Frontline Initiative Spirituality

Spirituality, honoring the heard and the call of direct support


Reverend Bill Gaventa is the director of Community and Congregational Supports at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School/ UMDNJ.

Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) work in a spiritual laboratory: A place where beliefs and understanding about the essence of life, and the meanings of humanity, community, love and care are tested every day. Who are you, and the people you support, as human beings? What is the purpose of everyone’s life? These are not questions from a textbook but in the hands-on work that DSPs do every day. This is the place where faith, hope, and love have to walk the talk.

But spirituality is too often ignored or not talked about. It is almost like not being able to see the air we breathe. It can be defined in many ways but they all come back to whatever we experience as holy and sacred at the heart of life. It is also about the ways in which we find meaning in the question of what it means to be human. Spirituality can also be seen as connection: connection with self, with others, with God (however God is defined), with nature, with place, with past, and with culture. Spirituality also has to do with choice, exercising free will and decision making, responding to the sense of call, vocation, and purpose we feel in our lives. It has to do with the spirit we bring to our work and the way that work touches our own spirituality.

One reason that spirituality is ignored is that it is too often defined only as religion. Many people discover and express their spirituality through a faith tradition and faith community. Faith communities can be one way of helping people with their spirituality. It is not the only way. As DSPs we know we are not supposed to proselytize or force anyone to participate or believe. That does not mean we cannot help the people we support express their spirituality and find the community in which to express their spirituality. This demonstrates the heart of respect and professional care.

DSPs bring their spirit to the people they support. It shines through, whether they know it or not, yet DSPs are not the only spiritual figures in the lives of people they support. In fact, the role of DSPs is to recognize and honor the spirituality of the people being supported, help them find ways to express it, and find communities or practices in which they can learn, grow, and give. That means listening, introducing, guiding, and facilitating. It is not just about taking someone “to church,” especially if that task feels uncomfortable. DSPs spiritual roles are teacher, advocate, and guide. DSPs connect the people they support with congregations and spiritual communities.

When DSPs help people live out what is most important to them, these professionals create opportunities for care and connection. When DSPs find ways to talk about what motivates them as caregivers, what they learn, and what sustains them in their vocation of support, they honor the heart and call of what it means to be professional. The blessings can go in many directions!