A Model For Others To Follow
You’ll have to run to catch up with her, but when you find Ginny Thornburgh she will be delivering her message loud and clear: all faith communities can create more opportunities for people with disabilities to have a fulfilling spiritual life. At the National Organization on Disability (NOD), Thornburgh is Director of the Religion and Disability Program http://www.nod.org/religion/index.cfm. In a recent visit to the Twin Cities, she found something “unusual and amazingly wonderful:” an interfaith group working year-round to promote inclusion among faith communities.
That group, the Interfaith Inclusion Consortium, invited Thornburgh to be the keynote speaker at “The Faces of Inclusion: Welcoming People with Disabilities into Faith Communities,” a conference in Minneapolis on May 6, 2004. She had high praise for the conference, but even higher praise for the consortium itself.
“Lots of conferences have an excellent team that puts the event together, but the follow-up is often lacking,” Thornburgh said. “The Interfaith Inclusion Consortium is a real resource that congregations and folks with disabilities can call for information, and it’s made up of a variety of committed organizations” with emphasis on the word ‘committed.’ This is very unusual and, in my opinion, a model for others to follow.”
The Interfaith Inclusion Consortium works with faith communities to encourage the inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of religious life. Arc Hennepin-Carver and Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis spearheaded the formation of the consortium in 2003 after the first “Faces of Inclusion” seminar. Today 13 organizations belong to the consortium (see the listing below).
Thornburgh’s mission is to foster dialogue between the disability community and the religious community in order to meet a need that is often overlooked. “For many people with disabilities and their families, access to faith is just as important as access to education, employment, transportation, health care and community,” she said. “However, not as much muscle has been put behind spiritual and religious access. The point isn’t to impose faith on people; it’s to acknowledge that faith is one of many considerations important to people with disabilities.”
Thornburgh is the co-author of That All May Worship, a book offering common sense advice to help faith communities become more inclusive. “That All May Worship has ideas any congregation can use to transform itself into a place of welcome.” she said. “Its not difficult. It involves a change of heart” just realizing that this is important.
“When I speak at conferences, I talk about barriers” barriers of architecture, barriers of communications, and barriers of attitude. “ Barriers of attitude are the toughest of all,” she continued. “Attitude affects my longing to be your friend. Genuine friendship is, in my mind, the most important accommodation we can offer another person. Once I am your friend, all kinds of amazing things happen.”
Thornburgh believes the most important step religious communities can take is to empower people with disabilities. “People with disabilities should have an opportunity for a full life of faith, which includes worship, study, service and leadership,” she said. “The most intriguing of these is leadership. It’s important not to assume that people with disabilities want to be the recipient of things people do for them, but to use their gifts and talents in the congregation.”
For example, a congregation could ask a person with disabilities to meet with its facilities committee and do a “roll-through” to determine the existing barriers and how to remove them. “Congregations get nervous about paying an architect to do an architectural study because that’s expensive,” said Thornburgh. “Instead, they could invite people with disabilities and experts from organizations such as independent living centers to review the congregation and come up with ideas. Small steps and a little creative energy can make a big difference.”
Inclusion is a concept that all faiths can embrace. “Theres no Reform Jewish way or Methodist way or Roman Catholic way to welcome people with disabilities into the life of the congregation,” said Thornburgh. “There’s just the polite, respectful way. The principles of welcome and hospitality apply to all faiths.”
For more information on the Interfaith Inclusion Consortium please contact the following
Arc Hennepin-Carver, Barb Lemke, (952) 920-0855
Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis, Shelly Christensen, (952) 542-4838
Arc Great Rivers, Luann Palmer, (651) 523-0876
Bethesda Lutheran Homes and Services, Jeanne Dicke, (651) 603-6279
Bloomington Human Services, Tracy Smith,(952) 563-4955
Disability Awareness Ministries, Inc., Ron Cottone,(612) 239-3264
JRG Ministries, Susan & Zack Gill, (763) 420-4774
Lutheran Social Services, Sara Hartrgraves,(651) 260-0936
Sabes Jewish Community Center, Scott Barr, (952) 381-3425
St. Paul Jewish Community Center, Beth Gendler,(651) 698-0751
St. Stephen’s Church Special Needs Program, Julia Apaloo, (612) 870-2267
United Church of Christ Disability Ministries, Jo Clare Hartsig,(952) 476-4782