An in-depth look at the first movement of ecclesial integration of disability communities: not just welcome, but missionary-welcome.
The season of preparing and welcoming will be here very soon. As Thanksgiving and Christmas draw closer, those who will be hosting family and friends for these annual celebrations will prepare their home to warmly receive the special people in their lives. First, the host invites the guests and during this process will often inquire about any needs their family and friends might have – food allergies, baby-proofing, or even just preferences that will make their guests feel welcomed, comfortable, and loved. Next, the grocery shopping, cleaning, and other work is done to make their home and celebration inviting, warm, and create a sense of not just welcome, but belonging for the host’s family and friends.
We also go through this intentional process for Advent. We prepare our hearts, mind, and body to receive Jesus, to celebrate his birth, and to be ready in anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming. We learn, pray, confess, share, etc. in preparation.
These two examples are analogous for how we must start the process of parish integration of disability communities.
The first phase in the process of integration is undoubtedly welcome. In their work on ecclesial integration, the USCCB doesn’t call the first movement within parishes “welcome”, though; they call it “mission.” In the above examples, to welcome requires an entire effort before the individual even arrives – preparation. There is intentionality in the preparation so that there is intentionality in the welcome. To welcome people so that they feel loved and a sense of belonging we can’t just passively receive them, we have to actively pursue them. We engage in Missionary Welcome.
When discussing disability integration in parishes, one of the most common responses I hear is, “parents don’t tell me about their kids’ special needs; I wish they’d just let me know. How can we welcome them if we don’t know who they are???” I’ve experienced the frustration myself of recognizing a neurodiverse student and feeling unable to address the issue head-on because neither parent nor student seems willing to discuss any potential supports needed. Even in my formal research for my thesis, many ministry and parish leaders said that they don’t know who their parishioners on the autism spectrum are because neither the individual with suspected disability nor their loved ones say anything. There’s a frustration from parish leaders wanting to be inclusive and engage in ecclesial integration, but feeling unable to do so without knowing who these parishioners are who need supports and accommodations.
At face value, there’s a lot of truth here. It’s very challenging to properly support someone when you don’t know a) that they would like support and b) how best they would like to be supported.
The flip side that I think many parish leaders seem to miss, is the cultural reasons for why individuals with “hidden disabilities” and/or their loved ones don’t come forward: stigma and marginalization.
Parish leaders probably know of at least a couple parishioners struggling with mental illness who likely don’t discuss their struggles. Why? Both in mental illness and in disability, individuals from these communities experience a great deal of marginalizing and stigma. Like mental health, the second someone shares that they or their loved one is impacted by disability, they are usually treated differently, “othered”, and/or marginalized by much of society. For example, individuals from the autism community report about their medical concerns and issues not being taken seriously because of their autism diagnosis. There’s some research to back the anecdotal evidence up, too (see: Barriers to Effective Medical Care for Autistic Adults and Girls with Autism or ADHD Symptoms Not Taken Seriously and Denial of Heart Transplant for Autistic Man Sparks Outrage).
The answer to this problem is Missionary Welcome. We have to ask ourselves, “if individuals with disabilities and/or their loved ones aren’t coming forward to let us know of their needs, what can we be doing or how can we change so that they feel comfortable and trusting that we will affirm their dignity, that they will be safe in disclosing this information, and that we will appropriately and compassionately respond with love (and not pity)? What can we do to help make sure parishioners and strangers alike know that we and our parish community are safe places for individuals from the disability communities to be themselves?”
This is an important realization for parish leaders to grasp if we are to engage in the first step of the process of ecclesial integration: Mission/Outreach. To welcome all does not mean to sit back and wait for them to come to us. A missionary hospitality that truly welcomes all proactively prepares the space and goes out to invite the stranger to come inside and be a stranger no longer. Welcoming people with missionary hospitality is not a passive receptivity, but an active embrace that begins with invitation and then creating a warm, inviting, safe, and comfortable space that creates a sense of welcome and belonging within our physical space and our communities before our loved ones even arrive.
Here’s a checklist of ideas to assess and analyze in preparation. The list isn’t exhaustive and it should be customized and tailored to the specific needs you suspect or know of within your parish community.
- How sensory-friendly are all of our Sunday liturgies?
- What can we do at all of our Sunday liturgies to make them more sensory-friendly?
- Examples: improve acoustics, lower volume a bit, replace fluorescent lights with incandescent lights and/or improve natural lighting, provide a sensory-safe room for parishioners who need more of a sensory break, etc.
- How can we make our worship more accessible for individuals with disability to participate?
- Example: Mass parts in braille, ASL interpreters, wheelchair accessibility, visual missal, Mass social stories, projecting words onto a screen for the deaf including the Mass parts and which Eucharistic prayer the priest is using, etc.
- What can we do so that individuals with disabilities can serve in liturgical ministries?
- Examples: can individuals with mobility challenges easily reach the ambo if they were to serve as a lector or reach the sanctuary if they were to be extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion? Would we be able to refrain from Consecration bells or incense at a Mass in which a child with Sensory Processing Disorder affected by sound or smell sensitivities will be serving as an altar server? Are our choir directors and music ministers open and accepting of individuals with disabilities serving in music ministry? Is the musicians’/choir space physically accessible?
- Are we prepared with training and best practices in blended classrooms (e.g. Universal Design for Learning), to integrate students with disabilities into our mainstream faith formation?
- Do we offer a regularly meeting, but perhaps short in length faith formation program for individuals who would prefer not to be in the mainstream faith formation?
- Are our classrooms and meeting spaces for children and adults alike sensory-friendly in their lighting, acoustics, smells, tactile senses?
- Do we have sensory tools and can we provide a sensory diet to proactively address the sensory needs of children and adults in our faith formation ministries?
- Do we provide support for the well-being of families from the various disability communities?
- Are we able to provide support groups for parents, siblings, spouses, and individuals with disabilities?
- Do we have a resource list we can contact to offer support when we aren’t sure how best to do that?
- Can we provide a respite ministry?’
- Do we have a rideshare program for any individual, but particularly those whose disabilities make transporting to Church difficult or nearly impossible?
- Are our community celebrations, like parish picnics, festivals, holiday boutiques, etc. physically accessible and sensory friendly?
- Have we educated and helped form our community about disabilities so that the people sitting in the pew will be more welcoming and accepting of individuals with disabilities?
Having a plan in place is a critical first step to engaging in missionary welcome. We’ve known this for a long time in youth ministry: just as Jesus went out and didn’t wait for people to come to him, we too must go out and we can’t wait for people to come to us. This is true with teens and even truer for individuals with disabilities, or any group on the margins.
What else would you add to this list?
If you/your parish is interested in intentionally planning for and engaging the process of ecclesial integration of disability communities and you’d like some consulting a longer-term support through the planning and implementation, Uniquely Catholic can help; please contact us.If you/your parish is interested in intentionally planning for and engaging the process of ecclesial integration of disability communities and you’d like some consulting a longer-term support through the planning and implementation, Uniquely Catholic can help; please contact us.