By Mike Hoenig
Welcome to Disability Focus. Our goal in running this periodic column is to stimulate ideas for including parishioners with disabilities in all aspects of worship. I plan to combine my first-hand experiences of living with blindness with those of others living with disabilities and their families. I welcome your ideas for future columns. Contact me by phone at (563) 349-3922 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Championship Team
Tuning in to the Holy Spirit and nurturing personal relationships are important elements of everyone’s faith journey. They’re especially important for persons with disabilities attempting to join a faith community. Allow me to explain, using my own story.
I was raised in Fort Madison, growing up in a solid Catholic family. As happens to so many college students, I strayed from the faith. When I decided to explore a return to the faith years ago, I started thinking about the barriers that might lie ahead. How would I get to Mass? How could I sing along with the congregation if I didn’t have words to hymns in Braille? Would anyone want me to participate in parish ministries? How would I get to know people? Thanks to the Holy Spirit and a wealth of personal relationships, I learned the answers to these questions and gained a faith community which now feels like an extended family.
How Would I Get To Mass?
The decision to return to the Church seemed incredibly overwhelming. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit came to the rescue by inspiring me to call a Catholic friend, Karol, in Davenport. She gave me the name of Sister Charla Bulko, then pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Soon, I had an appointment to see her. What a relief! Though I didn’t realize it then, I had joined a team with great players: the Holy Spirit and personal relationships.
Sr. Charla immediately became a champion of personal relationships. A day after our meeting, she called to tell me that a parishioner named Ted had agreed to pick me up for Mass! Problem solved.
How Could I Sing With The Congregation?
After a few Sundays at Mass, I decided to get serious about coming back to the Church. I knew that if I were going to fully participate in the Mass, I would have to be able to sing the hymns. Personal relationships to the rescue! My friend Karen, then director of the Iowa Library for the Blind, sang for many years with our diocesan choir. She agreed to commit library resources to “Braille” the Gather hymnal. Another problem solved!
Participating In Parish Ministries
Chalk another one up for the team. Diana, then Sacred Heart’s stewardship coordinator, has a son with low vision. No need to convince her that I was capable. All we had to do was find the right fit. I’d served as a lector in high school, so that seemed like a logical place to start. Thanks to yet another personal relationship, I’d begun receiving The Monthly Lectionary in Braille from the Xavier Society for the Blind. Diana talked with Sr. Charla about adding my name to the list of lectors, and within a month I began serving the church through this ministry.
My ministry didn’t stop there. Diana asked me to assist her with teaching Breaking Open the Word. While a friend read background material for the lesson to me, I took notes on my Braille laptop. Diana and I then met to divide up the lesson.
Breaking Open the Word opened many doors for me. I learned new things about the Scriptures and about our faith. I met many new Sacred Heart friends. And, I became a godparent for the first time.
Still not satisfied that I was doing all I could for the Church, I accepted Sr. Charla’s invitation to join the Liturgy Committee. She recognized that my non-visual perspective would further enrich Sacred Heart’s liturgy. My perspectives on nonvisual enhancements, music and even decorations were welcomed.
Applying My Story To Your Parish
Some of you may be thinking, “Those people at Sacred Heart must really be awesome. What a nice story. But what does it have to do with me? We don’t have people with disabilities in our parish … do we?”
The people at Sacred Heart ARE awesome and so are you and your fellow parishioners. Consider the people in your parish. Perhaps a parish council member has a niece with Down syndrome who loves people. Has anyone asked her to be a greeter? What about that family who sits in the pew behind you every Sunday? Their son with autism has an incredible aptitude for math. Has anyone asked him to count money received in the collection? What about your cousin with schizophrenia who can’t drive and feels uncomfortable in crowds? Have you thought about picking him up for Mass? The possibilities for including people with disabilities in the life of your parish are endless. Start discovering them. Your life, the lives of persons with disabilities you touch, and the life of your parish community will be enriched in unique and blessed ways.