Sharing the Good News with mentally disabled adults

SUMMERVILLE — Dolores Wilson stood in front of 20 people at St. Theresa the Little Flower Church hall recently and taught them a series of gestures to mirror the words of a simple prayer in song.  
This, she said, appeals most to the adults with mental disabilities that she works with as director of Bethlehem House, a Washington-D.C. assisted-living residence.

Wilson spoke to the group of parents and caregivers of mentally challenged adults May 2 on how to share Catholic beliefs. They can do this by  forming a community of Faith and Light International, an ecumenical movement that provides an outlet of friendship and religion for the mentally disabled and their families.

Faith and Light International was founded in 1971 by French theologian Jean Vanier and educator Marie Helene Mathieu. Now more than 1,400 communities exist worldwide, including the one at Bethlehem House.

Seminarian Richard Tomlinson introduced Msgr. Edward D. Lofton and his parishioners to the concept while completing his pastoral internship at St. Theresa during the spring.

Msgr. Lofton said the idea of such a faith-sharing group fit in with his long-term dream of establishing an assisted living residence for mentally disabled adults in the area.

Wilson described how Faith and Light prayer and worship services are usually held monthly and follow guidelines from the group’s international headquarters. The worship guide they provide offers suggested readings and prayers that follow the Catholic liturgical calendar.

She said many people do not realize how important belief in God can be to mentally challenged adults, whom she referred to as “our friends.”

“Our friends have an undeniable relationship with Jesus,” she said. “If you have ever heard them pray, you realize the simplicity of their prayer is profound and moving.”

Wilson showed a video of a recent pilgrimage in Washington, D.C., that attracted members from all around the United States, and described how the gatherings usually combine  fun activities and a spiritual element.

Faith and Light is Catholic-based but is also open to all denominations.

 The services can take place just about anywhere. The important thing,  Wilson said, is that mentally disabled people have a space and an activity that they can recognize as their own.

“Friendship is the most vital necessity of their lives, we all know that,” she said. “And what strengthens their faith? People like you, who they love and know are their friends.”

She explained that group leaders usually set up a Bible and cross, which symbolize the Christian faith, and a candle, which symbolizes the light of God’s love.

Wilson said the services include sharing the Word of God, usually through basic reading and discussion. Sometimes mime or skits are used to help illustrate the meaning of Scripture.

The group also prays together and each adult is asked to share something special that happened to them recently.

“It’s very important to be able to share the good news of life, because many of our friends have been put down and hurt during their lives,” she said.

Faith and Light groups, called communities, also use music and dance as part of spiritual celebrations.

Wilson briefly discussed the history of Bethlehem House and said she realizes that family members in the Summerville area are seeking not only a spiritual outlet for their children, but also a permanent  home for them in the future.

“Pray first,” Wilson said. “I know your goal is to find your children a place to live, some place that is their place. The key to all of that is to find the right assistance. Start the prayer and the dream will be realized.”

Bob Eads, a member of St. Theresa,  said he and his wife are excited about getting their 33-year-old daughter, who lives with them, involved.

“The presentation was excellent, and my wife and I want to get involved with the program somehow,” he said. “When you have a child who fits in with the community Faith and Light serves, you’re interested in anything that will help them because they’re such a special joy. My daughter is the rock of our home.”

Msgr. Lofton said organizational meetings for a community at St. Theresa the Little Flower will be held over the next few months.

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