FORT WAYNE — As the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend works to address the needs of all its faithful, a grassroots movement based in Fort Wayne seeks to do its part for those with disabilities. Building Inclusive Parishes, a group of lay faithful that includes members ranging from parents of special needs children to persons who are passionate about including everyone in the Church community, began its mission of welcoming inclusion last spring after gathering at a meet-and-greet invitational from the Office of Evangelization.
Kate Jones, parishioner of Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, attended the meet-and-greet and said, “Everyone was invited to enter into a conversation to develop ideas on effective ways to engage all people with disabilities, into a full and meaningful participation in our church.” Jones, who lives with a hearing loss, reports that the purpose of the group is “to provide resources to individuals and their families to ensure that all can be well-formed in their Catholic faith, have access to sacraments, and be included in their parish communities so that, in turn, parish families can be strengthened by the unique and particular gifts in each member to build the body of Christ in love.”
The Building Inclusive Parishes group recently prepared its mission statement, inspired by Ephesians 4:15-16, which reads, “Through prayer, support, advocacy and catechesis, we strive to be inclusive of all individuals with disabilities or special needs and help them know that they are welcomed, accepted and necessary in contributing their gifts to parish life.”
To fulfill its mission, the group meets monthly and has been compiling a list of needs, expectations and gifts that they and their disabled family members can bring to the Church. Jones noted of the discussions, “Most of us were not aware of the unique challenges for people and their families who are carrying these kinds of crosses until our own lives were impacted by severe mental illness, autism, Tourette’s Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome, hearing impairment, physical and intellectual disabilities, just to name a few.”
She added, “We pray that our mission will impact individuals with disabilities or special needs’ faith life by allowing them to participate more fully in their parish life and thus bringing them closer to Jesus.”
Other members who join Jones in this ministry include Kathy Fech, of St. Vincent de Paul, Fort Wayne, who has been passionately offering one-on-one catechesis to special needs individuals for six years. “I am greatly concerned about helping all people have access to catechesis and sacramental preparation. I hope that by being a part of Building Inclusive Parishes I can help parents, directors of religious education and catechists find the resources to help their parishioners who struggle to learn via traditional catechetical methods,” she said.
Another member, Jeannie Ewing, parishioner at St. John the Evangelist in Goshen, is the mother of two special needs daughters. She said, “Both of my girls struggle in different ways, and Building Inclusive Parishes addresses ways that we, as parents, can assist our children at Mass, but it also educates others about how to incorporate people with differences in regular worship or parish activities.” She believes participation in the group is a way to advocate for those with special needs and network with others with the same mission.
Cate Forbing, parishioner of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, has a family member who lives with a severe mental illness. “I want to be a support to other families where severe mental illness strikes and help them connect with resources in the Catholic Community and greater community that can strengthen and help them help their loved one toward a managed recovery and having a quality of life,” she said, adding that disabilities can create difficulties with full participation in the Church. “I think it is important because all Catholics should feel accepted in their faith no matter what. It should be a safe and accepting environment for all. I joined this group because I have worked with many people of varying disabilities and I feel I have an awareness of their potential needs,” she said.
Building Inclusive Parishes member Jennifer Hensler of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne believes all are God’s children. “I joined the group because the Church is the one place that people should be accepted, regardless of their abilities; because we are all God’s children and we should love as God loves us. I want families like ours, special needs families, to always find a welcome, loving home for all our members and to find the help and support we so desperately need.”
Other members include Jennifer Barton, St. Therese; Marie Russell, and Jim and Barbie Lancia, Linda Schinnerer, all of St. Vincent de Paul in Fort Wayne; Erin Tomlinson of St. John the Baptist, Fort Wayne; and Stephanie Burkhart of St. Aloysius, Yoder.
Kate Jones concluded, “Every single member in this group is very passionate about reaching out to individuals with disabilities or special needs and their family/loved ones. I am beyond excited and proud to be a part of this group and can’t wait to see what we are able to accomplish.”
The Building Inclusive Parishes group has been open to receiving guidance and support from Mary Glowaski, Secretariat of the Office of Evangelization and assistant Allison Sturm, and is seeking new members to assist in this important ministry. The group meets regularly on the second Thursday of each month at Our Lady of Good Hope in Classroom No. 1 at 7 p.m.
On April 14, the group will host a meet-and-greet at Our Lady of Good Hope at 7 p.m. where members of the group will lead small group discussions on specific disabilities such as autism, mental illness and more.
For more information contact Marie and Steve Russell at 260-489-2473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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