Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Finding Love and Friendship:
First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
When asked what he likes about being part of the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County, my son Eric says, “I especially like making friends. I respect all members of the church and they respect me. Sunday morning is the best time of the week for me because I am with my friends.” And he adds, “The thing I like best about being part of the Fellowship is believing in God!!”. For Eric, a man of few words who has been diagnosed with autism, membership in the Unitarian community has helped him open up to others in surprising ways, and become a valued member of the community. In this article, we hope to share some of the ways membership in the Fellowship has enhanced his life, and he theirs.
Eric and I joined the Unitarian Fellowship at the same time, approximately three years ago, and shortly afterward he moved from our family home to a home of his own. He lives in a one-bedroom condominium in a small town, and works as a data entry clerk in the scientific library of a major pharmaceutical firm. He is a participant in a unique program, the New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities Self-Determination Initiative, which provides support for Eric’s independent living – support that he and the family believe he needs and that he and the family choose. Additional support for Eric’s community program is provided by the Princeton Child Development Institute, a well-known program for persons with autism. Eric attended the institute’s school program from age seven and has been involved with their adult life skills program since age 21. The institute’s life skills coaches visit Eric several hours each week to help him gain and maintain the skills needed to live successfully in the community.
As important as paid staff are to Eric’s progress, his “self-determination” program would not be successful without friends and family. And membership in the Fellowship has been a key element in Eric’s community life. The warmth, spirit, and intelligence of the small congregation – which truly has the feeling of family – are compelling.
I came to the Unitarian Fellowship in part through my friendship with Reverend Sue Henshaw, its Community Minister, who also works at The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey. “Reverend Sue” and her colleague at the center, Reverend Bill Gaventa, work to promote community inclusion of individuals with developmental disabilities and to educate families, professionals, and community members about New Jersey’s Self-Determination Initiative. Of particular interest to Sue is the role religious communities can play in the successful integration of persons with developmental disabilities in the community.
Shortly after my first visit I invited Eric to accompany me. The church’s services are structured so that children participate in the church service for the first 10-15 minutes with their families and then leave the church to go to religious education classes. Initially, Eric attended Fellowship services with me. As an adult member of the community he remained in the church after the children and their teachers left. Sue Henshaw, whom he had known for some time, also left to teach. The church service was somewhat daunting for Eric. The sermons, guest speakers, and discussions were often difficult for him to attend to and follow. But he loved the community and enjoyed seeing the families, especially the children, at the coffee hour after services. Within a short time, Eric asked if he could go with Sue and the children when they left for religious education. I talked with Sue and another religious education instructor about whether Eric could have a role as a volunteer. Quickly, this was arranged and Eric was overjoyed. During his first year as a religious education volunteer, he found his own unique ways to participate. From early childhood Eric has had a fascination with letters, numbers, and words. He has excellent graphic abilities, and, given construction paper and scissors, can quickly cut out letters and names freehand. Before long, Eric had cut out the name of every child in the religious education program, and the walls of Dodd Hall, where classes meet, were papered with his handiwork. In the room where very young children played, Eric cut out the alphabet, upper and lower case, and numbers from 1-20, to help teach them to the children. After services, he interacted with the adults in his own style and with his own language – by fulfilling their requests to cut out letters using different typefaces. The following year, Eric was given the task of creating the sign announcing the topic for the week’s sermon, and placing it outside the church. Today, these are some of his favorite activities. As he says, “I like to make the letters of the alphabet and the numbers, and teach children to read them and to count. I like to help with crafts projects. I especially enjoy making the signs for the Sunday service and putting them outside the church for all to see so they will know what’s happening at UU.”
Prior to joining the Unitarian Fellowship, Eric was very withdrawn socially. He rarely talked spontaneously to others, often remaining aloof in social gatherings, and removing himself to isolated areas. Gradually, over the first year, we noticed that he was changing. He began to approach members, adults and children, to introduce himself and ask their names. And he remembered the names, often better than I did. Eventually he began to share during the “Celebrations and Concerns” part of the service, and one day he spontaneously invited the congregation to a holiday party at his condominium. Last year, he participated in a religious education talent show, doing a scene from a Monty Python movie with one of the teens. This year he has plans to direct a skit using scenes from the musical “Free to Be You and Me.” He regularly attends covered dish suppers and concerts, and is also involved in a variety of volunteer activities: “I have gone to nursing homes and cut out the names of residents for their doors. This year I made all the signs for the UU float in the local Christmas parade. The children dressed in costumes from all nations. I rode on the float with them and was a Frenchman. I also have a team in Walk Far for NAAR, a walk to benefit autism research. I do this every year and we raise money to help. I have also gone to conferences with my friend Sue Henshaw and my mother and father, and talked about living on my own and how much I like it.” Three years ago this degree of outgoing behavior would have been unimaginable.
Some of the unique qualities of Unitarian Universalism that have made Eric’s experience as a Fellowship member so meaningful are part of its philosophy: affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the use of democratic process within the congregation and in society; the goal of world community and peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence. The religion respects differences between people and affirms every person as an individual. In addition, Unitarian Universalists tackle social issues with great gusto, seeking to act as a moral force in the world, believing in ethical living as the supreme witness of religion. The congregation has encouraged Eric’s moving out and becoming involved in other community volunteer activities and social action.
Reverend Sue Henshaw says, “I’ve known Eric long enough and well enough to see the difference before and after he became involved with our congregation. My best memory of his change from a quiet and very isolated person to the man I know now happened after a potluck dinner during the first year he was with us. I was driving Eric home and had become quite accustomed to his silence unless I spoke first. After a period of silence he said, ‘I really liked the chicken. Who made it?’ I almost drove off the road and tried not to get too excited as we talked about the food that was at the potluck. Given how seldom Eric initiated any conversation, every word was a big step for him.”
It’s important to stress that Eric is not a “special” person in our congregation. He’s a member like everyone else, with his own distinctive personality and traits. One measure of how valued those traits are is Eric’s nomination by members of the congregation for the Individual Achievement Award of the New Jersey Council of Schools and Agencies for the Autistic. Eric received this award in May, 2001, and proudly brought it to service the following Sunday, showing it to the congregation during sharing time.
When asked what the Unitarian Fellowship means to him, Eric talks of love and friendship, of the children he works with and cares deeply about, and the adults: “They are all my friends.”