Last year, I was asked to speak at several conferences and was blessed to meet many Catholics with disabilities throughout the United States.
Among the things we talked about was the sometimes-challenge of volunteering in parishes. Although someone might be eager to serve, unique issues and, sometimes, fear of rejection or hurt caused many to hesitate.
I don’t know anyone in ministry who wouldn’t appreciate help with the myriad activities that keep a faith community alive and well.
Rather, bulletin, online and from-the-pulpit appeals for extra hands are regular occurrences, and as programs and ministry-specific activities increase, or Easter or Christmas approaches, so does a greater need for involvement from as many people as possible.
But I have had my own challenges when offering to help in a parish. From physical barriers, such as stairs, to daring to share sensitive, personal information with others so they understand specific constraints or needs, the others’ hesitancy to step forward with health challenges is not unfounded.
What can we who have disabilities do to ease barriers to serving?
Michael Adamus was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition that causes brittle bones. He suffered several bone fractures at birth, and more in the years since, and he uses a wheelchair.
“Originally, I was given a life expectancy of 16-18 years,” said Adamus, 53. “I’ve outlived a couple of my doctors!”
Adamus grew up Catholic, and his parents set expectations and examples that instilled a desire to serve.
“My parents never let me use my disability as an excuse,” said Adamus. “I was expected to perform academically and help out on Saturdays. I vacuumed under the furniture because I could get under the furniture. The desire to serve (in the church) was early; I wanted to be an altar server, but our church wasn’t accessible.”
Adamus did not give up on seeking ways to develop his talents and serve. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree (and was in his college’s marching band), and worked in several different capacities.
His father was a member of the Knights of Columbus, and Adamus revisited this family connection while exploring additional opportunities. He is now a fourth-degree knight, a board member of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and is in the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the United States Air Force.
Honesty and communication are hallmarks of Adamus’ attitude toward service.
“I’m a believer in being up front,” said Adamus. “Don’t say any more than you have to, but what you can and cannot do, so you can be successful, but don’t dwell on it. My disability is a part of me, I am not my disability.”
Communication and cooperation are important.
“Emphasize the things you can do,” said Adamus. “Go to the person who does the ministry (you are interested in) and say, ‘I’d be interested. Where do you need help?’ If they’re hesitant, wade through the list (of specific tasks related to the ministry), and say, ‘If you do this and this, I can do that.'”
Adamus’ work with the Civil Air Patrol reflects other keys to successful volunteering: creativity and learning.
“Part of what we do is search and rescue,” said Adamus. “I can’t do that, so I got my rating in radio operating, mission-based, and I coordinate, help organize at the mission office.”
Sometimes, a disability can isolate us and make us feel lonely or as if we are the only one suffering. But, said Adamus, “There are people who are worse off.”
Serving in our parishes opens doors to deepening faith and fellowship and untold graces. Good reasons to step forward from hesitancy to heartfelt action!
Pratt’s website is www.maureenpratt.com.
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