Enlisting a Longtime Community Resource to Help People with Disabilities Find Jobs

A friend and colleague of mine, Bill Gaventa, has written about a project in which I was privileged to have a part.

By Bill Gaventa

About the Author

Bill Gaventa, M.Div.. is the director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability and served as a consultant to the Putting Faith to Work project. Bill can be reached at Bill.gaventa@gmail.com. (Reprinted with permission from the American Association of People with Disabilities.)

Our hope is that this weekly blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email janet.shouse@vumc.org.

One of the ways to look at faith communities, from any tradition, is that each one is a collection of people, both similar and diverse in other ways, such as age, gender, race, etc. One of the ancient strengths of those communities is their capacity to respond to people in need, especially individual people whom they know. If you are part of a faith community, you may know that if the clergy or someone else shares an individual need with a group of caring people, magic can often happen.

Another lens into congregational life is that its greatest riches may be its social capital, a collection of people who are community members, employers, employees, club members, volunteers for other organizations, fans, customers, neighbors for others … the list goes on and on.

Then, think about the possibilities of combining those two capacities and helping people with disabilities to find a job. If a congregation knows someone, especially a member, such as a young person with a disability approaching adulthood, or someone with an acquired disability, like a wounded veteran returning from war, there is a strong a possibility that the congregation might be willing to gather around that person and their family if asked or called. Often 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 could first start with finding ways for the individual to do something in the congregation to contribute to its life, and to give him or her a chance to be givers as well as receivers, to lead as well as to follow.

What if that team saw the whole congregation as a source of networking and contacts so when the team had a good idea of an individual’s strengths and dreams, the team could turn to the whole congregation to help look for opportunities. That’s the way most of us get jobs. Perhaps not through a faith community, but through contacts, networks, and connections.

Then, if the members of the congregation who had ideas started making some connections, perhaps through others they know, think of the networking power that would unleash. Once more, it would not be a program per se, it would be about helping a known individual to find a job.

It would also be fulfilling parts of all major faith traditions in which we are called to work, to help care for God’s creation, and serve our communities and fellow humankind. On top of that, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a call to employers (most of them being farmers in the Old Testament/Torah) to leave a portion of their fields so that those usually on the margins could have the dignity of working for their own food and keep.

Then, if all employers who consider themselves to be people of faith, and who try to live out their faith through their businesses, thought about setting aside a portion of their workforce to help make sure people with abilities, often disregarded because of labels of difference, get a chance to demonstrate their abilities, then we could do something about the vast disparity in employment levels between people with disabilities and those without. Not to speak of transforming individual lives, and, as the research shows, most often contributing to the morale and productivity of their workplaces. It’s not just charity (in the ancient, very positive connotations of that term); it is good business.

That’s just what a number of faith communities are beginning to do around the country. In a three-year pilot project in four states (Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas and Minnesota) called Putting Faith to Work, congregations tapped their capacity to create a circle of care around individuals with disabilities along with the connections (or social capital) 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. The project was funded by the Kessler Foundation and coordinated by the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville. You can learn more about the Putting Faith to Work model at http://faithanddisability.org/projects/putting-faith-to-work/

One outcome of the project is a manual and website with strategies and resources for any faith tradition to customize and use. The manual is available at the website above for $10. Talk to people with disabilities in your congregation, or families with young adults with disabilities facing the adult world. Take what others have done 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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