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Welcoming the Visitor

As I walked out of St. John Chrysostom, a Catholic Church in the Philadelphia area, I was filled with the warmth of acceptance and belonging. How does that happen after one visit to a church? Let me explain…
Since my position leading Faith Inclusion Network began, I have learned about and experienced everything from the most inclusive of faith communities to the most unwelcoming and exclusive. I am sensitive to the efforts faith communities make to include people like my daughter who have disabilities and always grateful when someone, either from my home church or in another place of worship, welcomes us.
This past Sunday, my family and I attended Easter Sunday Mass at St. John Chrysostom Catholic Church in Wallingford, PA. http://sjcparish.org/ we were visiting our oldest at Swarthmore College and wanted to attend Mass as a family for Easter. Easy enough, right?

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Well, maybe not. Because being in a new, crowded place is not always best for Samantha, who has autism. I had reason to be optimistic that our experience would be positive however.
First, we had already been to worship many times in our home church with success. The Mass is the same everywhere, which works in our favor, for sure.
We had also attended a different church the previous year when on a similar trip. The ushers were welcoming and even helped us find the perfect seat for Samantha, assuring us that she would be fine. –(Easter Sunday, 2015 at St. Madeline’s Church http://www.stmadelineparish.com/ .)
But I was particularly excited about this worship opportunity because I had encountered St. John’s online before we left Norfolk. A brief glance at their website and I was convinced I wanted to go.
First of all, they had received the 2015 Loyola Press Opening Doors Award from the NCPD. This award is “given to a parish that is doing exceptional work in facilitating meaningful participation of Catholic with disabilities.” http://www.ncpd.org/ and without even attending a Mass, I could see some of the reasons why they had been given this special recognition. The regular schedule of Masses included a “Mass of Welcoming and Inclusion” on the first Sunday of every month. ASL interpreters were also regularly scheduled.
Reading further, I noticed Disability Ministry activities, one with a special speaker and the other, a community project. Things were looking promising here.
We got to St. John’s at 9:05 am for a 9:30 am Mass and watched as people started filing into the sanctuary. A notable amount of families with young children were there, restless, even crying children could be heard all around. Many people smiled and warmly welcomed us with their expressions, observing, I’m sure, Samantha’s somewhat unusual behavior of looking straight up at the ceiling at the lights for minutes at a time. I observed only smiles of welcome.
I glanced in my pew and found a blue paper. The message included comforting words to the parents of young children (and an inferred message to parents of children with special needs, I thought as well). The notice expressed something about God putting the “wiggle” in your children, and do not be worried if they express this during the Mass. Again, the ASL Interpretation was noted as well as a statement about greeting and accepting all of the congregants, regardless of age and amount of “wiggleness” (my word not theirs) with acceptance and understanding.
It is no wonder that St. John’s was filled to capacity, the pastor even guessing that, with standing room only they probably had 900 people in church. Pastor Hallinan’s exclamation to this observation-“Alleluia and Praise Jesus!”-made us all smile.
When the Mass was over, we filed out with everyone else and my heart was full. We were anonymous at this church, no one knew us or anything about my advocacy work as Director of FIN. But I felt that we, as a family who experience disability, were welcomed and even belonged there.
The good news is that there are faith communities all over Hampton Roads who are making similar efforts to welcome and include all. One of the lessons I take away from this visit to St. John’s though, is that the efforts were obvious, even to the one time visitor. Information online made it clear that this is a place that cares about including everyone…and my family’s experience bore witness to this.
As we continue to do our work in the Hampton Roads area; developing disability ministry efforts, holding FIN events and all the other fabulous work being done here, let’s also keep in mind that we need to make our efforts known and obvious. Share what you are doing online, on social media and with our community at large. You never know who is passing through and will be encouraged and comforted by your efforts.
God bless.
K. Jackson

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Samantha, Karen, Jacob and Joseph Jackson (Dad, Scott taking the photo) after Easter Mass, 2016

Accept. Include. Celebrate.

FAITH INCLUSIN NETWORK T-9

This story is written in honor of all my friends who have Down syndrome.

Happy World Down Syndrome Day!-K. Jackson

I walked into the gathering slowly, tired from a long Monday that included teaching, driving, and frustrating phone calls to my bank. I was spent and ready to just pick up my daughter and get home to start the evening routine. But something happened in the moment I walked in the door…something simple yet profound.
I was greeted, not just warmly, but enthusiastically by one of my friends at The Chosen Ministry, a social ministry for persons with disabilities. No, not by my daughter-she rarely gets excited like this-but by a friend who just sees me a few times a month. As I made my way into the building my friend, who has Down syndrome, by the way, blessed me with a huge smile, a hug, and made me feel welcomed. She was glad to see me and demonstrated it enthusiastically.
Just recently, Faith Inclusion Network has rolled out our new Vision Statement with the Motto: Accept. Include. Celebrate. As a Board of Directors, we spent months making a decision about the correct wording for the vision and how to express it in a few short words. What I realized last night, was that my friend from The Chosen Ministry expressed it in a few short moments. Her actions demonstrated acceptance, inclusion and celebration. She turned my night around in a few moments, making me feel not just like I belonged in the gathering, but that I was important and would have been missed had I not been there. I felt like a celebrity when I walked through the door…just because I had shown up!
What if our faith communities where like that for every person, especially those who are affected by disability? What if, when we came through the door, we were celebrated for just who we are? The labels of Autism, Down syndrome, Bipolar Disorder, Cerebral Palsy or whatever would be irrelevant. That is the goal of Faith Inclusion Network and, I believe, of all of our partners around the country working toward faith inclusion. That all can belong to a faith community and be accepted, included and celebrated just because we showed up. Imagine the possibilities!

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Karen and Samantha working on a craft at The Chosen Ministry Norfolk