I felt pretty strange describing my sabbatical before I left. I’ve always enjoyed nature but camping and environmentalism were hardly defining interests. These are just some of the things people said: “Why are you so interested in trees all of the sudden? And why Ireland? Didn’t you go there a few years ago? You say, you’re planning to do yard work during some of the time? That’s the last thing I would do during vacation time.”
I can understand why people responded this way. I didn’t know why I craved green things so much. I just did. My body and soul seemed to want green in an almost visceral way. It didn’t seem to matter whether I was gardening in my backyard, devouring books about the science of forests, or biking though the green hills of Ireland.
I’ve returned from my time away with a deep appreciation for green things; not just because of their physical beauty or usefulness, but because of what they teach us about the nature of life. I never realized that forests are comprised of complex networks of organisms which together have an essential role in the climate. For example, did you know that the size, shape and type of trees growing in a given area can determine the temperature and water level? And apparently, huge trees depend on the tiny threads of an underground network of fungi to send and receive information from one another. Different species of trees will actually warn each other about approaching pests and diseases! And some trees work together for years to keep their parent trees alive if they’re damaged. There’s so much more I could say about how incredible forests are. If you want to learn more, check out “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben or “To Speak For the Trees” by Diana Beresford-Kroeger.
You know the old saying: “You can’t see the forest for the trees?” It means not being able to see the big picture because of being overwhelmed by the immediate concerns that surround us and block our view. I’d say that’s a pretty good description of my mental state before the sabbatical. In our chaotic world, with its 24 hour news cycle, it’s been difficult to hold on to hope while tragedy after tragedy arises to demand our attention until we feel utterly surrounded by suffering. It has felt like unbridled self-interest, violence and bigotry have gained the upper hand, especially over the last several years.
Little did I know that the trees could help me find the forest and see the big picture again. Like Hildegard of Bingen, I heard God calling me recognize her in the greenness all around me regardless of what else was happening in the world and to notice that my soul was already returning to its green and life-filled state, like a plant greening up after long-delayed rain.
What inspires me so much about green things is that they clearly demonstrate the benefits of valuing diversity and interdependence over competition and artificial homogeneity. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the oldest, most natural systems on earth resemble the spiritual values of most world religions: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31, Matthew 7:21, 19:19, 22:39, Luke 10). “None of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself” (Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Number 72). Sounds like a blueprint for diversity and interdependence to me.
In 2019, with the support of the Dennis Lin Fund, I attended the Institute of Theology and Disability for the first time. I went with high hopes that learning from world-class scholars in the theology of disability and meeting my fellow practitioners of inclusive ministry would transform my thinking and my ministry. My expectations were more than met and I have spent the past three years integrating the knowledge, relationships, resources into my work. All of this is to say that the bar was set pretty high when I had the opportunity to attend the 2022 Institute in early June.
My experience this time was quite different but equally transformative. There were fewer people attending on-site but the speakers and worship leaders were more diverse this year. One of my favorite lectures was “Not Your Ritual Object: A Disabled Perspective in Inclusive Liturgy, Ritual and Spiritual Arts”, a talk by Rabbi Ruti Regan on the challenges of creating successful inclusive rituals. By describing common pitfalls like modifying received religious rituals so much that they lose their emotional impact for the community and become something to merely tolerate, Rabbi Ruti showed how some attempts at inclusive ritual can actually subvert the goal of integration and inclusion of people with disabilities. She underscored the importance creating liturgy that does not define people with disabilities solely by their needs or use disability as a spiritual metaphor but recognizes the experiences of people with disabilities as meaningful in and of themselves. Rabbi Ruti encouraged us to look carefully at the stories and practices that already exist within our religious traditions to find the places that lend themselves to inclusion such as the Jewish practice of repeated prayer bows and readings or the emphasis on divine embodiment during Advent in the Christian tradition. I could go on about the many insightful points made by Rabbi Ruti but I won’t for now.
Another thought-provoking lecture was “COVID-19 is Not Like the Measles: The Hidden Impacts of the Pandemic on the Lives of People with Disabilities” by John Swinton. His described the scarcity mindset many people and governments fell victim to during the pandemic, including those of us whose worldview is supposedly shaped by faith in a God who breaks down barriers and encourages love of neighbor. He pointed to hoarding behavior, the unequal distribution of vaccinations and the inflammation of xenophobic prejudice. At the same time, he also pointed to a heightened awareness of the human need for companionship and community and the increased access online platforms have provided for people with disabilities. He charged communities of faith to lead the way in prophetically reimagining the world helping communities to develop practices that encourage greater relational consciousness and remembering the marginalized.
That’s probably enough detail for now! If you’re interested other incredibly meaningful lectures and talks I attended were:
Beyond Saints and Superheroes: A Phenomenological Study of Spiritual Care Needs of Parents Raising Children with Disabilities by Laura MacGregor, Allen Jorgenson, Kayko Dreidger Hesslein and Roz Vincent Haven
Disability Ethics and Theology: A Symposium by Rosemaries Garland-Thompson, Brian Brock, Devan Stahl and Bill Gaventa
Grief, Loss and End of Life Issues with People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities by Bill Gaventa
LGBTQ Inclusion in Disability Work: A Conversation for Community and Allies by Allison Connelly Vetter and Rebekah Dyer
Rejoicing Through a Communion of Vulnerabilities by Adanna James
The Intersections of Black Liberation Theology and Disability Justice by Rev. Harold “Russell” Ewell II
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Continued Faith Engagement of People with I/DD After COVID-19 by Jasmine Duckworth and Chantal Hardwick
Thanks to the Dennis Lin Fund, Sunday Fellowship was able to celebrate forty years of ministry in style. Gorgeous outfits, elaborate decorations (complete with a red carpet), enthusiastic dancing, a photo booth, karaoke and delicious food under a tent in the Garden made the SF Prom a day to remember. A toast to the members and friends of Sunday Fellowship throughout the years on whose shoulders we now stand. Dennis, we know you would have loved it!
Our beloved Annie celebrated her 100th birthday on Monday, March 21st. Some WCUC members surprised her with a birthday visit accompanied by flowers, a chocolate cake, pastries and coffee (so she could save her cake for later!) and many cards from our church community. Smiles, memories, and many laughs filled the room, especially as we listened to Fran Gardella and Anne recount stories from their 50+ years of friendship. What an honor to know and love this dynamic duo. Happy Birthday, Annie!
All of the conversation about illness on the news has prompted leaders at WCUC to consider what common sense precautions we might take to improve the safety of the most vulnerable among us as we gather together. Here are some basic tips we hope you will follow here and wherever you go in our communities:
If you’re sick, please stay at home! We appreciate your efforts to keep the rest of us well. Please let us know you’re sick so that we can stay connected and pray for you.
We encourage you to block all coughs or sneezes with a tissue or your sleeve.
Wash your hands frequently — there are sinks in each bathroom and in the North Hall, Parlor, and Chancel kitchens.
Avoid touching your face.
As for our church policies, we are trying new ways of passing the peace, sharing communion, collecting the offering, and providing snacks, to minimize the spread of illness.
If at any point it becomes dangerous to meet together, we will do our best to keep in touch through phone and internet, providing resources for worship and social connection, and monitoring the needs of our congregation.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please be in touch with Pastor Hannah or head of Worship & Welcome, Ruth Sedlock. Thank you!
Good morning everyone. I’m Janice and I’m going to be sharing my testimony today. Thank you for letting me share my story.
My mother and I started coming to this church when I was about twenty-two years old. We had heard West Concord Union Church was starting a group called Sunday Fellowship for adults with disabilities and we came for the very first meeting. I’ve been here ever since! I’m the youngest of four and the spoiledest! But I’m the only Concordian in the family. I was born at Emerson and I‘m also the only one who still lives here. In fact, I live just a few doors away from here in a house that’s part of the “shared living program” at Minute Man Arc. That means my roommate and I live in our own apartment but there’s a caregiver upstairs in case we need anything. I love my apartment because it’s close to my friends and many of my favorite places like church, the library, and Dunkin Donuts. Janice runs on Dunkin! Ha, Ha!
Growing up, I was involved in a lot of activities. I participated in plays through Open Door Theater. I also played tennis and ran track with the Special Olympics. One year, I even went to the International Special Olympics in track and field. The strange thing is that even though I was born and raised in Concord I couldn’t always go to school here. For three years, I was sent to Lincoln schools because there weren’t any programs for me in Concord. Then, they brought me back to Concord for junior high and my first year of high school. But after one year at CCHS they decided I would be happier at Wayland High School.
After high school, I started working and eventually, moved into my own apartment. I had a variety of jobs—some better than others. I worked the longest at Concord Teacakes but it was a very physically demanding job. So I left Teacakes and went to work at Crosby’s Supermarket. Unfortunately, I had to retire from that job too due to a shoulder injury. I don’t have a paying job these days but I keep busy. I’m on the Board for Minute Man Arc and Open Door Theater, I’m a self-advocate for people with disabilities at the Statehouse, I go to Standing Strong with other self-advocates twice a month and I volunteer at Petsmart twice a week. That’s not to mention the time I spend each week helping in the church office! Oh, and I also work in the church nursery on first Sundays. You can see why I need my coffee! Janice runs on Dunkin!
Seriously, though, I know I’m lucky. I’ve always had a full life. If I had been born just a few years earlier, that might not have been true. Special Olympics began when I was five years old and I was twelve by the time schools were required to provide public education for children with disabilities. Even now, more than 75% of people with intellectual disabilities can’t find a job. Did you know it’s legal to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage? I’m happy to say Minute Man doesn’t do that and there’s a bill in Congress to change that law.
Many of you were there in June when I retired from Sunday School. The day I said goodbye was one of the biggest, hardest times in my life because Sunday school was a job I could always count on and I loved it. I started teaching twenty years ago with Patty Lynch. Before I started helping Patty, I had no idea God would ever want me to do something like this. It was a big surprise and a new beginning. But I had a niece who had just been born and I felt like something was telling me to go upstairs. Maybe God was calling me just like God called Samuel.
I’m glad I had the courage to answer God’s call that day and I’m grateful to Patty for welcoming me. It was a big blessing because I didn’t know Patty and she didn’t know me. I never took care of kids before and I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. I didn’t even know what church school was because there weren’t any Sunday school classes for me at the church I went to as a child. Patty became my “Eli”. She got me started with teaching and she was a big role model for me like Eli was for Samuel. That’s why it was very hard for me to see Patty go when she left six years ago. At the time, I wasn’t sure I could keep teaching but I heard Patty and God saying to me, “Don’t leave.” Once again I answered God’s call and I stayed. I continued to teach with Ruth and Jessica and then with Melissa and with my final teammate, Lisa and all the parents that helped out. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of changes. The nursery has changed places three times since I started! The teachers have changed. The kids have changed. Even the ministers have changed. I was the only one who was always there. I hope that was helpful to the kids.
This year, I started to wonder if my call could change too. I had started to feel like God might want me to do more to help with Sunday Fellowship. But I was nervous to tell anyone I was thinking about leaving Sunday School. I didn’t know how they would take it. For months, I struggled with my decision. I tried to compose my thoughts on how I wanted to phrase it and why I felt like this was something I needed to do. Some of my favorite memories at church are being with the kids and all the other teachers and I didn’t want to hurt them. I bet that’s just how Samuel felt when he had to tell Eli what God had said!
Finally, Jessica and I talked and she told me I could still help with Sunday school as a substitute or if there’s a project she needed help with. Telling her was a relief but saying goodbye to Sunday school was still very hard. Patty and I had been texting all week before my last Sunday and then she suddenly stopped answering! I wasn’t sure what was going on! I thought maybe something was wrong! I felt a little like Samuel in the story when he thought Eli was calling him and kept saying to Samuel, “I’m didn’t call you! Go back to bed!” Little did I know she had stopped answering me because she wanted to surprise the heck out of me! When I came into worship on my last day in Sunday School I saw a familiar face in the back. It was Patty! I went right up to her and gave her the biggest hug! It was a wonderful surprise on a day that was kind of sad and a celebration. It became a celebration of two teachers, not just one.
So that’s the story of how I found my calling in Sunday School and how God is helping me realize that calling is changing into something new. I want to say how grateful I am to God for all of the opportunities I’ve had in my life. I am also grateful to Patty and my parents and all the other “Eli’s” God has sent to show me what faithfulness looks like. I guess I never realized that one day I would become an Eli too. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Good morning everyone. I’m Bryan. Thanks for allowing me to share my testimony today. I’m excited and a little nervous. I grew up here in Concord but I live in Burlington now. I’ve been part of Sunday Fellowship for about three years. I’m also Catholic. So in addition to West Concord Union Church, I often worship at Holy Family in Concord or St. Bridget’s in Maynard. I’ve wanted to share my journey for a while but it’s been hard for me to find the words. The story we just acted out is been helpful because I think I’m a little like Saul, not that I’ve ever tried to put anyone in jail or anything like that. I’m like him in a way because God usually comes to me through voices or in my dreams. And like Saul, I’ve heard God speak in broad daylight before!
There are a lot of stories about people hearing God’s voice or dreaming about God besides the one we shared today but for some reason, people don’t seem to talk about that stuff very much anymore. I guess it can be risky to say you hear voices depending on who you’re with. What do you think would have happened if Saul had been living in a group home like I do? House staff get worried very quickly when someone refuses to eat or drink. Or what if Saul had to tell his children his eyesight was bad? I don’t think he would have been able to travel so much or taken so many risks to spread the Gospel. Saul probably would have been dependent on other people for rides just like most of us are when we get older or when we live in a group home. [PAUSE]
When I was growing up, my grandmother was very important to me. I called her “Nana” and she was my mom’s mother. Nana was so nice to me. She was fun and caring and she liked to cook a lot of good food especially strawberry soup. It’s cold but it’s a really good! We used to go on the rides at Old Orchard Beach together- the Ferris wheel and the log flume. She took me everywhere I wanted to go.
Nana died when I was in high school but she was sick with dementia and Alzheimer’s for a long time before that. She had to live in a nursing home at the end of her life. I wanted to visit her but things got worse and before that she lived with my sister and everything got worse there too. Nana couldn’t remember things and she didn’t recognize me. I tried bringing pictures of me and her from the lake house to help her remember. I would show her the picture and say, “Nana, do you remember me? And she would say, “No.” That was really hard. I prayed hard that Jesus would heal her but it didn’t happen that way.
I was really upset when Nana passed away. Even though I knew she was in a better place, I’ve never stopped missing her. I wish I could have had more time with her. Have you ever felt like that after someone passed away? It has always bothered me that Jesus didn’t stay with Mary and the disciples after he rose from the dead. I used to wonder how Mary and the disciples felt after the first Easter and Jesus went back up to heaven. Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to be with them after he left never seemed like a very good deal. But at least they had fifty days of little visits with Jesus before they had to say “goodbye” to him all over again. For a long time, I wished Nana could somehow come down for a visit with me like Jesus did or that I could go visit her in heaven. But she’s up there and I’m down here.
Then, one Sunday in June, I was praying in the Sacristy where I sometimes hang out before church and the pastor doesn’t mind. I was praying for Nana and thinking about all of the great times we had together and just feeling kind of sad and lonely. That night, I had an amazing dream! Nana and I were driving in her silver car along the coast of Maine. We were listening to Johnny Cash on the radio just like we used to and talking about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to eat and everything. I dreamed we were going to a famous bakery called When Pigs Fly where we always used to go for good bread. The dream was so real it was like my prayers were answered and I got a real Easter visit with her! I had always thought of her whenever I heard Johnny Cash or tasted her strawberry soup. But this time, I could hear Nana’s voice saying, “Hey, what’s good to do around here anyway?”
My dream reminded me Nana and God are always going to be with me, especially when I feel sad and lonely. It’s normal to want more time when someone dies, but love is stronger than death or sin. I think it’s awesome that God used Nana’s voice to remind me of that. It’s taken a while but I think Nana and God are helping me bounce back when I go through a tough time. For example, I was sad when my mom didn’t make it to our housewarming party but I got over it quickly. Listening to jazz in my room and reading my worship book helped me calm down. I think my dream about Nana has somehow helped me trust God in a deeper way. I can trust in Jesus because he’s special to me and I know he’s in heaven. I can feel close him when I’m with other set grandparents because they like him too. Sometimes we read the scriptures like the one Father Silva talked about from John 16, “I have much more to tell you but you cannot bear it now. When he comes the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you to all the truth.”
Many of you probably know the priest who served at Holy Family for a long time, Father Fleming. He retired from Holy Family in May and now we have two new pastors. But Father Fleming was my parish priest since I was five. He led Nana’s funeral when she died and he came to my house when my mom was wicked sick. It was hard for me to say goodbye to him when he retired but I don’t feel as lonely as I thought I would. I want to end my talk with a great song Father Fleming used to sing called “Give Me Jesus.” He sang it on his last Sunday at Holy Family and it starts like this:
In the morning when I rise, In the morning when I rise, In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. Give me Je-sus. You can have all this world, but give me Jesus.
Raise your hand if you know this song? This song always gives me a feeling of safety and home. My mom loves listening it too. So maybe the song reminds me of being at home with her. Or maybe it just reminds me that I never have to say goodbye to Jesus if I don’t want to. He can stay with me wherever I go.
My mom is here today and so are a few other family members and some of my staff. I really appreciate you guys coming to hear me speak today and I want you to know that I’ve started to get that homey feeling more often—like on Father’s Day when my family was all together eating goulash and watching the Red Sox. That tells me God is my home and even though God has come to me in unexpected ways over the years, God has always found a way to speak to me in a way I could hear. So don’t worry if God has or hasn’t spoken to you in a particular way. God can come in bright lights and dramatic transformations or in familiar voices and songs that simply remind us of something we already kind of knew: we are all loved. And as Saul of Tarsus who later became known as the Apostle Paul wrote:
“I am sure that nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us or nothing below us—nothing in the whole created world—will ever be able to separate us from the love God has shown us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If I had written that I would have added: Nope, not even when pigs fly! Amen! Will you please join me in singing “Give Me Jesus?” The words are printed in the bulletin.
Seventy people of all ages and abilities came together on February 17th for the second installment of “Food and Fun” a fun new experiment Sunday Fellowship is trying this winter. After a delicious lunch of pizza and salad, it was GAME ON with Candyland, Connect 4, Giant Uno, Legos, puzzles and more! Check out the silly and serious game faces below.
And if you missed it, don’t worry, there is one more edition of Food and Fun on March 3rd when we’ll be singing and signing to music from the Greatest Showman.