an inclusive faith community.

Parents can dream new dreams for their special-needs child when the dreams of the child are recognized and honored. An inclusive community honors everyone’s dreams. Successful support circles practice active listening, establish relationships, and provide meaningful participation.9 The stories and needs of all family members are listened to, and the family’s presence in the congregation is valued. The child and the family are no longer isolated from the life of the community.

Religious Education That Welcomes All Children When will the church accept Joel (and others like him) for who they are, rather than focus on what they can or cannot do? When will the church love Joel (and others like him) with a no-strings-attached kind of love? When will the church wake up and realize that a child with mental retardation (or cerebral palsy, or autism, or blindness, or deafness) may minister to the most wise among us?

—Kathleen Deyer Bolduc, His Name Is Joel Ideally, the religious education ministry for children and youth flows from the love and support of the adults in the church.

A new family with a special-needs child will therefore experience the church as a place where their child will be welcomed.

In a church that cherishes its children, there will most likely be a religious education committee and, if the congregation is large enough, a director of religious education or minister of religious education. A church that is truly committed to raising spiritual children will put its resources behind the religious education committee and religious education program. A congregation that supports its religious education ministry financially will have less difficulty deciding to pay for an aide for a special-needs child or an interpreter for a child who is deaf.

2728 Welcoming Children

Here are a few ideas for engaging the support and involvement

of your congregation:

• Invite the parents of a child with a disability to be members of your religious education committee. Recognize that many of these parents constantly have to advocate for their children and fight for needed services. Many will not have the time or energy to take on one more task. Find ways to get their input about the religious education program without expecting them to carry the full burden of advocacy and education. Also solicit other members of the congregation who may have professional expertise regarding disabilities.

• Offer disability awareness and sensitivity training about disability issues every time new members join the religious education committee. Also be aware of how long it has been since the whole congregation has had sensitivity training. If there is a task force dealing with disability issues, make sure that children and youth are always considered in its work. A religious education committee member should always serve on the task force.

• Make sure that parents and other interested adults regularly communicate with other committees and members of the congregation concerning the religious education philosophy of ministering to children, including children with special challenges. People new to the congregation need to be made aware of the church’s commitment. After several years of a successful welcoming program, it is tempting to relax and believe that everyone is still behind the congregation’s philosophy of ministry to children.

However, with time or changes in leadership, you may discover that some people have forgotten the philosophy and that new members have never learned it. If a minister or a religious educator leaves, be sure that the staff search committee embraces the congregation’s inclusive philosophy.

• Make sure the religious education committee is part of the budget process to advocate for what is necessary to minister to the congregation’s children and youth. Even a congregation with a 29 Religious Education That Welcomes All Children strong commitment of ministry to children will need to be made aware of the costs of maintaining a successful program. Have religious education committee members and families who have children with disabilities be part of the canvassing process. Be as visible as possible in all aspects of congregational life.

Religious Education Mission Statement A concise, well-written religious education mission statement that describes the congregation’s ministry to children and youth in a positive and affirming way demonstrates to new and current families the value of children in the life of the church community. Periodically updating the mission statement as the church grows renews the church’s commitment to its children and reassesses the religious education program in light of that growth. Use language that conveys the church’s commitment to children with disabilities and congregational diversity while recognizing that we are all one.

Enlist the entire congregation in supporting the religious education mission statement in conjunction with the church’s larger philosophy of ministry. The philosophy of ministry can be more controversial than a mission statement because it causes people to examine their faith beliefs, but it is valuable because it provides the underlying belief structure that makes the mission statement meaningful, livable, and effective. Include the mission statement in a religious education brochure that conveys to new and current families the church’s philosophy of ministry to children and the programming that is offered.

Religious Education Registration and Gathering Information The registration process should actively solicit information concerning disabilities. Some parents of special-needs children may not want to identify their child’s disability, hoping to avoid labeling and perhaps creating a negative experience for the child.

30 Welcoming Children However, the majority of parents are relieved to be part of a community that directly asks for such information. This immediately creates an atmosphere that says, “Yes, we welcome your child, and we will actively plan for the inclusion of your child in our ministry.” Those parents who are reluctant to share information will eventually feel comfortable doing so if they experience support for and affirmation of their child.

In talking and working with the parents of a special-needs child, our most important task is to gather information. The child’s age and level of independence will determine the type of accommodations needed. His or her parents can provide this information and help identify what changes need to be made in the religious education environment. Some children may need to be in a separate, structured program; some may need an aide; and some may be able to participate in the regular program.

It is also important to ask the parents for a contingency plan in case the agreed-upon approach is not working. This is to ensure the safety of their child as well as that of the other children. This strategy is crucial for such events as field trips and performances in front of the whole congregation.

Another way that ministers and religious educators can support parents is to partner with health and human service professionals in providing intervention services for the child with disabilities. For instance, the religious professionals can offer to meet with the child’s social worker or psychologist, and the parents can ask health and human service professionals to include church participation in the child’s overall treatment plan. This strategy will help tremendously in determining the most appropriate way to involve the child in the religious education program.

To be effective, religious education teachers need pertinent information about the behaviors and learning styles of the children who will be in their groups. Religious educators should discuss with the religious education committee how this information can be obtained. Familiarity with the special needs of each child in a group helps teachers plan successful sessions and successful 31 Religious Education That Welcomes All Children transitions between teachers. It also allows you to provide appropriate training and resources. Some training on how to handle discipline is a good idea.

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