|Be like Eunice: Welcome people with disabilities|
Bishop Peggy Johnson signs the word “faith” during her consecration service in 2008
in Harrisburg, Pa..
UMNS file photo by Suzy Keenan.
A UMNS Commentary
By Bishop Peggy Johnson*
Sept. 1, 2009
The world lost a great advocate for disabilities with the passing of
Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She was the sister of the late President John
F. Kennedy and a tireless worker for not only people with disabilities
but human rights in general. She worked in the prison system and cared
about people on the edges of life.
Her great interest in disabilities came from her own family
experience. Her sister Rosemary was intellectually challenged. In all
of the reports about Eunice’s passing not much was said about Rosemary.
I always thought she was a Down syndrome child. From my research, I
learned that she had average intelligence, but she had learning
disabilities and most likely suffered from mental illness. Her severe
mood swings led her family to agree to have a lobotomy performed on
her. This calmed her mood swings, but left her severely cognitively
impaired for life. The well-meaning intentions of her family to have
this surgery performed on their daughter (which blessedly is now no
longer a part of medical practice), created additional problems. It was
indeed one of the first tragedies of the Kennedy family.
This crisis in the family spurred Eunice Kennedy Shriver to begin
the Special Olympics, which has grown into a worldwide venture. It
gives dignity and purpose to people with many kinds of disabilities.
Eunice also encouraged her brother, President Kennedy, to enact laws to
improve the lot in life for people in institutions. These were some of
the earliest beginnings of de-institutionalization in our country.
Of all of the disability communities I have worked with, there is
none more misunderstood than the mental health community. In recent
years, medical science has a larger array of medications and therapies
to work with than in the past. Many people who had previously lived in
locked units in mental institutions now reside in community homes with
support systems, have meaningful employment and are integrated into
However, thousands and thousands of people with mental illness are
not so lucky and slip through the cracks in the system. Many of them
are the homeless who live on our streets.
Mental health services get far less funding than physical illnesses
in this country. Many insurance programs have no provision for mental
health, while others have limited coverage. Families who have family
members with mental illness often suffer in silence with few resources
for respite, financial support and a stigma that is like none other.
Every church has people in it with mental health issues. Much of it
is hidden due to fear of rejection and alienation. Sometimes the
stranger with unusual behaviors that enters our doors is politely
welcomed, but held at a distance by people who are afraid of them or
feel uncomfortable associating with them.
I applaud churches that have special classes for people with
intellectual and mental health challenges. I applaud churches that
welcome people who come from group homes and give them a place in the
family of the church where acceptance and compassion does more for a
person than all the medication in the world.
Where can your church be reaching out? How can you educate your
congregation about the attitudinal barriers that we often throw up when
a person with mental challenges joins the church?
In all things, show the love of Christ to everyone. Seek support
from community and health services as needed, and cover all of your
ministries with prayer.
*Johnson leads the Philadelphia Area of The United Methodist Church.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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