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Photo: Julie spends some time with former residents and Friendship House Director Carlos Thompson (right)

Rev. Julie Myers was the first WTS student to graduate with a Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (GCDM) alongside her Master of Divinity in 2017.

Three years earlier, she had been reluctant to begin seminary, turning in her application one day before the due date. At that time, she had just begun working at Benjamin’s Hope (a living community for adults with disabilities), but her church recognized her gifts of ministry and encouraged her to attend seminary.

At WTS she took as many Disability and Ministry courses as she could simply because they interested her. She was later surprised to realize she had enough credits to earn the GCDM. After graduation she was ordained and worked at Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI as their special needs coordinator before eventually returning to work part-time at Benjamin’s Hope and at Western’s Friendship House while she completes a Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree.

The Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House is the seminary housing where students live in apartment pods with young adults with cognitive disabilities (Friends) and learn from each other. As resident advisor, Julie does administrative work, schedules house events, attends meetings, and makes herself available for the Friends.

She moved into the Friendship House this past March, along with her two teenage children—the first family to live in the house since its formation in 2007.

“I love living in the Friendship House with my kids!” she says. “I am in the final stages of a divorce, and although it has been difficult, God has blessed us abundantly over and over again.”

Living among those with different challenges and gifts has been eye-opening and enriching for her children.

“They are learning to practice hospitality—and in a healthy way,” she says, keeping an open-door policy to the residents while learning how to set boundaries for self-care.

In 2016 Julie was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease called Sarcoidosis. “Essentially, it can attack any organ in your body and cause it to work against itself,” she explains. Previously in remission, the disease flared up at the end of the summer, right as classes were set to begin.

“The timing could not have been worse,” she says. “I don’t remember much about the first days in the hospital except for what the ER doctor said: ‘Ma’am, your calcium levels are higher than I have ever seen in my career… your blood is beginning to crystalize, and your kidneys and liver are beginning to shut down. We are trying the best we can to stabilize you.’ I heard what he was saying, and I knew it was serious, but I couldn’t focus on much. All I felt was an incredible sense of peace from God. He was there beside me, holding me, keeping me alive. I wasn’t afraid.”

Eventually she recovered enough to return home, but she has to take high doses of steroids and other medicine to keep the disease in check. The side effects are significant, but this is the only treatment for Sarcoidosis, as there is no cure.

Julie was worried about keeping up with schoolwork, but WTS staff and faculty have been very supportive. Her own work around disability and ministry reminds her to be kind to herself, listen to what her body needs, and set realistic expectations. She realizes she is now living into what she has studied so long.

For her Th.M. project, Julie is examining how people with cognitive disabilities experience and process grief and trauma. She is hopeful that her Th.M. coursework will give her the research and writing experience she’ll need to join Dr. Ben Conner’s Doctor of Ministry Disability and Ministry cohort next June.

Julie would like to continue living and working in the Friendship House until she completes both the Th.M. and D.Min. degrees. She wants to write about disability and ministry and hopes to teach in an undergraduate or seminary setting some day.

In regard to her own chronic illness, “I feel confident that God’s got this,” she says. “He is the Great Physician and healer. I will be forever grateful for the place I am in now, even though it may seem like my life is in turmoil (which it is!). This has brought my children closer to the Lord, and we are thankful for all of our blessings.”

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2019 FROM 4:30-6 P.M. in Mulder Chapel

Join Dr. Jay Dolmage, Professor at the University of Waterloo, for this important talk on creating environments of access and universal design for learning. In this talk, we will collaborate to address the ableist attitudes, policies, and practices that are built into higher education. We will also interrogate the minimal and temporary means we have been given to address inequities, and the cost such an approach has for disabled students and faculty. Finally, we will explore our own ableist biases, apologies and defenses in an effort to build tools for anti-ableist education.

Bio:

Dr. Dolmage is committed to disability rights in his scholarship, service, and teaching. His work brings together rhetoric, writing, disability studies, and critical pedagogy. His first book, entitled Disability Rhetoric, was published with Syracuse University Press in 2014. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education was published with Michigan University Press in 2017 and is available in an open-access version online. Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability was published in 2018 with Ohio State University Press. Dr. Dolmage is the Founding Editor of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies.

The 2019 Summer Institute on Theology and Disability will be held in Holland, Michigan, May 20-23, 2019 in partnership with Western Theological Seminary. The Institute brings together academics, theologians, practitioners, and others to explore the inclusive intersections of faith and disabilities.

The 2019 Summer Institute begins with a Community Day for Institute participants and anyone else who cannot afford the time or expenses for the full Institute. To register for just Community Day, click the “register now” button below and choose the “one day pass- Community Day” option. Its theme is From Longing to Belonging, based on the title of a new book by Jewish parent and inclusion consultant, Shelly Christensen. Shelly and Barbara Newman, from the CLC Network, Inc., will be the Opening Plenary Speakers. A panel will follow with speakers from creative programs and ministries in the region. The afternoon features workshops led by John Swinton, Erik Carter, Barbara Newman, Shelly Christensen, Jill Harshaw, Ben Conner with Sarah Jean Barton and Carlos Thompson, and Alex Kimmel.

For more information on the Summer Institute, please visit https://faithanddisability.org/2019-summer-institute/

 

Wednesday, September 26 at 7:00 PM in Mulder Chapel

Join Rev. Bill Gaventa for a presentation and discussion on new resources, promising practices, and problem areas in the rapidly growing movements and initiatives to include people with disabilities and their families in faith communities and in ministry/theological training.

Rev. Bill Gaventa has lived and worked at the intersection of disability, faith, and theology for over 40 years.  He taught a course in Western’s Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry (MN586Disability, Community Supports and Faith: Foundations and Strategies for Effective Collaboration) and completed and refined his recent book, Disability and Spirituality: Recovering Wholeness (Baylor University Press), while teaching it.  He is also the founder and Director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability, which WTS will host this year May 20-23.

“A Necessary Step Toward Reforming Disability Theology: Listening to the Soft-Spoken Amongst Us”

When: Wednesday, March 14, 2:00-3:00 pm

Where: Mulder Chapel at WTS

Join Western Theological Seminary as we continue the conversation about disability and ministry. In November, Lennard Davis helped us to think through how disability is an aspect of diversity while at the same time questioning the usefulness of the concept of diversity. This month, L.S. Carlos Thompson, Ph.D. candidate University of Aberdeen, King’s College and finalist for the Nouwen Fellow position at WTS, will be joining us to help us consider what is missing from our theology and praxis when we view physical impairment as primarily a social or civil rather than a theological concern. He asks; What is gained by allowing the lived experience of physical disability to be at home within theology.  ASL services and hearing loop technology will be available.

With the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, WTS has established a Nouwen Fellow program that brings scholars whose research focuses on some aspect of disability studies to join our faculty for a one or two year appointment.

When: Wednesday, February 28, 1:00-2:00 pm

Where: Mulder Chapel at WTS

Join Western Theological Seminary as we continue the conversation about disability and ministry.  In November, Lennard Davis helped us to think through how disability is an aspect of diversity while at the same time questioning the usefulness of the concept of diversity.  This month, Sarah Barton, Th.D. candidate Duke Divinity School and finalist for the Nouwen Fellow position at WTS, will be joining us to help us consider how the practice of baptism challenges us to think differently about disability and discipleship.  ASL services and hearing loop technology will be available.

With the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, WTS has established a Nouwen Fellow program that brings scholars whose research focuses on some aspect of disability studies to join our faculty for a one or two year appointment.

Introducing the work of Dr. Suzanne McDonald,

Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology

Dr. Suzanne McDonald has been studying and reflecting on the topic of dementia for 20 years. She has developed a two-part class for churches called “Dealing Faithfully with Dementia,” and this semester she began teaching a course for Western’s new Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry program entitled, “Ministry, Aging, and Dementia.”

Dr. McDonald first became interested in this topic in the late ‘90s when she was working for the Red Cross in Australia. Her boss, a retired army colonel, was not a Christian but began asking tough questions about God when his wife’s mind quickly deteriorated from dementia.

“What kind of a God do you believe in that could do this to my wife?” he would ask, or “Why is this happening?” and “Who is she and where has she gone?”

It was very hard to watch and got Suzanne thinking about what it would mean to walk well with someone going through this.

Her colonel friend, Walt, eventually did become a believer in Christ, in no small part because of how Suzanne and others surrounded him and his wife, Pearl, with love during that time. It was such a powerful experience for Suzanne that she went on to complete Clinical Pastoral Education in a dementia ward in England.

Her series, “Dealing Faithfully with Dementia,” is for congregations and pastors who want to be faithful to God and the Gospel, and also faithful to the very difficult realities of the disease, as they walk beside those with dementia and their caregivers.

It is important to give people space to lament and not move too quickly to oh, it’s all ok because of Jesus.

“Dementia can be devastating,” she says, “but we have in the scriptures and in our theology ways of talking about it that acknowledge the pain and also the presence and work of God in the midst of it all.”

Her series for churches looks at Holy Saturday (the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) as a theological space that mirrors dementia. The disciples did not know on that day that the story would end in Christ’s resurrection.

Those walking the dementia road can say that in Christ all will be well in the end, she explains, but for now there is no cure and in the later stages, there are only occasional glimpses of who the person is.

Dr. McDonald calls these “resurrection moments” when there’s a flash of remembrance.

She recalls a woman who had been married to her husband for 50 years but didn’t recognize him at all. Then one day, he came to see her all dressed up in a suit and wearing a very strong aftershave.

As soon as she smelled it, she sat bolt upright and said, “Harry! Where are you taking me tonight?”

Harry was ecstatic because she hadn’t recognized him in so long. He thought, “I’ve got it. I’ve got the trigger!” The next day he came dressed the same way…but she didn’t recognize him. He couldn’t stay long because he was crying so hard.

“It was a reminder that you can’t manufacture these things,” Dr. McDonald says. “If these resurrection moments come, they are a gift.”

In part two of the series, participants think about issues of personhood, image of God, and how they can walk with people in a pastoral sense. Suzanne emphasizes the importance of not just a person’s mind but their body as well.

She remembers Walt saying toward the end with Pearl, “When I look in her face, I still see the beautiful woman that I married.”

Dr. McDonald suggests two resources she has found helpful: 1) John Swinton’s Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, and 2) Benjamin Mast’s Second Forgetting: Remembering the Power of the Gospel During Alzheimer’s Disease. She also plans to do some writing on the topic herself.

“Know who in the congregation either has dementia or is caring for someone with dementia,” she suggests. “Especially be there to support the family at the various stages and learn better strategies to do that.”

What tends to happen is that when someone gets dementia and it starts to progress, they stop coming to church because they can’t remember names. It’s too awkward and embarrassing. At the same time, people in the congregation get uncomfortable as the disease progresses because they don’t know what to say or how to deal with it.

Dr. McDonald’s passion is to help people learn better ways to faithfully show the love of Christ to those with dementia and to their caregivers. She speaks multiple times per year at churches and is happy to accept invitations. These events are usually open to the public.

Contact Dr. McDonald about speaking at your church. 

In this episode, Dr. John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, discusses changes and renewal in the art and practice of church worship.

In this episode, Dr. John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, discusses changes and renewal in the art and practice of church worship.

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