By Maureen Pratt | Catholic News Service
"Prayer, listening, a heart for advocacy and not being afraid of pushing doors open when they seem to be closed."
Jess Streit's description of what it takes to build a parish disability ministry sums up more than seven years of grassroots and graced effort at her home parish, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in West Des Moines, Iowa.
"I have bachelor and master's degrees in special education and was the Sunday school coordinator for nine years," said Streit. "The director of religious education (DRE) and I knew we had persons with disabilities, and we needed to build something."
Recognizing the importance of getting input from persons with disabilities and their caregivers, Streit and the director of religious education networked "from within," encouraging clergy and other leadership to host an open forum to discuss disability and the parish.
"The forum was a risky move," said Streit. "But the pastor and the DRE weren't afraid, although it did open wide a wound. The parents sent a resounding message: 'We're a pro-life church, and we knew our children would be born with special needs. You encouraged us to give birth, our children were baptized, and then there was no support after baptism.'"
"A number of parents went to Protestant churches, they told us," said Streit. "A lot of sad, hard truths come out. But afterward, everyone decided, 'We need to do this well.'"
Leaders in the parish recruited Streit to start "from the ground, up." She worked with a parish special needs advisory committee to develop 10-year and short-term goals.
"We started with awareness building and sensitivity training for the whole parish," said Streit.
With a focus on liturgy, pew cards and preaching introduced parishioners to various disabilities and reinforced the parish's commitment to welcome for all. A cabinet in a coat closet became a "special needs library," filled with sensory tools, picture missals and other items. Low-gluten hosts were made available and sacramental preparation was expanded to adults with disabilities who had not had the opportunity for catechesis before.
Early on, there was no budget for the ministry, but volunteers, special pricing from local businesses, and donations from individuals and the Knights of Columbus filled needs and brought everyone together in common efforts.
"I've spent so much time praying for the right people to come at the right time," said Streit. "It makes a huge difference when others participate."
The ministry continues to grow.
A gluten-free option was offered at the parish fish fries and a low-sensory dining area was set up in another room for families with children with autism. A "Mothers of Mary" group brings together mothers of children with disabilities in fellowship and support. American Sign Language interpretation enhances liturgies and other events. Respite nights provide a break for parents and other caregivers.
Streit networks with local churches, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, and Catholic authors and speakers on disability. She recognizes the importance of involvement of persons with disabilities, especially the participation of children and adults with disabilities in liturgy and elsewhere.
"We are so beyond 'the invitation,'" said Streit. "These individuals have amazing gifts."
With hopes to continue disability ministry on an ever-expanding scale, Streit is leaving her position later this month. A search is on for someone to continue the work she helped start, and she is optimistic, now as then.
"It's an exciting time (in the church)," she said, and the Catholic bishops have given us such amazing documents. Persons with disabilities are a vital part of our churches. We are not full without their participation."
Pratt's website is www.maureenpratt.com.