The Challenge of Building Community
Building community that includes persons with disabilities and mental illness often involves significant challenges. Communities like to stress their strengths and commonalities. Persons with disabilities often present apparent weaknesses and obvious differences. uilding community that includes persons with disabilities and mental illness often involves significant challenges. Communities like to stress their strengths and commonalities. Persons with disabili-ties often present apparent weaknesses and obvious differences.
The challenges are even greater when the community is faced with someone who is perceived to have a problem. Some examples in the church:
- A child with ADHD (Attention Deficit with Hyper-activity) who cannot sit still in Sunday School.
- A young adult with an autism spectrum disorder who lashes out in anger at sincere attempts to offer help.
- A person with bipolar disease who dominates the Sunday school discussion with lengthy remarks that stray far from the topic.
How does the rest of the community respond when the differences get to be problems?
The Path to Exile
Often, the response is to want to preserve the feeling of community in ways which actually fragment that community. The tendency, often subtle, is to send the “problem person” down a “path to exile” thus eventually cutting that person off from the community.
Frequently, it happens in stages like this:
- Blame – When a problem occurs, often our tendency is try to pin the blame on someone. People may say things like, “He needs to get right with God,” or “Her parents don’t discipline her properly.” The effect is to distance that person or family by saying, “We aren’t like that. The problem is over there!”
- Stigmatize – Blame often escalates into stigmatizing, placing on a person a label that is perceived as negative. Some labels may seem benign or even humorous to the person doing the labeling, but feel hurtful to the person labeled. Examples of labels: “control freak,” “a little off,” “over-sensitive,” “hyper,” “retarded.” Stigma creates even more mental and emotional distance from the community.
- Isolate – In this step, actual physical isolation begins to emerge. Sometimes the process starts because a person who has autism or schizophrenia (to use a couple of examples) cannot handle the intense stimulation that comes with common community activities like worship services and fellowship meals. By blaming the person and labeling him or her with the “anti-social” stigma, we justify the community’s lack of relationship with such persons. These persons’ ideas are dismissed and their needs ignored. They are not invited to activities.
- Exile – The most extreme form of isolation is “exile.” Exile is the physical removal of the person from the community. In the church, exile often means that families with “problem children” just don’t come. However, some types of “time out” practices for children or separate Sunday school classes for “people like that” can also be forms of exile.
Reversing Course: The Path to Community
Next time you find yourself sending someone down the path to exile, try applying these principles for creating true community that includes everyone.
- Take responsibility – Instead of blame, the community can take responsibility. Blaming someone results in shame, fear, and inaction. When many persons share the responsibility, they show true love and often find solutions!
- Educate – Labels may be convenient, but they don’t convey the whole truth about the lives of real persons. Instead of stigmatizing persons with disabilities, get to know them. Do some reading to understand their conditions and what they are facing in their daily living.
- Include – Many persons with disabilities and mental illness have a natural tendency toward isolation. It is therefore up to leaders and others at the heart of community life to make that extra effort to include such persons. By following the two above steps, we may find alternative settings that persons can tolerate and still have meaningful interaction with other members of the community. • Build community – The steps above reverse the path to exile and instead build a truly inclusive community. Just as amputation is a radical last resort for the physical body, so is exile for the body of Christ, the Christian community.