Fellowship of disabled reaching out to religions

Barbara Shisler, leader of the Faith and Light worship service for people with disabilities at the Perkasie Mennonite Meetinghouse, passes some snacks.
Barbara Shisler, leader of the Faith and Light worship service for people with disabilities at the Perkasie Mennonite Meetinghouse, passes some snacks. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 16, 2012

At a time when increasing numbers of people say they are unaffiliated with any religion, a group with perhaps every reason to question God is talking about rocklike faith.

Jacob Story says his faith gets hard core when the teasing gets relentless.

"I feel like I'm being bullied because they know more stuff than [me]," Story, 21, of Quakertown, said. That's when he focuses on the Biblical passage about being humble and humility leading to good things.

Story is sitting in a circle of 15 at a meeting of Faith and Light, a combination fellowship gathering and worship service. The monthly meeting at Perkasie Mennonite Meetinghouse is designed for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families and friends.

Members have had mental breakdowns and been committed to state hospitals. They have spent most of their lives in special education, often bullied by schoolmates who felt superior.

But once a month, they come to Faith and Light to sing, talk about [or act out] a religious story, pray, and share experiences.

"You are free to be who you are," said Story, whose mother, Karen, described him as "developmentally delayed."

The group was started seven years ago by leader Barbara Shisler, who started the state's only other Faith and Light gathering 22 years ago at the Indian Creek Foundation in Souderton, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

It is one of a wave of programs developed in the last decade that focus on spirituality for people with disabilities, said the Rev. William Gaventa, director of Community and Congregational Supports at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Denominations, independent groups, and individual congregations across faiths have stepped up their efforts, Gaventa said. Congregations typically retool regular services to encourage participation by people with disabilities, or to create specialized meetings at which people with disabilities are the focus.

Gaventa recently completed a four-year project for the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council designed to train clergy and seminarians to be more welcoming of people with disabilities.

Such programs are a product of a growing focus on community support in disability services.

Speaking for families, Gaventa said, "We would really like to belong to a faith community for the same reasons as anybody else."

Faith and Light, an international program with 2,100 satellites, was founded in France in the late 1960s, said Pastor Pam Landis, the group's East Coast coordinator.

Attendees are unaffected by outbursts, rocking, or other behavior that might be viewed as disruptive in some formal church services, Landis said.

At the Perkasie group's meeting on Friday, Shisler asked attendees to contrast the times when faith wavers and when it is strong.

The fellowship hall was quiet.

Members passed around a squishy toy and a rock as symbols. When they landed in an attendee's hands, the group member spoke up.

"I feel very weak right now, in my depression," Wanda Lindsay, 52, of Sellersville, said.

Lindsay, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression at 24, is a board member of the Penn Foundation, a Sellersville organization that provides behavioral health services.

Lindsay credits her faith with helping her create a life beyond the limitations of her diagnosis. She regularly lectures to churches and other groups about mental illness. While holding the rock, Lindsay said talking to others helped her feel strong.

Later, as the meeting was ending, Jim Rooney, who also has schizophrenia, kept the mood light.

He offered a joke about a Christmas alphabet with No letter L, ("Noel") and also recited words to an original theme song for the group. Story then suggested they sing "Great is Thy Faithfulness."

Do you know the words? Shisler asked.

No, Story said.

"That's OK," Shisler responded. They sang it anyway.

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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