Category Archives: Accessibility

All Are Welcome

“All Are Welcome” is a well-known and well-loved Christian hymn written by prolific liturgical composer, Marty Haugen. I’ve sung it often as a member of the congregation and even led it as a cantor on a few occasions, but never did the song impact me in the way it did this past Sunday when visiting St. John Chrysostom in Wallingford, PA.

This was not my first visit to St. John Chrysostom. I wrote a piece several years ago, called “Welcoming the Visitor”. My family and I had attended a Mass at the church at Eastertime while visiting our oldest son at Swarthmore College. I was so overwhelmed with their intentional inclusion, I wrote a story and connected with the pastor, Fr. Hallinan by email.

More than a year after my son has graduated from Swarthmore, I found myself preparing to bring our youngest son to the school for an official visit on campus. I happily anticipated an opportunity to attend church once again at St. John Chrysostom…I was not disappointed.

The moment I walked in, about ten minutes before the start of Mass, I observed several people with various kinds of disabilities. Ushers and members of the congregation greeted everyone in a kind and gentle way, expressing their joy to see them. One young adult, who seemed to be non-verbal, shook hands very enthusiastically with the greeter, a huge smile on his face. It was obvious to me that he was a valued member of the congregation and everyone he encountered was as glad to see him as he was to see them.

A few more steps into the church and I noticed some signage; one an announcement about a Caregivers Support Group and another about an Autism help line. These notices were not buried among many on a full bulletin board, but prominently displayed and easy to read.

I finally found a seat in the pew and listened to the choir warm up (a folk group with guitars, bongos and several singers.)  Of the six vocalists, the soloist chosen to lead a prominent part of one of the songs was an elderly woman with an exceptionally quiet voice. She was singing in tune, but it struck me as particularly refreshing that she was the one chosen for the solo. Not the strongest or the youngest voice, but an important voice and another obvious way that this church embraces the gifts of every person.

I could go on but you probably get the idea. St. John Chrysostom is a vibrant congregation with a strong understanding of what it takes to be inclusive.

I waited a few minutes at the end of Mass so I could re-introduce myself to Fr. Hallinan and hopefully get a few minutes to talk. We ended up chatting for more than ten minutes about our shared passion for inclusion and concluded our time together with a photo (thank you for that, Fr. Hallinan!). I expressed how grateful I was for all that this church does to promote inclusion and headed out the door.

As I got back in my car to head back to the campus baseball field, one of the points from my conversation with Fr. Hallinan that resonated strongly with me kept running through my mind.  St. John Chrysostom, like many other faith communities around the country, holds a designated service especially for individuals and families affected by disability. The “Mass of Welcoming and Inclusion”, as it is called at St. John Chrysostom is celebrated the 1st Sunday of the month. (The Mass I attended, by the way, was not on the 1st Sunday of the month, it was a regular Mass without this distinction) Fr. Hallinan said that his goal is that eventually they would not need to have the Welcoming and Inclusion Mass, that all Masses would feel welcoming and inclusive! We both agreed that an inclusive service can really be a helpful stepping stone for congregations and is still important for some individual and families affected by disability.  I couldn’t help but think, however, as I left the church, that if any congregation was nearing the goal of letting go of this kind of stepping stone, it was this church.

“All Are Welcome” at St. John Chrysostom, that is for sure in both obvious and subtle ways. I am grateful for their efforts and appreciate the opportunity to be an occasional visitor. I also know that there are many Hampton Roads local faith communities doing equally awesome inclusion work and seeing great results. If you aren’t already connected with FIN, please do share with us what you are doing. Your efforts could really be an encouragement to someone else or another faith community.

God Bless.

Karen j.

Acceptance

“I’m a bit nervous”, I confessed to my husband as I prepared for my speaking engagement at Temple Israel in Norfolk, VA.  Despite the friendship, support and encouragement I have received from Rabbi Michael Panitz over the past 10 years as I worked to start and develop Faith Inclusion Network, I had actually never been asked to speak there or for any other local Jewish congregations.  Would they really be interested in hearing some of my story? Would they accept and welcome me, a Catholic Christian, to be a part of their service?

I prepped my daughter’s caretaker and headed over in plenty of time to hear some of the beginning of Temple Israel’s Disabilities Awareness Shabbat. February is designated as Jewish Disability, Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month in our country and I had been asked to share a few words about inclusion as both a parent of child with a disability and the leader of Faith Inclusion Network.

When I arrived at Temple Israel, I was immediately greeted by a friend I already knew from the disability community; a mom who shares a similar parenting journey. Others I didn’t know smiled warmly, offering words of welcome and I immediately relaxed.

My short talk was titled, “Acceptance”, a word that was recently added to the national Jewish inclusion effort for their 10-year anniversary. Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month is celebrated and experienced around the country, due to the efforts of people like Shelly Christensen, one of the founders of this effort and also one of Faith Inclusion Network’s national board advisers.

Karen Jackson and Claudia Mazur

It didn’t take long for me to recognize that the Temple Israel congregation is a very accepting community. People with various types of disabilities dotted the congregation and several individuals affected by disability participated by leading prayers during this Disability Awareness Shabbat. It did not escape my notice that the congregation was also very accepting of me, a guest to their worship time.

After the service I joined members of the congregation for lunch, sharing stories with a few other parents who have children with disabilities. The word “acceptance” floated in and out of our conversations. The feeling of community was strong and encouraging.

Rabbi Michael Panitz and K. Jackson

More than ten years ago, I reached out to many people in the Hampton Roads community, including Rabbi Panitz, to ask the question, “What can be done to make our faith communities more inclusive?” The answer is reinforced again and again in the opportunities I have had to visit and speak with congregations, sharing and listening to stories of welcoming and acceptance. We can all make a difference with inclusion efforts when we begin by being open and accepting of people who may be different in some way. Acceptance is the first step towards inclusion.

Thank you to Temple Israel for your kind invitation and welcome, your understanding and demonstration of inclusion and for choosing to accept individuals and families affected by disability.

Shalom.

Karen j.

A Christmas Extravaganza

As most people are aware who know me through FIN and the disability community, my daughter Samantha is severely affected by autism. The past couple of years especially, have been a struggle as we help her through some challenging anxiety and medically related issues. For Samantha and many other people in our community with severe developmental disabilities, it can be very difficult to participate in community events and gatherings. Instead of risking a meltdown or maybe not even being able to get in the door because of anxiety, we opt to stay home.

Yet the social, community-loving person in me never gives up and I am grateful to the many organizations and faith communities in Hampton Roads that are striving to be welcoming, understanding and inclusive, making it easier to participate in the community.  From organizations like Virginia Stage Company that is offering a sensory-friendly performance this week (Theater for Everyone-Wed. Dec. 12) for people with disabilities and their families, to faith communities who intentionally welcome and celebrate people families affected by disability, I sense a developing tide of awareness in our community. I share the following story to encourage all who are working hard to develop awareness and provide opportunities to support individuals and families affected by disability. Thank you and God bless!

Karen Jackson,

Executive Director, Faith Inclusion Network

A Christmas Extravaganza

The other night, my daughter and I attended a beautiful gathering put on by the youth of Grace Community Church (EY2S Missions) in support of The Chosen Ministry, a social ministry for adults with disabilities that Samantha and I attend regularly. This “Christmas Extravaganza” included dinner, music, fellowship time, preaching and even a modern, adorable Christmas play. It truly was an extravaganza, but so much more in terms of their efforts to make everyone feel loved and welcome.

When Samantha and I arrived at the church, we were greeted by at least a half dozen members of the youth group, all at the door with the sole job of welcoming us to the gathering. Samantha shyly made her way into the well-lit church, her eyes sparkling at the sight of the holiday lights. She loves all things Christmas and I could tell she was excited to be at a party!

Samantha and Samantha posing for a quick picture at the end of the evening.

We made our way in the gathering room and were immediately befriended by a young intern named Samantha. She works with Pastor Jeff Montgomery coordinating the work with their youth and EY2SMissions. After just a few moments, it was clear to me that she has a heart to love and connect with people with disabilities. I enjoyed watching her speak with my daughter, unfazed that Samantha was not speaking back but none-the-less making a connection.

The evening continued with dinner served by the joyful and engaged youth. We also listened to the testimony of a friend of ours, Jenny, who has a disability and also a gift for sharing her faith and her story. “How perfect”, I thought, “that this gathering encourages people affected by disability to not only participate, but to lead!”

Jenny and Pastor Jeff

I enjoyed my conversation with the other people at our table. A sweet couple next to us shared that their son has Aspergers. They live close to the church and participate in many of the activities offered. I was thrilled to observe that their 15-year old son had a part in the youth’s entertaining Christmas play. Even though we just met, I could tell these parents were proud of their son for participating on stage. He really did a great job!

As the evening progressed, I realized that Grace Community and their youth were living out their faith and doing everything so right in the way they strive to love and include everyone.  Regardless of the person’s abilities or behaviors, the feeling of acceptance was palatable.  From the warm welcome to the understanding of inclusion, this place is actively building leaders that will one day be engaged, understanding adults. This gives me tremendous hope and it was a blessing to be a part of the evening.

Members of EY2S Missions Youth Group at Grace Community Church

Samantha didn’t want to leave that night, and who could blame her? She felt welcomed, accepted and understood. (And so did I.) As the youth were busy cleaning up and putting up the tables, Samantha and I reluctantly headed out, feeling the warmth of true acceptance. It was an extravagant night, and we feel blessed to have participated. Thank you, Pastor Jeff and the EY2S Missions team. God bless!

 

“Putting Faith to Work” and why we need YOU in the Community Conversation, “All Play and No Work”

Last year, the National Collaborative on Faith and Disability released a guide called, Putting Faith to Work: A Guide for Congregation and Communities on Connecting Job Seekers with Disabilities to Meaningful Employment.  I was immediately struck with the realization that not only was my own daughter (who has a disability) transitioning soon to life beyond school, but there are hundreds and hundreds of people affected by disability in our community that cannot find any work or volunteer opportunities. The Putting Faith to Work Project ignited in me an excitement to invite our faith communities to go beyond what they offer for inclusion efforts in their congregations on the weekends and envision how faith communities can have an impact on “the other six days” for persons who live with disability.

The opening letter in the guide states this invitation beautifully; “The Putting Faith to Work project empowers faith communities to support people with disabilities as they find and maintain employment aligned with their gifts, passions and skills. This pathway to work is forged by tapping into the person network, creativity, and commitment existing within any congregations. Faith communities have a wonderful opportunity to enhance the lives of many people with disabilities, their families and their communities by helping people find meaningful jobs, assume valued roles, and shared their talents with other.”

On Friday, May 18, 2018, Faith Inclusion Network, in partnership with Eggleston Services, Enoch Baptist Church and NAMI Virginia Beach will be offering an opportunity to discuss the topic of employment and disability at the Community Conversation and Networking Event entitled, “All Play and No Work”.

If you or your faith community are looking for a way to begin or develop your efforts to supports individuals and families affected by disability in a unique and forward-thinking way, I encourage you to join us on May 18 learn not only what our community has to offer right now in terms of employment for those affected by disability, but also how you and your congregation could make a life changing impact on a persons who just wants to have the opportunity to contribute and use their gifts.

Hope to see you there!

Blessings,

Karen Jackson

Executive Director

Faith Inclusion Network

 

Essay Contest: Blog #4 Brittany French

Brittany was one of the first people that befriended me many years ago when my daughter and I started attending The Chosen Ministry. In her shy way, she would ask about Samantha and then about me, always remembering details that many would miss if they weren’t really listening. What a gift!

FIN would like to both thank and congratulate Brittany for sharing her story and being the winner of our very first essay contest.  As you read her essay you will realize that the remarkable thing about this story is how simple it really is…a church doing what many others do; reach out to the community and educate children in the faith.  What made a difference in Brittany’s life is how she felt and the continued acceptance as a person with a disability as she grew up in the church.  Even more wonderful, being a member of the congregation eventually led to finding a job nearby.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more adults with disabilities were able to find work through the natural connections we make in our congregations?

So again we thank you, Brittany for not only writing this essay, but presenting it at our Gifts of the Heart Gala on March 11. You did a great job! -K. Jackson

My Faith Journey

Author Brittany French with Karen Fox who leads The Chosen Ministry in Norfolk

by Brittany French

The hospitality of a neighbor inviting me to church and the hospitality of the church folk accepted me even though I have several disabilities and this changed my life forever. I was three years old when a neighbor invited my twin sister and me to attend Sunday School at a church down the street from my house. My twin sister does not have the intellectual and physical disabilities that I live with every day. I began this adventure in the classroom with two wonderful teachers that made me feel loved and wanted.

In Sunday School we did arts and crafts related to Bible stories, we memorized verses and sat on a rug to hear the bible story of the day. My favorite event at church was attending Vacation Bible School in the summer. I loved playing outside and being with the other children. The other children did not treat me differently because of my disability. That made me feel good. I was always accepted for who I was. In fact, my church has five people with disabilities in the congregation because this church accepts and welcomes all people who come in.

Throughout the years, I continued to go to Sunday School each week. My faith grew stronger as I grew older and began to understand what the bible stories were saying. As an adult I joined the church I had been going to for so many years. This was a place I was accepted as God’s child, made in his image. I am what God wanted me to be. The church has helped me accept my disabilities and believe in myself.

I now have also joined “Chosen Ministry” which is a group that works with intellectually disabled adults. I love having other disabled friends. They understand some of the challenges I face. Being a part of “Chosen Ministry” has helped me see my disabilities in a different way. I am grateful to be who I am.

After several years of looking for a job, and many hours of prayer, I got a job in the daycare center which is next door to my church. Knowing that I am helping others is an answer to my prayers. My faith continues to grow as I work with little children and see how they love everyone.

Note: Brittany attends Third Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, VA

Brittany with friend Angela West at the Gifts of the Heart Gala-2018

 

Essay Contest Blog Series-Blog #2-Jenny the Jewel

I have known this next author for many years through the social ministry first called Young Life Capernaum and then The Chosen Ministry. I have always been a bit in awe of her confident faith and am so grateful to call her friend.  Thank you “Jenny the Jewel” for your strong words of faith and for being such a kind and loving friend. -K. Jackson

 

What My Faith Means to Me

My faith means EVERYTHING to me! When I was in high school, the kids on the school bus were very mean to me and and called me all kinds of bad names. They told me I was a mistake! When I got home I would be crying. My Mom met me at the door every day and we would talk and pray. She told me that people called Jesus bad names too and that He understand exactly how I felt. She told me that real truth is only found in God’s Word and not in what other people say about you. My Mom told me that if I could find anywhere in the Bible where God calls me bad names or said I was a mistake, she would pay me $5,000. I read the Bible to see what God said about me. All the Scriptures I found said just the opposite! Some of my favorite Scriptures are Psalm 139:14 where God says I am fearfully and wonderfully made. In Psalm 17 God tells me that I am the apple of His eye. In Deuteronomy 7:6 God tells me that I am His treasured possession. In Phil 4:8 God tells me to think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure and lovely. I like to think about the truth that God tells me and spend my time thinking about what God says is true. The last Scripture that means a lot to me is Psa. 119:114, that says “You are my refuge and my shield. I have put my hope in Your Word.” My confidence and hope and trust is in God. I love to memorize Scripture and fill my mind with the truth of who God says I am. Doing this has made all the difference in my life!  Now I know that God has a plan for my life and He created me just the way I am for His special purpose!  I love my life!  I love to share God’s love with other people and tell them about Jesus and to pray for them. This fills my heart with great joy!  I am so thankful that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, and that I will live with Him forever!

He is my very best friend. I don’t make any decisions without asking Jesus first. I want what God wants for my life. I want to please Him in everything I do. My passion and desire is to serve Him. He is my reason for living, and He gives my life meaning. My favorite part of the day is the evening when I have my quiet time with the Lord. I LOVE to read in God’s word and to listen to Him, and write down what He says to me in my journal. I LOVE to pray, it makes me feel so close to God. I LOVE to copy Scriptures in my journal. I like to meditate on the Scriptures and see what God is going to say to me. I LOVE to be in God’s presence and to listen to worship music. I LOVE to rest in His Almighty arms. Jesus fills my heart with joy and excitement.

I LOVE God with all of my heart and I want my life to bring glory to His name. I can’t even imagine my life without God!

Jenny The Jewel

Author Jenny Jenson (far right) with mom Cherry behind her and friends Mika Fox, Karen Fox and Katie Mann at FIN’s Gifts of the Heart Gala-2018

My New Ramp

For the last ten years I have been a public advocate in the disability community, learning about inclusion and sharing that information with faith communities, hopefully raising awareness about the need to be more welcoming to individuals and families affected by disability. During the course of this work, I have made many friends, some of them very close friends now, who use wheelchairs.  For the last few years, I have made sure that I borrowed or rented a ramp in December so that I could invite my friends who use wheelchairs to a Christmas open-house party in my home.

A few weeks ago, faced with preparations for this year’s open house, I made a decision.  I just went ahead and purchased a ramp. It is not a huge one, as you can see in the photo, but it serves its purpose. I was so excited about my new ramp, that I invited one of my best friends to come to dinner to try it out.

I was thrilled that my friend could come over-just a simple supper with my kids and I. We took advantage of the time to catch up and share family stories. It was a wonderful evening.

Before you think, “isn’t that a nice thing to do”, let me confess that I am actually pretty embarrassed and disappointed in myself.  I am embarrassed that as someone who helps advocate for persons affected by disability it took me so long to ensure that my own home was accessible, at least to the degree that someone in a wheelchair could get into my home.

Even though it is hard to admit all this, I am sharing this story because I have made an important realization. Being a person that has full use of my legs, I take for granted that I can go pretty much wherever I want I can get in and out of all buildings, public and private. There are no barriers for me.  These statements are obvious, I know. Yet despite my years getting to know all kinds of people affected by disability, it is still hard to remember that something as simple as a ramp can make a huge difference in someone’s life.

My friends that need to use a wheelchair to get around-they live in a world full of barriers. One of their frustrations is probably not being able to do something as common as visit a friend in their home.  While I cannot make up for the years it took me to wake up and realize I needed to purchase my own ramp, I am rejoicing today. My spirit is soaring, truth be told, for the joy I felt being able to welcome my good friend into my home for dinner.  And the thought that we will share many more dinners in the future.

As I write this story on my porch with my recently purchased ramp in front of me, I wonder…what if every single building, from public building to private homes, where automatically built with wheelchair ramps? What if, having struck up a friendship with someone who uses a wheelchair, you didn’t have to think twice about inviting them over to you house? What if the terminology “accessibility” became obsolete because every place was easily accessed for persons who use wheelchairs or need some other kind of accommodation? Big dreams, I know. But maybe someone reading this, someone like me, will decide they want to get a ramp too. That would be a good start…