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As a graduate of EMS in April of 2000 I faced some of the same challenges that most graduates face: Where is God calling me now? How am I to use what I have learned? How do we as a family make this transition into the unknown? A number of years earlier I had sensed a call from God to minister among persons with disabilities. I brought that sense of call into much of my course work at the seminary but had no clear idea where it would take me. As a person who had grown up and worked overseas I felt I could go anywhere. However, as a father of two children, one with Down’s syndrome, I knew that wherever we went we needed to keep their unique needs in mind.
In July of that same year I found myself not in some distant place but in the Harrisonburg, Rockingham County community, working as a pastor to persons with disabilities at Pleasant View, Inc. It has now been six years since I was immersed in this ministry. It has been, for me, both a blessing and a challenge.
While in seminary, we were trained to interact with the written and spoken word, yet here I have learned to listen for and recognize the Spirit of God communicating truth in other ways. I have learned to see the often tender, yet very real person beneath an obvious disability. I have had to forego my need for structure and predictability and let God’s Spirit move within the noise and activity of some who have not learned to operate in ways we deem to be socially appropriate. As I have tried to enter into the lives and experiences of people with intellectual disabilities, I am often challenged to set aside my preconceived ideas of how things should be and to receive the gift that is being offered.
Joanie has disabilities that limit her ability to move or speak as she might want, yet she offers her gift of friendship and deep faith to everyone who takes the time to receive it.
Edwin has limited cognitive and language abilities, yet he has communicated spiritual truth in profound ways that are not limited by language.
Dana, now gone from this world to the next, required almost total care but her gift of peace transcended the chaos all around her.
The list goes on with gifts of friendship, love, laughter, smiles, perseverance and faith.
As I have entered the lives of persons with disabilities I have also been faced with the question of how to advocate for their inclusion in our communities of faith. When persons have gifts and abilities that transcend one’s intellectual abilities, I agonize over how to invite churches to recognize and receive those gifts and abilities in ways that treat others with respect and dignity. Far too often we see only the disability and are not aware of the gift beneath that which first greets our eyes and ears. As we are faced with some kind of vulnerability in another we must face our own vulnerabilities. Too often we choose instead to run away.
As a pastor I have deliberately chosen to enter into the lives of persons with disabilities, to spend time with them in their world, to begin to experience the life they live, to be a friend. I believe that pastoral care is about relationships and have discovered that in the midst of those relationships I receive nurture and care even as I offer nurture and care to another. As the body of Christ on earth we need persons with disabilities in our midst. We need the gifts and abilities they bring to the table. We are not whole without them. Communicating this concept into a world which places high value on independence, competition, excellence and success has been the greatest challenge I face.
-- Dave Gullman, Pastor at Pleasant View, Inc. Harrisonburg, Va.