Earth Angels

Zielinski, Karen

Houses of worship honor volunteers with disabilities.

“CONGRATULATIONS to the Diocese of Toledo! It is a wonderful idea to encourage and honor people who volunteer, including people with disability. So often they are just on the receiving end and never get a chance to assist others!” said Lorraine Thal, program officer of the Religion & Disability Program for the National Organization on Disability (NOD) in Washington, D.C. Thal had high praises for the Toledo Catholic Diocese’s Open Arms Awards given out last month at Rosary Cathedral.

But unlike those benefiting from the Toledo Catholic Diocese, many of the millions of people with disabilities in the United States have spiritual needs that aren’t being met because their churches, synagogues, meetinghouses, mosques, or temples aren’t accessible to the disabled, both structurally and in attitude. Isn’t it ironic that the very thing that can help us cope with disability-our faith-should be out of our reach?

Northwest Ohio gets it when it comes to understanding the place of all people in places of worship. On Saturday, March 20, 2004, six people with disabilities were honored at the Sixth Annual Open Door Liturgy, which honored volunteers from the 19 counties’ Catholic churches. Marsha Rivas, director of Equal Access Ministry in the Diocese, coordinates the program.

“The Open Arms Awards were first given in 1999 by then director [and founder] of Equal Access Ministry, Kitty Kruse, to recognize Catholics with disabilities who are active in their parish and community,” Rivas said. “Besides recognizing deserving individuals for whom just attending Sunday Mass may be a hardship because of their disability, this award serves as an awareness opportunity for pastoral leaders from any church. When you see someone with a disability in your church, don’t think of them as an object for your parish outreach, but rather as a person with great potential for ministering themselves. Don’t overlook the unique perspective they bring to people with and without disabilities.”

Sponsored by the diocesan department of Equal Access Ministry, the Open Arms Awards honor people with disabilities who minister in their parishes and communities. Bishop Leonard Blair presented this year’s awards at Rosary Cathedral. The following individuals were recognized as outstanding volunteers.

Open Arms Award Winners

Amy Boyers hails from Wauseon, St. Caspar Parish where she teaches first-grade religion. She holds a master’s degree in special education and is employed full time by Wauseon schools in their special-education program. She is married with two daughters and was chosen Mother of the Year in 1998 by St. Caspar’s Rosary Altar Society. Amy has cerebral palsy with a mobility impairment.

Leroy Coleman serves on the pastoral council and bereavement committee at his parish, Tiffin, St. Mary. He also serves as a lector and Eucharistic minister and helps with the parish festival and bingo. Leroy visits elderly parishoners in their homes and nursing facilities. He has coached baseball for Tiffin Calvert High School and little league baseball for the city of Tiffin. Leroy walks with a prosthesis after his leg was amputated while serving during the Vietnam War.

From Toledo, St. Pius X Parish, Ann Couturier has served on the pastoral council for St. Pius and sponsored youths preparing for confirmation and adults preparing to be received in full communion in the Catholic faith. Ann holds two jobs: She’s employed full time by Medical Mutual of Ohio and part time by Target Stores. In her spare time she serves as vice-president for the local chapter of the Heartlanders of Little People of America, Inc. Ann was born with achondroplasia dwarfism.

Cathy Manghelli is a choir member and cantor at Lima, St. John the Evangelist. She also sings in the Lima Civic Chorus. She has served on the pastoral council at St. John’s as well as director of Adult Education. Cathy also served as a spiritual life coordinator, directing retreats for St. John and St. Rose parishes. She has been the department chair of English at Lima Central Catholic High School since 1971 and teaches a satellite English course at Lima Central Catholic for Lourdes College. Cathy was born blind.

A member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Bellevue, Brian Roth was nominated for the Open Arms Award by his pastor, Rev. Keith Stripe. Brian is a student at Bellevue High School and attends Sunday Mass faithfully. He also attends religious education classes at Immaculate Conception, participates in the youth ministry program, and serves as a greeter at Mass, bringing encouragement and playfulness to young and old parishioners. Brian was born with cerebral palsy.

Mary Lou Szabo sings in the choir and cantors for her church, St. Aloysius in Bowling Green. She has worked on many parish and school activities, including the parish festival, school advisory council, and 24-hour adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Mary Lou has served as a Eucharistic minister and religion teacher. She has worked as a school nurse at St. Aloysius for 29 years and taught human sexuality classes at St. Aloysius and St. Louis in Custar. Mary Lou received a grant from the Coalition for Pregnancy Prevention in Wood County and is a leader with the Bowling Green Community Coalition for Youth and Families, addressing alcohol abuse and youths at risk. Mary Lou has lived with MS for 34 years.

Religious involvement and disability

People who have disabilities want to be a part of society like those who don’t have disabilities. One aspect of belonging to a society includes some volunteering, especially in our places of worship. There’s usually plenty to do in churches, synagogues, or places of worship. A great way to find out what needs to be done is to simply ask at your church or place of worship.

Lorraine Thal has another invitation for some who have a disability. Go to the NOD Web site: Their motto: “It’s ability, not disability, that counts.”

There’s a recent feature in the Community Involvement: Religious Participation section. It’s the Interfaith Directory of Religious Leaders with Disabilities. “We now list 88 people of various faiths with many types of disabilities,” said Lorraine. “They are clergy, seminary faculty, religious educators, seminarians and a few Sisters. If you know of any religious leaders with disabilities, please send us their names and addresses and we will then send them a letter with the details.” I added my name to the list; Lorraine encourages others to do so, too.

Today, some people with disabilities-those who use wheelchairs or walkers, or who have vision or hearing problems-hesitate to attend worship services or participate in church activities because facilities are not accessible to them or because other people are uncomfortable in their presence. Often, making churches accessible is very expensive and we hear, “We can’t afford it for so few people.” But I say you can’t afford not to; everyone benefits from a railing or elevator since it offers safety and security for all present.

Unfortunately, unless disability touches us-a parent who has a stroke or heart surgery, a child who has been hit by a car-the message might not be foremost in our minds. But when a disability comes into our lives, then our sensitivity is heightened about making places easy and safe to move around in. It’s like Middle East oil transactions. We don’t pay much attention to them-unless gas goes to $2.00 a gallon. Then it hits home!

Respect and encouragement

Some churches, synagogues, and places of worship have issued statements about members with disabilities. Here are four that I feel are wonderful:

1. “…the person with a disability…is a fully human subject with the corresponding innate, sacred, and inviolable right.”

2. “Since the person having disabilities is a person with full rights, he or she must be helped to take their full place in society in all aspects and at all levels as far as is compatible with his or her capabilities.”

3. “The quality of a society and a civilization is measured by the respect shown to the weakest of its members.”

4. “…the person with a disability must be urged not to be content with being only the subject of rights, accustomed to receiving care and solidarity from others with a merely passive attitude. He or she is not only a receiver. He or she must help to be a giver to the full extent of his capabilities.”

Reading material

Many articles and books that move and encourage hesitant, potential volunteers to get involved have been published. Here are a few I found.

In his January 22, 2004 Denver Post article, “I Just Want to Be Included,” religion writer Eric Gorski calls attention to the mixed record that religious institutions have in including and welcoming people with disabilities. While some congregations struggle with architectural, communication, and attitude barriers, others have successfully integrated people with disabilities as full members of their religious communities. The Pope echoed that idea in his January 2004 statement that the quality of society’s life is gauged by the care of people with disabilities. And Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s article, “My Son is Not his Illness” from the December 1999 issue of Sh’ma magazine, speaks of his autistic son Jacob and his experiences with the true meaning of Sabbath.

So, I hope to see more of us in churches or synagogues or other places of worship, doing something up front or in the background.

Everyone has something to give.

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Karen J. Zielinski is a Roman Catholic nun, head of the Communications Office for the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio, and a freelance writer. This is her 29th year of living with MS.

Copyright Springhouse Corporation Jul/Aug 2004

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