Mark I. Pinsky's "Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability and Inclusion" offers readers practical and inspiring stories about religious institutions that successfully have included people with physical, cognitive, developmental and mental disabilities into their faith communities.
The book shows that sometimes the simplest, most common-sense solutions can create an opportunity for people with disabilities to fully participate in their faith.
Pinsky, a religion writer and author, organized his book into 64 short stories about Catholic, Protestant, nondenominational, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim communities that welcomed and included families and individuals who had been ostracized and segregated in their search to find welcoming places of worship. Pinsky addressed different perspectives in the book, including stories that focus on ministering to people with disabilities and their families as well as people with disabilities and their families who themselves minister to faith communities.
Federal law requires that children with disabilities be included to the fullest extent possible in public school classrooms, and the Americans with Disabilities Act provides legal protections and assurances for individuals with disabilities throughout many aspects of adulthood. However faith institutions are often exempt from these requirements.
Since most churches include people with disabilities based solely on congregants' initiatives and a requirement of faith rather than federal laws, resistance can be met and progress can be slow. However, as the book suggests, working to build friendships and awareness are key to making faith communities inclusive and welcoming.
The stories of inclusion typically consist of a few similar elements: A person with a disability stumbles upon or seeks out a home to practice his or her faith, at least one parishioner acts as a friend and advocate, and a small congregation makes common-sense changes to worship for inclusion. Pinsky highlights how individuals with autism, developmental disabilities or physical disabilities add wonderful talents, faith and joy to the communities through their ministry.
Included in the book is the story of Karen Jackson and her daughter, Samantha. Samantha has autism, a disorder encompassing a wide range of symptoms, including deficits in social interactions and communication.
For a time, Jackson and her husband would take turns attending Mass to care for Samantha at home. When Jackson and Samantha started participating together in their religious education and Mass, Jackson became emboldened to ensure that others with disabilities could worship in an inclusive setting. Now director of a faith inclusion network, Jackson is reaffirmed in her faith time and again because of her daughter's eagerness to participate in church life.
One of the most poignant stories in the book is about an elderly Jewish man who was not accepted into his faith community until his final days on earth. Isadore Rosen was institutionalized at a state center for people with intellectual disabilities at age 12 and hadn't heard from any family members since then. Now in his 90s and planning for his death, he wanted to be buried with his parents but could not remember their first names to find where they were buried.
With the help of a young woman working for a Jewish inclusion program, he was finally brought into his faith. The woman invited Rosen to Passover Seder and was reacquainted with Jewish traditions. His parents' burial site -- ironically located only two miles away from his residence -- was found, and just a day after a rabbi visited with Rosen, he died.
The story highlights that through dedication and friendship, an elderly man long rejected and ignored because of his disabilities was finally welcomed and included into his Jewish faith.
These stories are an appropriate read for ministers, religious educators, parish staff and interested parishioners seeking to enrich their outreach to people with disabilities. The stories are inspirational and helpful, constantly reminding the reader that God's gift of faith community is intended for all individuals.