The Instinctive Language of Belonging

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In the newest issue of Breaking Barriers, the newsletter of CRC and RCA Disability Concerns ministries, writers describe how their church has involved adults from a Friendship group (or similar ministry with people who have intellectual disabilities) in the broader life of their congregation. In this article by Tom Boogaart, professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, he describes the involvement of one of his Hebrew students who is a friend resident at Western Seminary's Friendship House, where six young adults with intellectual/developmental disabilities live in community with seminarians as roommates, growing in independent-living skills, holding down jobs, and participating meaningfully in the larger community. According to director Melissa Conner, friend residents report great gains in social skills and self-esteem, while seminarians report a newfound depth of theological insight coupled with a greater ability to serve the pastoral needs of congregations and agencies.

The current academic year represents the first time a friend resident, Amanda Kragt, is fully participating in a seminary class, Hebrew.

At Western Seminary, Hebrew is taught interactively with plastic swords and spears, stuffed animals (both clean and unclean), dolls, sticks, stones, playhouses, various foods, etc. Students see, touch, taste, and smell words. They also hear the words. We give them commands in Hebrew, and the students respond by following the command.

Amanda is enthusiastic about learning and loves languages. With our interactive approach, I thought that we could accommodate her. What I did not realize at the time was how much she would contribute to everyone’s learning, how the classroom would became a place where the societal barriers between people of various abilities would temporarily break down.

In class one day I was giving commands. Without thinking much about it, I said to the students in Hebrew, “Stand on your chair,” and as soon as I said it I realized that Amanda, who is a little unsteady on her feet, might fall. Before I could do anything, the students on her left and on her right took her hand, helped her stand on her chair, and then later helped her down.

I was deeply moved by this simple gesture. Neither the students nor Amanda thought much of it. They did it naturally, instinctively. To me this was a sacramental moment, a foreshadowing of the community that Jesus has called us to be — a community in which the barriers dividing people and the resulting prejudices have broken down.

My experience with Amanda in the classroom has me thinking more broadly about barriers in theological education. Who do we allow in? What are the criteria? What constitutes a rich learning environment? Amanda’s presence and that of the Friendship House are challenging all of us to reflect more deeply on what it means to be the community Jesus desires us to be.

Want to read more? 

Relationships Blossom in Friendship
Friendship is a ministry with people who have disabilities. We care for each other. We laugh together. We cry together. We pray together. We sing together.

A Journey toward Full Inclusion
It is beautiful to see the welcoming attitudes and blessings obvious within the entire church family as together we have learned to see beyond outward appearances and respect each person as a child of God.

Serving and Being Served
God is using Friendship to bring blessings to the church through the participation of all of God’s people, regardless of ability or disability, in our faith communities.

Editor's Note: The Words of Friendship
All our friends have different learning levels and even if the lesson is hard for them to understand, they still understand that the person next to them—their mentor—cares about them.

Articles for Breaking Barriers 105 in Large Print (Word) (pdf)
Articles for Breaking Barriers 105 in Printer Friendly Format

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