A workshop May 20 conducted by the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) signaled the reorganization of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Commission for Persons with Disabilities and training for parish disability advocates.
Liaisons from 31 church parishes and commission members met at St. Dominic’s rectory to hear the National Catholic Partnership on Disability executive director Janice Benton and Esther Garcia clarify the role of disability advocates and commission members and illuminate available resources on their www.ncpd.org website to help them.
“This is a very important day,” Garcia said. “We are here to see how you work in your parish and encourage you to go forward.”
She and Benton invited everyone to share their parish ministries, consider who are the disabled and how they currently participate in parish life, who is not coming to church because they feel excluded and what steps to take to help and show love to the disabled.
“We all have gifts to share with the community,” Garcia paraphrased from Pope Francis. “We all live with disabilities,” holding up her eyeglasses. “Sooner or later you will have some. … Collaboration is very important with people with disabilities. It involves a whole family. If they encounter Jesus (through compassion and hospitality), they will come back to encounter Jesus again. If we don’t provide the resources, they don’t feel welcome.”
In addition to the NCPD site, the USCCB has a parish resource guide, “Welcome and Justice” for Persons with Disabilities.” It emphasizes that the sanctuary should never be a hindrance for the Catholic disabled to attend Mass.
“Openness to the sacraments is a pastoral need, and all people in a parish have a role,” Garcia said. People with disabilities are not just recipients of sacraments, but also the agents.
The challenge is getting people to change their attitude toward the disabled.
“We have to be church to one another. Do you really feel that people belong?” Garcia asked. “What you are able to do in a parish and the commission is able to do in an archdiocese will help people live out their faith.”
She said the training is just a start to find positive solutions. Something as easy as driving someone to church could make a huge difference in a person’s faith life.
“There can be no separate church for people with disabilities, Garcia said. “We are one flock. … That’s the beauty of our Catholic Church. Everyone has value and is made in the image of God.”
Reached a goal
Setting a benchmark for the commission and helping new parish liaisons and committee members understand their role was key to the workshop, said John Smestad Jr., the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ pastoral planning and ministries executive director. Smestad was charged by Archbishop Gregory Aymond with reorganizing the disabilities ministry as a priority of the archdiocesan 9th General Synod.
“Part of the call of the synod is to reach out to those disengaged with church life,” Smestad said. “And rejuvenating the Commission for Persons with Disabilities along with annual professional training for parish advocates and commission members” addresses the disabled, one segment of the disengaged.
Working with the commission and advocates on this effort are the archdiocesan offices of religious education, Catholic Charities, Catholic schools, worship, the building office and communications. They will offer resources critical to helping those with special needs.
Smestad thinks those who attended the workshop left with a sense of the importance of their advocacy role.
“Even as a volunteer, this is a professional position,” Smestad said. “This is more than just helping someone in a wheelchair at Mass. There is a breadth of (disability) issues they need to know about – and a breadth of church issues it might affect (liturgy, education, etc.).”
“I think it is a good idea to meet fellow parishioners and others to share ideas,” said Bailey Faught, 26, a representative with spina bifida from St. Catherine of Siena Parish. Faught has a master’s in special education and hopes that awareness of this issue enhances everyone’s experience as part of one church, that no one is different.
“I think not making people feel like they are outsiders,” is important, she said.
The afternoon session was devoted to commission members who drafted a mission and vision statement of where they want to be in disability advocacy, inclusion and their role in it. Soon, the commission will work on bylaws and guidelines.
Long-time commission member and current chairperson Janet Pesce said she will continue to “involve more people with disabilities.”
In addition to in-service training, networking opportunities and resources, Smestad seeks collaboration with other special needs’ ministries, such as God’s Special Children and St. Michael Special School.
“They have a lot of knowledge to bring to the table,” he said.
“My hope will be, next spring, that the commission has a better sense of mission, vision and structure and will move into what its main activities will be, year to year. I hope the commission will be the disability experts, in lieu of an archdiocesan staff,” Smestad said.
“We need to raise the bar” to meet the needs of those with disabilities to enable their active participation in parish life, he said. The next committee meeting is tentatively scheduled for August.
For committee information or to be a parish liaison, call 861-6294.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.