Category Archives: Religious Education Inclusion

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 #3 Colleen Stefanowich

I have known Colleen and her parents through Young Life Capernaum and then The Chosen Ministry for many years and have always appreciated her quick smile and willingness to help.  Colleen is a friend to many, including myself and  my daughter Samantha who has autism.  Whenever we visit Church of the Holy Family‘s Chosen Ministry events and run into Colleen, I can be guaranteed a huge hug and that she will go out of her way to say hello to Samantha, understanding that Samantha cannot respond in kind but accepting and so loving all the same.  

It doesn’t surprise me then, that Colleen is so involved at her church and that she has an incredibly positive attitude. Thank you Colleen for submitting this essay and allowing us learn a bit about you. -K. Jackson

MY INVISIBLE DISABILITY

BY COLLEEN STEFONOWICH

“That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in   persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10)

Growing up with a disability wasn’t easy but having two siblings that I am close to helped even though they couldn’t take it all away. But them listening to me helped me growing up.  I felt bad for them, but I also thought they had it made.  I felt bad for them because they didn’t choose to have a sibling with a disability but they got one anyways. They also had to watch struggle with things that came easy to them. I also had to do things a bit differently than they did growing up. They never treated me any differently because of it.

I thought they had it made because in school, they were able to be in classes with other normal kids. They also got to do some rites of passages in life I never got to do. Things like get their licenses and go to a university.

I have a disability called dyscalculia, which is not a very well known or a very common disability, not very many people have heard of it. Dyscalculia is a math disability, so everything that has to do with math isn’t easy. For example, things like telling time (unless it’s a digital clock), making change, counting money, doing math , reading music. Reading certain numbers will actually overwhelm my brain because it’s way too many numbers, and my brain will   actually shut down because its way too many numbers too look at.

I was recently diagnosed with a vision problem called keratoconus.Basically, that’s just a big fancy word  for cone shaped cornea, which causes major vision problems, and potential blindness. I actually had a procedure done on November 15,2017 to help salvage the vision left in my right eye.

My church family is nothing short of amazing!! I sing in the choir, help with children’s church, and sometimes Sunday school by being a buddy for other students with disabilities. There have been some choir members   who give me rides home from church and practice. I have another choir member who so graciously helps me up and down the stairs from the choir loft for communion. I also have another choir member who has typed up the words to the songs in a bigger font so I am   able to see the words better due to my low vision. They have all done this without anyone asking them to do these things. All of these things have made it possible for me to feel an important part of the choir.

I love my Church of the Holy Family!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building Disability Awareness with our Children

As a professional educator, it has often occurred to me that we as a community need to invest in teaching our children about disability inclusion if we are going to impact the future.
I have always found children to be delightfully honest and willing to consider news ways of thinking. It just makes sense that, during their most impressionable stages of development, we should give them the chance to learn about disability, learn about what makes people different.  We need to make the subject of disability a comfortable topic to discuss, giving them the appropriate vocabulary to be effective advocates. Perhaps this kind of education at a young age can build a foundation of awareness that will foster change in our society.

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This morning I had the opportunity to talk to students at Norfolk Christian Lower School in Norfolk, VA http://www.norfolkchristian.org/ about how everyone is unique, much like a puzzle piece.  I referenced the familiar Bible verse Psalm 139:13-14:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Even the youngest Pre-K students there seemed to grasp the concept that we are all “wonderfully made”; unique, just like the many pieces of a puzzle.  After our little chat, the three student volunteers put their puzzle pieces into the full puzzle so we could see the whole picture.
“Just like a puzzle,” I concluded, “we are all pieces of God’s community, fearfully and wonderfully made. We are made to be in community with one another, not to stand alone.  We are unique pieces of one big, beautiful picture and every single one of us, regardless of ability or disability,  is an important part of the puzzle.”

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If your school (religious or public) or faith community is interested in a disability awareness presentation geared to your group, contact us at http://faithinclusionnetwork@gmail.com

Missed Opportunity

A few days ago, a distraught mom contacted me for help.  Her son who has autism had been treated rather poorly and unfairly at her small church.  Although reluctant to pursue reconciliation on any level at first, the parent had agreed, after a somewhat delayed invitation from the pastor, to sit down to discuss what had happened.  I had also been invited to the meeting and was looking forward to both supporting the parent, who had been obviously hurt, and providing suggestions and resources for the church.

Unfortunately, the parent backed out of the meeting at the last minute.  She had a found a more welcoming place to begin taking her family with a youth group that she felt had more experience embracing kids who have autism.

As I sit down to ponder these events (and I had been quite invested with thought and prayer for this hurting family and the church congregation and staff), I can’t help but wonder a few things:

  1. What happens in that little church now?

Chances are, they will encounter another family that experiences disability.  Will their attitude change?  Will they recognize the opportunity when it arises to help support an individual with autism or any other kind of disability?  Or will more people get turned away either intentionally or more than likely, unintentionally?

  1. How many families are there like this one?

My fear is that there are way too many families who have experienced feeling pushed out and excluded.  With all our work with Faith Inclusion Network here and efforts around the country, it is upsetting that this kind of thing is still happening!  Individuals and families are not always welcome into a congregations.  Or if they are, they are asked to conform or get out.

  1. What more can be done?

Education, awareness training, sharing positive stories and resources-these are all part of what FIN offers. We are dedicated to this cause and ask you to spread the word, advocate and be a part of efforts to eliminate attitude barriers in our faith communities.

So what about this church?  I fear that we have missed an important opportunity to bring about a better understanding and awareness of the way faith communities can come alongside and support families who experience disability.  I am still going to try to contact the pastor to see if they may be interested in some information or a discussion about faith and disabilities.  I don’t want the opportunity to be missed completely.

What do you think?

30 feet in 8 years-A Journey to Inclusion

Over the past eight years I have written many times about my daughter and our experience trying to find a place for her in the church.  Sometimes encouraging, other times, difficult to read, but all stories relevant to the bigger issue of inclusion of persons with special needs into faith communities.

This particular story, a summary of the first eight years of our journey, will hopefully serve as an encouragement to those just beginning their journey as special needs parents looking to include their children, those wonderful, special children, into their own faith community. I dedicate it to all those parents out there struggling to figure out how to make worship work for their child.   I am also hopeful, as our country embraces a wave of efforts for inclusion through a strong faith and disabilities movement, that their journey will be less lengthy but just as meaningful.

30 feet in 8 years- A Journey to Inclusion

In 2006, when my daughter Samantha was nine years old, she could not attend Mass at our new church due to the behaviors associated with her autism.  She ran, she jumped, and she vocalized loudly and randomly.  There was no way we were going to sit in that quiet, reverent sanctuary.  Not to mention that she had quite an aversion to being around large crowds, so sitting shoulder to shoulder in the pews was not going to work for her.

Before joining this new church, Blessed Sacrament, my husband and I took turns sporadically attending Mass.  I was determined that we would attend as a family together at Blessed Sacrament and went about trying to make this work.  We chose the 5 o’clock Saturday Mass as it was generally not as crowded.  I set Samantha up in a little classroom, used as a nursery, which is located in the front of the sanctuary with the “Great Hall” dividing the small classroom and the glassed in sanctuary area.  I could sit just outside the nursery with the door open and simultaneously see through the glass to the sanctuary and hear through speakers, as the Great Hall is often the place where parents bring their restless babies and toddlers during Mass.

The important thing, I remember thinking, is that we are actually here.  My husband was in the sanctuary with our oldest son, I often had Samantha and our youngest with me.  But we needed to get Samantha ready for the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  How was she going to do this without being a part of the Mass?

After about a year or so, I put another chair next to mine outside the nursery and invited Samantha to sit with me.  At first she would stay just long enough to hear the opening hymn and maybe get as far as the first reading, until she was back in the nursery, ready to watch a Veggie Tales movie.  I eventually gained the courage to walk her in with me so I could take communion.  This was her first opportunity to be in the sanctuary with the whole congregation.  As she got comfortable with this, we proceeded to prepare her for her first Holy Communion.

And as we moved through the years, we inched closer and closer to the sanctuary, eventually making it out of the nursery all together and sitting in chairs close to the glass partition, near the doors of the sanctuary.  I was thrilled when she could sit comfortably through the entire Mass, although she was still quite vocal and even prone to the occasional tantrums.  She was 14 years old when we were ready to try to attend Mass in the sanctuary with the rest of the congregation.

Our experiences inside the sanctuary were mixed however. At first, we tried just sitting in the back of the church for the last 10 minutes or so, getting used to the louder sounds and all the people.  We also tried different locations, starting at the beginning, not the end and so forth.  Things would go well one week and then be a disaster the following Sunday and I would get incredibly discouraged. After one particularly difficult experience when Samantha had a huge meltdown in the middle of Mass, we didn’t go back into the sanctuary for months.

A turning point came the weeks leading up to Samantha’s Confirmation.  Not only did we need to be able to make it through an extra-long Mass, but we were not even going holding Confirmation at our home church.  Yikes!

To prepare for the Confirmation Mass, I took Samantha and her brother to the different church one Sunday, the memories and anxiety of past experiences flooding back as if it were yesterday.  How would people respond to her is she had an outburst?  Would we be asked to leave?  Was this just a crazy idea?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried at all.  Unless you knew her, you couldn’t have picked Samantha out of the congregation as a person who has a disability of any kind.  She smiled, she stood and sat when appropriate and listened to the music and the pastor’s words intently. I am sure that this was not just the work of many years of preparation, but the work of the Holy Spirit, encouraging us as we prepared for Confirmation.

Back at our home church, I began to routinely give Samantha the opportunity to sit in the sanctuary, usually giving her the choice to go in or stay in the Great Hall.  Although she still sometimes chooses to sit outside the sanctuary, she more than not decides to join the congregation, our congregation, our church family.

As I look back over the last eight years, it is truly a blessing to have parented Samantha through this journey.  We started 30 feet away in a closed-off classroom.  We fought through the barriers of autism and sometimes, the barriers of attitude of an unaware congregation.  We developed strategies to cope with Samantha’s challenges and I spoke out as an advocate to help my fellow church members understand my daughter.

Today, we walk confidently through he doors of our church sanctuary and take a place in a pew, filling a good portion of it when all five of our family members attend together.  Samantha likes to sit on the end, to have her space.  She will occasionally cut the communion line to receive the Holy Eucharist from our Pastor and does not like to kneel, using the kneeler to put her feet up instead.  And even though she does not speak or sing with the congregation, it is clear to all that she enjoys being in their presence, a part of our church family, fully included.

I marvel at how far we have come; from the nursery at the back of the church, through the Great Hall and into the sanctuary.  It only took us eight years to make it 30 feet, but the journey was well worth it.  Praise be to God.

I Corinthians 12:12-13, 22

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts and though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ, For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.”

This is Community

This is Community

Community is important and a big part of our lives. We form communities through our schools, places of employment, neighborhoods and organizations, just to name a few. But an extremely important part of many people’s lives is their involvement in their faith communities.

Faith communities can be large or small, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other, filled with people young or old, but they are, I think, in a special category. Because people who share a faith community often share a belief system that shapes the way they function in society and can heighten their sense of moral obligation to others. It can also be a place of true acceptance, where we can speak and act how we feel without reigning in our religious beliefs, as is often expected in polite society.

As the parent of a child with special needs, I write of faith community from a slightly different perspective. Perhaps it is that I don’t take for granted that feeling of acceptance since I have had to face the challenges of including my daughter with autism in the church. It could also be because I am overwhelmed with compassion for other families walking alongside people with disability who face the challenge of being accepted wherever they venture to go. But whatever the reason, God has instilled within me the passion to help those who have often been excluded or misunderstood by their faith communities. This is the heart of Faith Inclusion Network, a ministry with the vision of making all faith communities a welcoming, accommodating and accepting place for all.

My own experience at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Norfolk has shaped many of my thoughts on the subject of inclusion and community. A most recent experience at our Ash Wednesday Vigil Mass sums up the blessings of the past four years of my disability advocacy work in our church.

My 13 year old daughter, Samantha and I were attending Ash Wednesday Vigil Mass on Tuesday evening. As is part of the Catholic tradition, we were there to participate in the receiving of ashes, something that my daughter had never done before. Being slightly averse, like many people with autism, to being touched, I was not so sure that Samantha was going to like getting ashes on her forehead. I whispered my anxiety about this to a friend, a faithful volunteer to our disability ministry at the church, who happened to be sitting near us. She assured me we should give it a try and offered to walk down the aisle with us, to show Samantha how it’s done.

This is community.

After successfully making it through the “ashes” part of the Mass, we returned to our seats. My sense of relief was short lived as I realized Samantha; having already been down the communion aisle, thought it was time to go. I reassured her that, although we had changed the predictable schedule of Mass that we still hadn’t received communion, but we would be done soon. She happily sat back down and seemed to be enjoying herself- a comfort level my near non-verbal daughter rarely feels anywhere besides at home.

This is community.

After the Mass, we went to the social hall to participate in the church’s traditional “Mardi Gras” celebration, complete with live Dixieland band. I had hoped but not expected that Samantha would want to stay. She settled right in to listen to the music, however and I slowly began to relax. As Samantha began rocking excitedly back and forth to the beat of the music, I looked around to see how others perceived her. What I found were eyes of acceptance and understanding, people sharing in my daughter’s enjoyment of the music.

This is community.

The next day, I had the rare opportunity of a quiet, overnight retreat and reflected on the whole experience. As I shared about Samantha’s ability to participate in the activities of our faith community with the retreat directors, I realized how important and precious the opportunity of community really is to us all. Being involved and accepted as part of a chosen faith community should not be a privilege of those who fit the norm of society. It should be a priority of every faith community, small or large, young or old, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other faith, to make a way for all people, including those with disabilities and their families, to be involved and accepted.

I believe that my daughter and I are not just the recipients of the many blessings a faith community can provide, but also contribute to the life of our diverse parish. Samantha not only provides a ministry of presence that often affects all those around her, but a pureness of faith and love with her participation in the activities of our faith community. As I begin to understand the important role a faith community can play in a family’s life, I hope you will embrace the mission of FIN. Reach out and include those who have experienced physical barriers or barriers of communication and attitude because of their perceived “dis-abilities”. You may be surprised at the result because…
This is community.