Lutherans in Minnesota

New ELCA statement calls for changes for people with disabilities

If you look around your congregation, do you see many people with developmental disabilities? How about in your workplace? Do you commonly see such folks out riding their bikes in the community or taking a leisurely walk around the lake?

You might not.

While Minnesota has made huge strides to help people with disabilities live and work in the community, statistics note that there is a long way to go before they are fully integrated into society. Barriers such as jobs, living wages, discrimination, and isolation mean that people with disabilities are far more likely to live in poverty, be unemployed, and experience health issues and loneliness.

The ELCA has determined that it is time for the church to take a stand. In November, it issued a groundbreaking social message on people living with disabilities that calls for people in the pews across the community to work toward a reality where their neighbors with disabilities are fully engaged in congregational and community life, for the sake of all.

Mark Peterson, LSS president and CEO

“When the word of God is preached and the sacraments administered without the presence of all believers among us as the church, including people who are disabled, we are less than the whole people of God,” the statement reads. “We are less than we could be in the absence of their experiences, interests, skills, and abilities to contribute to God’s work of mission and ministry. The Holy Spirit is calling this church to be mindful that those within it who live with disabilities are full companions in the journey of faith.”

“[People with disabilities] want to make a difference,” said Maureen Rosacker with Partnership Resources, Inc., an organization that places people with developmental disabilities in the workplace. “They want people to know that they have abilities, not disabilities.”

Marnie Manning works at a coffee processing plant at the Bull Run Roasting Company in Minneapolis. “I’m a normal human being, just born with a challenge,” she said. “Don’t look at me for my disability, look at the work I do.”

While Marnie has worked there for almost four years, her employer Greg Hoyt said, “I hope it will be another 30 years. In terms of our culture as a company, it’s been transformative. It’s not so much that I’m a good guy or that this is such a good place to work, although I hope it is. It’s that this job is so meaningful.”

Resources for integration into the community

Maureen, Marnie, and Greg tell this story in an historical account about life for people with disabilities in Minnesota in a new documentary co-produced by Twin Cities Public Television and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS), an organization serving 1,300 people with developmental disabilities in the community.

“We’ve made sweeping changes over the last 40 years by moving people out of institutions and into the community, but now is the time for the next wave of change to fully engage people with disabilities in community life,” said Mark Peterson, LSS president and CEO. “It will require a culture change that asks us to step out of our comfort zones, think in new ways and reach out with intention to our neighbors with disabilities in our churches, neighborhoods, and workplaces.”

In March, LSS distributed a statewide mailing to all ELCA congregations in Minnesota with informative and thought-provoking materials, including a disabilities study guide, the ELCA social statement, and the tpt video titled “Institutions to Independence” to prompt discussion and action. The comprehensive packet is designed for adult forums where church members can share ideas and discuss how they can more fully advocate for, and integrate people with, disabilities in their churches, workplaces, and community.

Has your congregation had this discussion?

“We need everyone to contribute to life in community,” Peterson said. “Clearly, people with disabilities can make important contributions. It takes all of us.”

Learn about “My Life My Choices,” a new initiative that LSS is developing to help people with disabilities live fuller lives in the community at www.lssmn.org/advocate.

Ways to be more welcoming to people with disabilities

* Make the church facilities physically accessible.

* Speak directly to a person with a disability, not only to the nearby helper.

* Shake hands and introduce yourself to people with limited mobility. Shaking the left hand is okay, too.

* Place yourself at eye level when talking with a person in a wheelchair.

* Offer to help if needed, but wait until the offer is accepted and wait for instructions on how to assist.

* Encourage people with disabilities to serve in worship, proclaim the scriptures, and sing in the choir.

* Include a sign language interpreter in worship and make large-print bulletins available.

* Be intentional to include young people with special needs in family and church activities to give their parents a break.

* Connect with a local home in the community that serves people with disabilities to offer social connections and friendship.

—Jacqueline Nelson

Jacqueline Nelson is the communications manager for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.

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