Local pastor organizes forum to explore ways to support, encourage individuals with disabilities

By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Chatfield News

“In the play ‘Of Mice and Men’ being produced in March by Wits’ End Theatre (WIT) here in Chatfield, one of the characters is a grown man named Lennie, with a kind and almost childlike disposition. Lennie loves small animals and soft things. Unfortunately, Lennie doesn’t realize his strength and so, inadvertently, when he handles things of a soft nature, bad things happen,” stated the Rev. Debra Collum of Chatfield United Methodist Church (CUMC). “And this gentle giant of a man is a man with a developmental disability.”

Author John Steinbeck knew a “Lennie,” which is one of the reasons he wrote this novella with the intent that it be made into a play.

“Steinbeck wanted his readers and listeners to ask questions about people with characteristics such as Lennie,” Collum continued. “He knew the types of communities Lennie would have encountered in his day. And he wrote a play to give his opinion of that community.”

Sometimes it is difficult for people to ask questions about disability. These questions, Collum noted, if asked carefully, can help people learn about disability and how to help people in area communities, who have disabilities, be better supported to live a quality life where they feel respected, needed, safe and simply included.

“When the idea of presenting the play was discussed and finally approved, I had this feeling that we couldn’t simply have such an amazing play ‘sit’ in the community without discussing the underlying theme,” she added.

Collum related further how she decided that CUMC would host a discussion on how people who have disabilities live in the Chatfield community.

“So my question was, ‘What kind of community do persons with disabilities live in today? What has changed? What has not changed? How are we, as a whole community, part of the community in which persons with disabilities live and work and interact?,” she reflected. “In what way can we be a community of people who welcomes all as full human beings?’ In particularly focusing this conversation on persons with disabilities, what language can we use to provide welcome and inclusion? What systems need changing so that all have access to a full quality of life? What is my own personal responsibility or means of compassion?”

The discussion that she sought is now on the calendar for Monday, April 1, thanks to two area organizations.

“In a wonderful alignment of the stars, Arc Minnesota Southeast Region was looking for ways to engage communities in this very conversation,” Collum said. “Arc is partnered with the Rochester Diversity Council, who will facilitate and bring to life the conversation. We will look together at the past, present and future of building community with persons with disabilities. We hope that, at the very least, we will change the way we speak to and about persons with disabilities. We hope that we will begin to see our neighbors more clearly as people who are deserving of a place in our community as fully as anyone else. We hope that the discussion will open up possibilities of changing and engaging in systems that support persons with disabilities.”

Collum anticipates the forum because it will offer interaction and a chance to converse about subjects that often are accompanied by assumptions about other people.

“That is part of what we will learn together in these discussions. We know about things like making sure areas are accessible. We know about the need for integrated educational opportunities. We know, particularly here in Chatfield where our public janitorial is done by persons with disabilities, the need and advantage of dignified work. But do we know what a dignified work environment looks and sounds like?” she countered.

Collum said Chatfield is a community that already welcomes persons with disabilities into its spaces. “These are people who are our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues and our employees. Do we know their needs? Their dreams? Their concerns? How wonderful to be able to talk together to explore the ways we can be better neighbors to each other,” she said.

The forum will include Arc Minnesota, but Collum would like to be able to have as many advocates as possible available to answer questions.

“We hope other agencies who work with persons with disabilities will also be with us. When I began discussing the idea of this conversation, I received support from advocates for those with disabilities and from the local ministerium who agreed that the opportunity of seeing such an amazing play in this community opened the door to this conversation,” she said. “We hope that those who attend will be able to spread the word within their circle of friends and help the whole community learn how to speak and act as advocates of persons with disabilities. We will have resources at the community discussion to help advance the discussion beyond April 1.”

The forum will be held as a two-hour session on Monday, April 1, at Chatfield United Methodist Church, from 6 to 8 p.m. This event is free and open to the public – all ages and abilities are invited to be a part of the conversation.

“Even if you haven’t seen the play, it will be an important and worthwhile conversation,” Collum concluded. “Please come. Your voice is very important to this conversation. Chatfield is a great place to live and can only improve as we work together to make this truly the Chosen Valley for anyone who lives and works among us.”