Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Bridges to Faith:
Collaborating to Connect Individuals and Congregations
What is it that draws us to our community of faith? Is it only our need to worship with people whose beliefs mirror our own? Is it the comfort of participating in the traditions that are familiar to us? Or perhaps it is the connection we feel to not only the way we worship, but also the people who worship alongside of us. The desire to experience some or all of these things is what many of us need in response to our own spirituality or quest for our relationship with God. This need, of course, is the same for many people with disabilities.
For individuals with developmental disabilities, finding membership in our faith communities continues to be a struggle. In response to the need of people to not only practice their faith, but also to connect with others in a more personal way, it seems only natural that we would turn to our faith communities. They can provide a welcoming place for people to feel valued and included. However, not knowing how to realize this welcoming environment and make these connections with people with disabilities often leaves clergy and congregations uncertain and paralyzed.
In response to this need for direction and resources, Bridges to Faith was formed. Bridges to Faith is a collaborative, interfaith effort whose mission is to provide opportunities for persons with developmental disabilities to worship in the faith communities of their choice and to provide support to the faith communities who welcome them. The committee works to accomplish this goal by acting as a referral source for individuals who would like to attend worship services, working with congregation members who want to become Faith Companions to support the person’s participation within that congregation, and by providing education and guidance to faith communities in their ongoing ministry to welcome all people into the life of their congregation.
The committee’s membership is made up of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation, the Inter-Church Council of Greater New Bedford (which currently has 43 member congregations), Catholic Social Services’ Apostolate for Persons with Disabilities Office, human service professionals from social service provider agencies, partner congregations, and individuals who have been or want to be connected to a faith community.
Each of the members of the Bridges to Faith committee contributes in a unique and productive way in the process of connecting individuals with developmental disabilities to their faith community of choice. The primary role of clergy on the committee is to make connections with local congregations that will lead to faith companionships for people. Their peer relationship with the congregation leaders gives the work of the committee credibility and reduces some apprehension on the part of clergy about responding to requests made by the committee. The secondary role of clergy on the committee is to affirm the vision of Bridges to Faith, which is to embrace and appreciate the diversity of all people and welcome them into the life of the congregation. It is a ministry that all communities of faith are able to share. From a human service perspective, this effort could easily be seen as another “program” to support the individuals for whom we work. What our clergy membership teaches us is that we are not facilitating volunteer recruitment, but acting as a resource to congregations in their efforts to expand their ministry of hospitality.
The human service professionals on the committee have direct involvement with many of the individuals who have expressed the desire to attend worship services. They offer discreet support to congregations about the type of support a person may need to attend services. This kind of communication reduces the anxiety about the disability and puts an end to the myth that only people who have formal “training” can form a relationship with a person with a disability. They also assist in disseminating information within their agencies about the committee, and coordinate with direct support staff the details of the person’s participation in their faith community.
Our partner congregations offer testimony that diminishes the fears and stereotypes and helps open doors for additional congregations to welcome persons with disabilities. Members from our partner congregations who are active committee members take part in presentations at other congregations, telling of how positively this ministry has effected the whole congregation and demonstrating how little it takes to make such an important change in a person’s life.
People who are now attending worship services or who are waiting to be connected teach members how to improve the process and reinforce the value of the effort by sharing what their membership means to them. They keep us focused on the need to persevere.
Since 1995, the committee has made connections to faith communities based on requests from individuals living in the New Bedford area. Funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation, a part-time network coordinator begins the process by receiving a referral and meeting with the individual to discuss his or her worship preferences. In most instances, people have an identified faith community or denomination in which they wish to participate. For those who are exploring their spirituality or faith, it is not the role of the coordinator to identify a particular denomination of faith for a person. However, the coordinator is available to discuss information about the variety of denominations that are in the community and offer suggestions on ways to assist someone to choose what would be best for them. Once that decision has been made, contact with the chosen faith community is made. Clergy leaders are asked to think of members from the congregation who would like to become Faith Companions. Sometimes, certain members of a community come to mind right away, but other times it takes a little more persistence. Each congregation has its own way of going about identifying members who wish to participate. Again, if the congregation needs assistance, the coordinator is available, along with other committee members, to do presentations for groups in the congregation, provide written information for bulletins, or speak directly to potential Faith Companions. To help congregations and members to better understand what being a Faith Companion entails, Bridges to Faith produced a video describing the effort and the profound impact it has had on people’s lives. Copies of the video have been distributed throughout the New Bedford area.
After a Faith Companion has said they would like to attend services with a new member, the coordinator introduces them and maintains contact with the individuals to help to facilitate the relationship that forms between them. Maintaining communication between the Faith Companions, provider staff, and members of the faith community to ensure that the companionship has enough support increases the opportunity for the relationship to grow. A key component to facilitating long-lasting faith companionships is ensuring that Faith Companions feel supported in the beginning of their relationship. Faith Companions from the congregations need to feel comfortable seeking assistance should a situation arise that they may not understand. Building an open line of communication between the network coordinator and the Faith Companion allows the companion to begin to understand the new member and facts about the disability in a non-threatening way. Once misunderstanding and fear are replaced by understanding and ease, inevitably friendship and respect grow. The Faith Companion acts as a bridge between the new member and other members of the congregation, expanding friendships, membership, and understanding in a natural way. Many of the companionships mature into friendships with people doing more than just attending worship services together. The Faith Companions often share participation in other activities within the congregation and outside of it. Many of the people connected to communities of faith this way have said they feel like they belong to a family.
Bridges to Faith is the second of four similar committees active in Massachusetts. The first committee was Spiritual Connections in Fall River, Massachusetts. Its success led to its replication in New Bedford’s Bridges to Faith. The same resources can be found in most cities to establish this type of committee, and facilitate greater connection between individuals with developmental disabilities and local faith communities.