Pathways Guides: Finding Faithful Friends

Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and cathedrals are much more than just buildings. They symbolize the coming together of people who share many of the same values, beliefs and traditions. At their best, they evoke a deep sense of community amongst the congregants, a word whose Latin roots mean “to collect (into a flock)”, “united”. Too often, discovering and celebrating one’s faith is over-looked when supporting people with disabilities. The National Core Indicators Project reports that in 2011-2012, only 4 out of 10 people with disabilities went to religious or spiritual services in the previous month in Massachusetts. But more than twice as many (more than 8 of 10) US citizens describe themselves as affiliated with a religion according to a recent Pew Research report. Faith communities can provide their congregations with spiritual, emotional, and social supports. And the faith community can be very fertile ground for friendships between people with and without disabilities to flourish.

Most faiths have a variety of levels at which their parishioners can be involved. There are, of course, usually worship services that occur at various times depending on the specific religion. These can be quiet and contemplative or raucous and celebratory, appealing in different ways to different people. Many faiths invite their members to be actively involved in the services themselves, as greeters, ushers, readers, helping with communion, collecting offerings, etc.; many people with disabilities can help with these activities. Many faiths have activities beyond the worship services that folks can join in, such as child care, preparing snacks for after the service, evening bible study for adults, community service projects, picnics, serving on committees, etc.

The faith community may even play roles beyond what most of us associate with them. For instance, in Minnesota, four University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs) began collaborating to develop and test a model of employment supports in faith communities for members with disabilities, called Putting Faith to Work. According to the project, “It expands the reach of what faith communities do so well: acknowledge the gifts and needs of their members, maintain strong community connections, and address local community needs.” You can get more information on what this project is doing by contacting Angela Amado at the Institute for Community Integration at the University of Minnesota (amado003@umn.edu, 651-698-5565).

Several projects have been developed in Massachusetts that focus specifically on helping faith communities reach out to and include people with disabilities. For more information, you can use the resources below:

  1. Bridges to Faith serves the Greater New Bedford area. You can read a short “How to Build Bridges to Faith” at our projects website.
  2. Interfaith Connections provides support in Western MA and you can contact Karlene Shea (karleneshea@mcsnet.org) for more information. (Karlene also wrote “How Introductions can Lead to Friendships” which you can access on our project’s website.
  3. Spiritual Connections serves the Greater Fall River Area.

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