Benjamin Conner, Ph.D.
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Ben Connor discussion
Ben: One boy who graduated, all kids stood up and clapped for him. He was on the team, with the jersey. But once practice was over, he was never invited to anyone’s house. It was sad for me. In my mind, it was inexpensive to clap at graduation. Not extravagant. He deserved more.
We were at a camp. Another child was trying to get into the ball game, he had a diferent game in mind that he wanted them to play. He yells at them, “you guys are a bunch of retards.” He has no idea that he is perpetuating the same thing that was excluding him.
In 2012 there is a strong effort for inclusion of people with autism. Let me put a plug in for a child with Down Syndrome. The same challenges affect individuals of all disabilities. I hope we can look at these strategies as working for many different kinds of disabilities.
What happens is that people with autism have social disability. But even the “more social” disabilities have incredible social disability. The same things, same tools, can work for other conditions than autism.
Ben: The first thing happened a long time ago when I was leading an apologetics seminar. It was a good old-fashioned apologetics seminar. Appealing to mind, history of the Bible, why you should believe it. I felt good about the seminar. A girl with Down Syndrome greeted me outside the seminar. She wanted to hug me. I hugged her. It was more effective to her than the seminar. This was first thing that got me outside of thinking of myself as a mind with legs. I went to princeton. I was reading to my son when he had a seizure. It freaked me out more than it did him. We were part of all the testing, cat scans, MRI. He turned out to have had a stroke at birth. He never would draw a picture to show it to you; he did it for himself. His play was directing us. When I hung out with the kids with Asperger’s who were playing Mario. He picked up my character up and threw it. To him I was not part of a team, I was an object to be used. We decided to homeschool our son since he would not do well at a traditional school. Melissa needed the support of a community. I stayed in Princeton to finish exams, then we moved into our home in Williamsburg.
Melissa had been volunteering with therapeutic horseback riding program. I was hearing parents telling very difficult stories. I heard, “Craig used to have friends, then they grew apart. One boy asked his friend, why are you friends with a retard.” One mom planned a birthday party for son, and no one ws coming. I got a dozen high school kids to show up. Practice of faith shaped my dissertation, my theology. My theology was changing which took me into conversation with different partners. This is how I got involved in this ministyr. Primary goal can’t be just to teach the kids social skills if they have no social group to fit in with.
For this ministry to really take off, it can’t just provide social opportunities for kids with disabilities, it needs to have a network. To socialize them to befriend them. To go to his games, to send them text messages. Many of oure kids have photos on Facebook profile in a photo with another one of our kids. These kids have pictures of themselves with the picture of a kid with disabilities. Creating a culture where you can have friends who are different.
Second question was how do you disciple persons with limited intellectual abilities.
The biggest ministry has been a ministry to paretns. It is a system. It is important to reach parents who are looking to network with other parents. Parent network we have created, has impacted any other ministry in the area. Has provided respite and friendship. Mother wrote me a letter: “I want you to know that fior the firt time in seven years, I have been invited to dinner at someone’s home.” She could not believe it. She also said, my son after today’s event (cookout with families), I was putting spencer to bed. You got invited to a sleepover with one of your friends. He said, “That’s what it’s like to have a friend.”
What do you mean by the term disciple as a verb? Leading someone in the life of faith. Showing how they are connected to God’s story, how do I engage in practices of faith.
Talk more about work with horses: Wife rode horses when younger. The horse part of her I did not know anything about it. When she met me, all I did was play sports and work out. Then I ended up getting a PhD. I came back and she was involved with horses, volunteering three days a week. Now she is the director! What brought us to see that as valuable from being human standpoint. There is not a disabled rider. Either you are a rider or not a rider. After you are on the horse, the horse has the legs. Incredible benefits to the rider. You must have course strength. Horse movement is soothing. Great benefits physically. It is a great place to have people without disabilities to encounter people with disabilities in a positive light. The ministry I do and the center have a great partnership. We both care for the humanity and dignity of people. We use horseback riding to teach faith and trust, collaboration.
When you decided you would move into a more aggressive involvement with pwds, had you already been in church work?
I am 43 now. After college I worked with youth in a church. Then I worked for Young Life. Nondenominational youth ministry. Got MDiv, then doctorate. Wife encouraged me to float my idea with Young Life, and they approved it. Capernaum is the name of the project.
None of us are youth pastors. How do we approach youth ministers/pastors to start looking at this?
I have tried to make the book accessible to youth pastors. Most youth pastors connect with larger conversation. Youth Worker Journal is going to run an article on me. Immerse is another youth worker journal that will run an article. 17% under age of 18 have a disability. Approximately 1/5 of youth. If they are not in our church, they should be.
How old is your son now? 16. We are in the throes of it. We did what we needed to so he can have a successful high school experience. He was homeschooled, now in public school.
Where is the best place to connect? Parents have a difficult time either because time management or do not have enough connections with community to allow child to connect. School connections do not naturally flow out of school.
The buddies or student leaders have to take the initiative to make it happen. Xavier has autism, does not speak much. His mom is exhausted. She makes sure he is at our events. One time Xavier got sick right before our weekend event. Mom was weeping that he could not go. Took him to camp, he shook my seat on bus out of excitement. These kids get connected with their peers. Ricky takes Xavier regularly to get chicken nuggets.
Can you talk about bullying and what churches can do?
My son is meekest kid at school. School called me. I was worried. Principal said, your son came into the office. He had taken another kid’s french fries. He snitched a fry. He is as honest as could be. He had skipped a class, confessed that too. Heightened awareness now if taking a french fry could get you a day of in-school suspension. Best way to prevent bullying is to have people around them. When Matt is sitting at table by himself, he is more likely to be made fun of than when he has people around him. To have someone stand up for you is powerful.
What is it about people that they feel free to stare or single out an individual by themselves. If with a group they can be ignored.
Fundamental question is, why does anyone pick on anyone. In high school, identities are forming, shifting. You area listening to other voices. Some are trying hard to demonstrate that they are not a person with a disaibility.
I commented on Facebook: If we as a society can learn it is wrong to say a racial slur, we can learn that it is wrong to put down an individual because we perceive them to be weaker than us. Those who grow up with disability, we remember that a good day was when no one picked on you at school. If we can create an environment, it is about self esteem, regardless of what disability you have. I see people with disabilities not pursuing employment because they don’t believe in themselves, low self-esteem.
Pathways did a series of lesson plans designed for helping regular ed students accept a student with disabilities in religious education class. “Different Gifts but Same Spirit”. It was amazing to do this with group of sixth grader, allowing them to talk about disabilities that had once been taboo. If we can let kids talk about it, it helps. These lessons are on http://www.inclusioninworship.org.
Gay son was getting on bus to go to work. Black teens started yelling faggot at him. It felt to him like the civil rights movement of 2012. Much work to do.
One thing we notice in media is that this particular group is getting more attention: kids who are gay. Media themselves – feel uncomfortable talking about disability. So they go to children who are gay. This issue is just as important, but disability is never addressed head on. I commented to journalist that they are leaving out students with disabilities.
You don’t learn from being persecuted, you learn from being justified in faith.
The “higher functioning” kids are the more vulnerable they can be to bullying if they are unot understood ot have a disability.
Do you have children iwth mental health problems.? I sometimes need to pull him aside to calm down. Need to make sure the meds are given at proper times when we are away on weekends.
How do you advise parents to find the right churches?
Erik Carter’s book is good for asking the right kinds of questions. Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities.
Are you familiar with churches that have specific ministries to the DD population? In Williamsburg, I am aware of one. Most youth groups feel – we don’t have any kids with disabilities that come, I ask why do you think that is? Getting kids with disabilities together with others with disabilities, they often do form friendships. The ways we work at understanding faith together involved people at all levels. To teach prayer, we made string of ten beads. Ten things you want to pray for, ten people you want to pray for. We made bowl of scented oil that smoked, These are the prayers pleasing to god. Dipped written prayer into bowl to take along.
Rocks symbolize grudges. Put them in a backpack. Feel the weight of them.
Story tiles have a picture on them. Each kid would have to contribute to story with the object on the tile. Then used tiles with pictures from shared events. Then connected story that your pictures are in to God’s stories. A story we built, a story God built, a story we are in together. Are there connections?
Played Jenga – each piece is dependent on other pieces. We do many things with full bodies. Some of ideas I make up. This is why Erik Carter wants me to list some of these resources. I may make a companion volume.
With your work to stop bullying of pwds, is this crossing over to affect whole school?
I can’t imagine a time when there won’t be bullying. It is a big thing in school systems.
Kids who I have seen as very successful socially, it is the families that foster the social togetherness. Without that, it does not happen. Parents are exhausted.
For a reprise of the opening exercise (dahm-dahm-daughty-daughty) visit http://smu.gs/PnGgS6.
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