Putting Faith to Work: Helping People with Disabilities Find Meaningful Employment
December 7, 2016 | Bill Gaventa
Each faith community or congregation is a collection of people, at once similar and diverse. One of the strengths of these communities is their capacity to respond to people in need, especially individuals they know. If you are part of a faith community, you may already have experienced the amazing things that can happen when an individual need is brought to the attention of a group of caring people.
A congregation’s greatest riches may be its social capital, the collection of people it brings together who are community members, employers, employees, club members, volunteers for other organizations, customers, neighbors. The list goes on and on.
Consider the possibilities of bringing these capacities together to help people with disabilities find employment. If a congregation knows someone, especially a member, such as a young person with a disability approaching transition out of school into adult life, or someone with an acquired disability like a wounded veteran returning from war, there is a strong possibility they’ll be willing to gather around that person and their family if asked or called, often because many people might already want to help, but don’t know how.
What if that gathering looked like a mission team, or a circle of support, and their vision was to get to know the individual, his or her gifts and support needs, and then help them find a job or another significant way to contribute to their community? That process of contribution could first start with finding ways for them to do something in the congregation to contribute to its life, and to give them a chance to be givers as well as receivers, to lead as well as to follow.
But then, what if that team saw their whole congregation as a source of networking and contacts so when the team had a good idea of an individual’s strengths and dreams, they could turn to the whole congregation to help them look for opportunities? That’s the way most of us get jobs. Perhaps not through a faith community, but through contacts, networks, and connections.
Imagine if employers in the congregation set aside a portion of their workforce to help ensure people with abilities often unseen and disregarded because of labels of difference, got an opportunity to demonstrate those abilities. These employers could really do something about the vast disparity in employment rates between people with disabilities and those without while helping to transform individual lives and improve the morale and productivity of their businesses.
That’s just what a number of faith communities have begun doing through Putting Faith to Work. Through this three-year project funded by the Kessler Foundation and coordinated by the Kennedy Center in Nashville, congregations in four states have tapped their capacity to create a circle of care around individuals with disabilities along with the connections of their membership to help people with disabilities find jobs. And it has worked…not always, nor always easily, but the same is true for any new form of ministry and any other kind of employment initiative. Other congregations have done this outside of the context of the Putting Faith to Work project. A manual and website with strategies and resources are available for congregations of all faith traditions to customize and use.
Talk to people with disabilities in your congregation, or families with young adults with disabilities facing the adult world. Take what others have done through Putting Faith to Work and create your own paths. There may be no more profound way to support people with disabilities than to help them find their own abilities, and put them to use in service to God, their faith community, and the community in which they live.
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Bill Gaventa, M.Div., is the Director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability and was a consultant to the Putting Faith to Work project. Contact: Bill.firstname.lastname@example.org