Start with a Relationship
Too often people with disabilities receive “help” from other people based on what the other thinks the person with a disability needs. While help may be appreciated, the wrong kind of help is no help at all. To be truly effective, deacons need to develop relationships with the people in their church and community who live with disabilities. The Wraparound process, too extensive to discuss here, can be very helpful when the needs of a person and/or family are involved and extensive. For most situations, asking good questions and listening carefully to answers can be enough. (Never merely distribute a questionnaire for someone to fill out; always talk face to face.)
The deacons got to know Ed* and his wife well. With increasing limitations due to his Parkinson’s disease, Ed took a job with fewer physical demands than his previous work. Eventually he had to quit work altogether. Sometimes the deacons helped Ed and his wife pay their bills. Eventually walking down three steps to Ed’s front yard became too difficult for him. After talking with Ed and his wife about what might be most helpful, the deacons organized a work crew to add a ramp to the front door of Ed’s home. The project was fairly simple, took only modest preparation, didn’t cost a lot, and greatly enhanced the quality of life for Ed. Before Ed passed away, he enjoyed many hours outdoors in a chair at the top of the ramp.
Accessible Homes and Churches
Many churches, led by their deacons, have undertaken building projects from easy ones like a ramp for Ed to challenging ones like retrofitting a house. Although most diaconates cannot undertake housing projects themselves, they can encourage the whole congregation to advocate for appropriate housing. Deacons that serve on building committees need to advocate for accessible church facilities too. Churches in certain regions can apply for financial help from a few foundations that will help. Both the U.S. government and the province of Ontario provide extensive guidelines for accessible facilities. Some Christian Reformed Classes have even undertaken classis-wide ministry such as building group homes or constructing fully accessible homes for families.
Many families affected by disability need more than building renovations. Speaking from personal experience, I know that the demands on care givers of persons with disabilities can be intense. Len Bakelaar from Diaconal Ministries Canada has written a fine article and workshop on caring for caregivers. A labor-intensive but extremely helpful ministry for caregivers is setting up respite care for families affected by disability. Disability Concerns provides suggestions for discerning needs, setting boundaries, organizing respite care ministry.
Roy and Norma lived too far from church to travel there in their wheelchairs. So every week I or someone else would pick them up. Their presence blessed the congregation as much as they were blessed. Many people with cognitive impairments, including people in group homes, also would love to participate in a worshiping community if someone would transport them. (My own daughter certainly loves it!) Many churches provide transporation to people who would like to be in church but cannot get there on their own. (Public transportation often has limited hours on Sundays, making efforts to provide transportation all the more important.) Hopewell Reformed Church has developed an extensive ministry called Odyssey to people with intellectual disabilities and provides transportation for most of the 100 or so group home residents who come to worship every week.
Ministry with and by
Healthy churches not only care for members but also engage their members in the work of church and kingdom. This is as true for members with disabilities as for members without disabilities. Here are two stories of churches that have people with disabilities serving as deacons:
- For many years John’s disability disqualified him from serving in office. Not anymore.
- When people met Elizabeth, many saw her only as a “project.” Now she uses her gifts in serving as a deacon.
- Dan distinguished himself as a greeter and usher. Now he serves as well as an assistant deacon.
Melissa began and I will end this series on the theme of justice. The CRC form for ordination of elders and deacons says, “In Christ's name the deacons relieve victims of injustice. By this they show that Christians live by the Spirit of the kingdom, fervently desiring to give life the shape of things to come.” People with disabilities suffer injustice frequently, in employment, housing, transportation, and in social relationships. The shape of things to come is a new community, in fact a new creation, in which no one is shuttled off to the side but everyone belongs both to God and to his people. Beyond that, in the new creation everyone engages in the work of the kingdom to the glory of God. Our churches can model that new community that God has intended for his people. As deacons minister with and engage people with disabilities in their churches and communities, they take important steps toward bringing in the new creation.