Editor’s Note: Mona Fuerstenau’s conviction that all people are “wonderfully made” began in high school while working with children with learning disabilities. That led her to study Speech Pathology, Gerontology and Psychology. She worked in those fields before becoming a parent of two diverse learners; they were her post graduate education in celebrating difference, inspiring advocacy, and challenging the status quo. Her position as ministry consultant at Bethesda has led to many speaking opportunities such as the 2019 NALC Life conference. Bethesda is a nationwide 501(c)(3) charity whose mission is to “enhance the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through services that share the good news of Jesus Christ.” Her passion is for all people marginalized by difference to find refuge and a place of belonging in the life of the church.
The very real conversations today in this country and around the globe about the perceived lack of value of a life lived with disability is disturbing to say the least. The abortion rate of babies prenatally diagnosed with disability is terribly high. The arguments about being a burden to family and therefore withholding medical treatment or withdrawing life sustaining measures are becoming louder. The incidence of courts valuing the family’s right to define the value or quality of life of someone very much alive are agonizing to watch. So where do we begin? Scripture of course.
Psalm 139:13-16 “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; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” [emphasis added]
These verses profess the sanctity of every life. Bethesda has a joint initiative with Lutherans for Life and it is a natural fit. We are all about life, in all its ages and stages and abilities. No one is “less than another” to God. God calls everyone to minister in His Kingdom. Abilities and experiences uniquely equip each of us. Our witness to and with and from people with disabilities, or suicide survivors, or post abortion, or at end of life is woven throughout and has its foundation in these words.
I encourage you to think about how your congregation, as a life affirming place, can begin to see people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as also in need of that life affirmation.
There is a wonderful word picture in 1st Corinthians 12 of the body of Christ. It talks about the place and work of each part of the body. And then we get to verse 22.
“On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
Different translations say necessary, vital, without which the total is incomplete. These are the people whom we champion. Those who are marginalized because of our perceptions. But God gives them critical status, without which the body is incomplete. Without whom none of our congregations can be complete.
The world of disability is deficit based. Even the word means “without ability”. But we as Christians have our value in being a child of God. That is our foundation. We all have gifts and talents and experiences to bring that enrich the whole. Sometimes it takes work to see beyond the differences. It takes work. But it is critical work to show the world God’s love by being Jesus’ hands and feet.
In 1 Peter 4:10 we read: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” There are no qualifiers in this verse. It says each of you. Every one. Everyone is and has gifts to bring to the whole.
Creating a Sanctuary
So, if we are going to welcome all these gifts into our congregations, we first must make it a safe place. How do we create a space of sanctuary?
Some key components we have found in our work include:
- Unconditional welcome, favorable reception,
- Communicating an authentic desire to know the hopes, dreams and needs of each person,
- Seeing everyone as not “just” a person or a family with _________,
- Identifying individual gifts, talents, and experiences to share,
- Affirming all are a necessary part of God’s family.
When we do this our congregations become richer with lived experiences. And what if the Gospel message lived out and shared by all people, not “in spite of” but “because of” their lived experiences, somehow makes that message more accessible to people who will not otherwise hear it as being for them?
Bethesda has numerous resources for creating a place of belonging for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. A good place to start is with disability awareness materials for all ages. Visit our website www.BethesdaLC.org and search for faith resources. We have 5 complete series and the most recent release is called Face 2 Face.
We have also partnered with Lutheran Hour Ministries to create a four-session course by the same name. Face2Face, Building Relationships with People with Disabilities. This course can be found at www.lhm.org/learn.
Our Wonderfully Made pamphlet series are also a great place to begin to understand ways to become a more inclusive and welcoming congregation. They celebrate and share ideas for communicating and easily adapting things you are currently doing. These can be ordered along with all our resources housed through Concordia Publishing House www.cph.org/Bethesda We are currently giving away a free copy of Unit 1 of our Building on the Rock curriculum. Just use the coupon code BUILD.
While you are on our Bethesda website check out our Home Activity Center. It’s full of ideas to do together as a family during this time of sheltering in place. And our Volunteer tab details multiple ways you can engage with the people we support and staff across the country. If you have questions about Bethesda please don’t hesitate to ask. I can be reached at Mona.Fuerstenau@BethesdaLC.org