Matushka Wendy Cwiklinski has Bachelor’s degree in Instrumental Music Education from Northeast Louisiana University. She studied at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and recently graduated from Fordham University with a M.A. in Religious Education, with an emphasis in Youth and Young Adult Ministry. She is married to Fr. Jerome Cwiklinski, who recently retired from serving as a Navy Chaplain. They are the proud parents of 5 children, who have explored the country during their military moves, living in California, Chicago, Washington DC, Alaska, and Rhode Island. Their last move to Southern California has lasted for 15 years!
As the parent of special needs children, church was often a challenge for us. While most of our time was spent serving smaller military chapels, a trip to a parish usually promised to be stressful – as my husband was serving in the altar and there were 5 children to tend to. With children on the autism spectrum, sometimes they were just in perpetual motion – much to the dismay of some parishioners around us. For a few years, at most churches we would visit, I was told (sometimes gently, sometimes not) where the crying room was or where the hall was, so I could take my children out of church. And some churches had no facilities like that – so where to go? Outside in the cold? To the car? Anywhere but in church, where I and my children needed to be.
In 1982, I began studies in Religious Education concurrently at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and Fordham University. Though I finished all my academic credits, I never finished my major paper in order to graduate from Fordham – so 30 years later, I was graciously allowed to complete the program! The following is a serialized version of my paper, “Embracing All God’s Children: Orthodox Theology Concerning Disability and Its Implications for Ministry with Special Needs Youth in the Orthodox Church”. I am sure it was God’s plan for me not to finish all those years ago, gifting me with children that would teach me important lessons to share with those walking a similar parenting path.
The paper will be broken into 5 parts:
- Why is this important?
- Defining prevalent Invisible Disabilities
- Whole, holy, where does sin enter the picture?
- Creation/Imago Dei/Living Icons
- Pastoral Concerns/Conclusions/Additional resources
The intent of this paper is to explore theology related to disability found in scripture and patristic writings, the very roots from which the Orthodox Church Tradition has grown, as well as contemporary scholarship on disability. What is the historical and contemporary attitude concerning the inclusion of those with disabilities – and how does it compare or contrast to our present day perspective and community practice? After making the case for the importance of children in our Church, especially those with special needs, what are the practical implications for the Orthodox religious education, youth, and young adult programs? How can we be intentionally inclusive of these children and their parents in not only the liturgical life of the Church, but also in Sunday School, summer camp, or retreats?
These are just a few examples of countless stories, drawn from real situations:
- As young parents, Ioann and Effie were excited at the birth of their children. Their first child, Arianna, was quiet and “easy”. Christine, their second child had a difficult time being soothed and sleeping. As the children grew, physical developmental milestones were met, yet Christine had great difficulty playing with peers. As she progressed to school, she did well academically, but struggled in social situations, especially on the playground. In the comments on her report card, her teacher wrote that Christine “was like a slice of Neapolitan ice cream, you never know what flavor you will get.” Church was difficult for her; she didn’t want to stand still. Sunday school was not easy either; it was once a week with children she didn’t know outside of church, and it was such a short time that she didn’t have time to settle in. Her teacher got easily frustrated with her inability to settle in quickly and get along with the others, eventually telling the parents that Sunday school was not the place for her.
- Summer church camp happened every year during the first week of July. Macrina, who was 10 years old, was filled with excitement and dread at the same time. Macrina’s parents were experiencing the same feelings, but felt that it was important for her to have the camp experience. Macrina was somewhere on the autism spectrum – in school, she had supports in place to help her during her occasional meltdown. Despite being 10, her hygiene habits were not always good, and sometimes she had an unpleasant smell. This made for critical comments from the children she went to school with, and made friendship difficult, especially when she was invited to sleepovers. When she went to camp, Macrina’s parents spoke with those who ran the camp and the counselor for Macrina’s cabin, and were assured that everything would be all right, that Macrina would have a “great time at camp!”
- Alex was 14 and attended church regularly with his parents. They attended a small church that did not have its own youth group, but a larger nearby church did have one and welcomed teens from other churches. When Alex first started going, he was excited. But the other kids all knew each other from church school and dance groups and had formed solid friendships. Alex had a hard time fitting in, and did not feel welcome, so he stopped going to the youth group activities.
- It was a winter retreat for college-aged young adults. Kathy, who is 20, goes to community college. She still lives at home, does not have a driver’s license (is dependent on public transportation), and has few friends in her peer group. She is marginally successful in her classes, but is a very talented artist. Her attempts to find a part-time job have not been successful, especially since she has trouble approaching people and asking for something. Her mom felt that the retreat would be good for her, but she found herself in the middle of a group of other college-aged kids who seemed to have it all together.
All of these examples include those whose disabilities are not obvious – invisible. Sometimes parents are criticized for not parenting well enough. Most often, the child is criticized for not acting appropriately. How can we make for a loving community that embraces the differences of these children, and to consider them as “Different not less”? As the numbers of children identified with brain disorders and/or learning challenges increase, they ARE within our midst. Do we keep them in isolation or do we welcome them into the fold?
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