Archive for September, 2008

Accessibility solutions in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia one must take off one’s footwear if one desires to enter a Church to worship. I found the following article which shows how this matter is resolved for persons with physcial disabilities there:

Written for Disability international Newsletter to be published in June/July 2006 edition in English, Spanish and French by Disability International)

Plastic Caliper1 Improves Accessibility for Disabled Children in Ethiopia

By Merrillyn Hener and Kamala Achu

The daily struggle with accessibility for Ethiopian children with disabilities seems obvious as we follow Fikadu Neguse, a seventeen-year-old boy with polio, into the sprawling slum of Merkato. He slowly negotiates the cobbled lanes, using crutches and his new plastic orthoses made from prefabricated components. The calipers have changed his life in significant ways. He and his mother shared the experience with us.

Fikadu fell ill with polio at the age of four. His mother said his arms and legs became weak and paralyzed. She took him to church for holy waters and but eventually she learnt from one of her neighbours that it might be polio. For years, he crawled to move around and his legs became bent and twisted. Most families in Ethiopia, including Fikadu’s, either cannot afford to buy the braces that would allow their child to walk or are not aware that the technology exists. Even with the metal calipers, some places such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that Fikadu attends are off limits to one who cannot remove his shoes.

At age eleven Fikadu underwent surgery to correct his leg contractures, and was fitted with conventional metal calipers with heavy boots. His mother was full of hope then, at last her son could be walking. After 8 months of medical treatment and physiotherapy, he was able to use these braces and crutches to walk on his own. By this time, he had lost years of schooling, and the calipers helped to get him back into the classroom. Despite this benefit, many problems remained for Fikadu.

“Those calipers were huge and heavy, they did not support him fully, his buttocks and hips were painful and there were sores where it pinched, “ remembers his mother.

Many adults and children with polio and other neuromuscular diseases living in developing countries like Ethiopia are forced to use this outdated technology due to money constraints and a low availability of custom-fit plastic braces.

Mobility India (MI), a Bangalore-based non-government organization (NGO), became aware of this issue through its work in rural India. Poor families struggle to take several days off work for the fitting of a custom-made plastic caliper. These lost wages, combined with the high cost of both travel to the center and the caliper itself, make plastic KAFO (knee ankle foot orthoses) alternatives unreachable for most.

MI teamed up with London based Disability and Development Partners (DDP), to research and develop a process where plastic orthortic components could be pre-fabricated and made available at low cost and be fitted quickly. Through 3 years of research, development, and field-testing, they created the plastic Pre-Fabricated Knee Ankle Foot Orthosis (PFKAFO) system. The plastic shells and accessories required to assemble a complete orthosis are produced in bulk, and come in ten standardized sizes that could be used for between 40 – 65% of people with lower limb paralysis.

A trained orthopedic technician must fit the caliper, but the entire process can be completed in one day. The components, which require standard workshop equipment to assemble, can be brought to rural areas by a mobile workshop. Thanks to PFKAFO technology, families no longer have to travel long distances and pay huge sums to get their loved one a plastic caliper that fully supports the leg, is comfortable to wear and can be worn with any kind of footwear or without shoes.

PFKAFO components are not perfect, but thousands of children and adults in India are wearing calipers made from these every day. After this success, MI and DDP decided it was time to take this technology to other developing countries, which led to the September 2005 PFKAFO Trials in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where Fikadu was fitted with his new brace.

When asked about the difference between Fikadu’s old braces and the new calipers, he says “I find them so easy to take on and off and to sit with my knees bent because the knee joint is easy to operate. The other ones took all my strength and I could not unlock it. Of course with these I can wear any type of shoes” and his mother adds, “The plastic calipers he wears now are so light and there is no pinching. He can walk more freely.”

It remains uncertain whether Ethiopia will embrace PFKAFO technology as another option for people requiring lower limb orthotics, but the feelings of children like Fikadu are clear. They want and need these calipers for a more comfortable and free life and one that could safeguard them from developing secondary disabilities.

“ I am surprised with these PFKAFOs. The biggest difference for me is that for the first time I could enter the church,” Fikadu explained. “I took off my shoes, put socks over the caliper foot piece and walked in ‘barefoot’. I could not do this with the metal caliper and boot. I was so happy”.

1 Caliper/s and orthosis/orthoses and braces are used interchangeably throughout this article

Matthew 25 mini-lessons

It is actually entitled Love Your Neighbor: Orthodox Christian Acts of Charity

click on:

Matthew 25 House

There is a house of hospitality in Akron, Ohio, that is intended to be a haven for all (men) who are in need- the Matthew 25 House;* it was founded by an Orthodox Christian, Joe May. Click on: The Gospel of Necessity

Joe May has urged and challenged Orthodox Christians to create similar ministries in other cities. He also wrote, for In Communion Magazine, The View from Below (click to access)

Here is another such house in San Francisco: Raphael House This house is for homeless families.

In each case, practical considerations require some specialization- men, families. This is the nature of incarnate life in this world.

Sadly, the Eastern Orthodox Foundations, because of Pennsylvania’s stringent regulations, has had to close the doors of its shelter; read the “Dear Friends” letter at this website: EOF Home Page

* The Matthew 25 House is also a part of the Catholic Worker Movement in Akron as well. It is not the first time I have heard of Orthodox Christians taking part in this movement as a vehicle for service to others.

And I wouldn’t be too quick to criticize such a move before hearing out the reasons, which I know for a fact have to do with love, having attended the Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s 2005 North American Conference at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, NY, where Joe May spoke on “Downward Mobility: Voluntary Simplicity in Christian Life and Witness.”

Click on: Downward Mobility | In Communion

Matthew 25 & focused ministry

Orthodoxy means “right worship.” Our worship informs our understanding. Both the Divine Liturgy and the “Liturgy after the Liturgy,” our service to others, informs our understanding, our beliefs, our creed. Ultimately that service to others will serve as a basis for judgment:

31 When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
44 “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

And who is “the least of these?” Persons with disability are not mentioned; rather, it is the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick people, and the prisoners and strangers. Of course this is taking the passage in a strictly literal sense; it is understood that these categories of people represent every category of people who are minimalized, depersonalized, devalued by others, whether they be persons with disability or anyone who is being ignored.

And upon closer examination we find that our Lord isn’t speaking in terms of categories of people, but of real, live flesh and blood people, in whom He dwells.

And there is a personal, subjective dynamic in play here as well- Who do I prioritize in my life and who do I put at the bottom of my list?

This disability resource page addresses just one aspect of this entire picture- people with disabilities and those in relationship with them.

Why? Orthodox Christianity is the fullness of the Faith; we don’t pick and choose whom we will love, do we? The person we encounter, friend or foe, is the one we are called to love.

So why this specialized site? Simply because working in a group home for persons with developmental disability is the opportunity that was presented to Margaret and me decades ago, and we ran with it, so to speak. This is where we live. This is what we know. And so we do what we can from this local, specialized sphere where we live with persons with disability.

The Word became flesh– John 1. The incarnate Christ did not travel very far in His earthly life; He focused on the people of Israel. And this was necessary, somehow, for the fulfillment of His mission to unite heaven and earth in Himself. And he calls all of us to specific efforts as well.

And just as He also healed and touched the lives of Samaritans and Gentiles, we are also called to be there for people we encounter other than those for whom we are primarily responsible – the sick, strangers, prisoners- whoever comes our way.

But He had a mission and has given us missions to be responsible for, and this blog relates to mine. To be incarnate entails being local. Of course in Christ, the parts become whole, while remaining parts- 1 Corinthians 12.

But Matthew 25 challenges us all to reflect the likeness of Christ and love the whole world- as it passes by our locale.

What Bartimaeus teaches us.

Bartimaeus was blind. His response to our Lord Jesus Christ provides invaluable lessons for us all. And this lesson can open our eyes to other lessons that persons with all kinds of disability can teach us, as we interact with them.

Mark 10:46-52

46 Now they came to Jericho. As He went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road begging. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Then many warned him to be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be called.
Then they called the blind man, saying to him, “Be of good cheer. Rise, He is calling you.”
50 And throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus.
51 So Jesus answered and said to him, “What do you want Me to do for you?”
The blind man said to Him, “Rabboni, that I may receive my sight.”
52 Then Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road.

A Dynamis commentary on St. Mark 10:46-52: Click on February 7, 2005 : Blind Beggars | Orthodox Church to read what he teaches us.

May we not be like the Laodiceans spoken of in the book of Revelations, chapter 3:

14 “And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write,
‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: 15 “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. 16 So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— 18 I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. 19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.

Wolf Wolfensberger

 The Theological Voice of Wolf Wolfensberger:

Mentally retarded people play a uniquely prophetic role in this age.” Wolfensberger pioneered normalization and social role valorization in the field of mental retardation. He feels this age has made an idol of technology, and that it is not only out of control, but now has the potential to destroy the human race in numerous ways. He writes, “The systems we are creating escape the human capacity of management.” He sees it as another version of the Tower of Babel, one “God is about to confront.” God will do this through the simplicity and gentleness of mentally retarded people, whose lives are the very antithesis of the idol of progress. He tells some astonishing stories which he sees as prophetic, such as the very severely retarded man, who, beyond his level of capability, said, “This is my body.” “God has chosen the foolish things of the world [. . .]  to bring to nothing the things that are.” (1 Cor. 1:27-28).

(quoted from “St John Chrysostom and the Socialization of Persons with Developmental Disability: Patristic Inspiration for Contemporary Application” by William Gall)


from “Disabled Christianity” a blog by Jeff McNair, Special Ed professor at Cal Baptist University (Aug. 23, 2005):

So I asked myself, what are the prophetic signs which appear to be unique or very special to our day, which are very different from what they have been at other times. . . Where and how is the Spirit active today in a way that is different from the way it may have been in other eras?
As I posed these questions to myself over the past few years, I began to read both the signs of dysfunctionality and of prophecy in a different and clearer fashion, and I read one very, very powerful prophetic message, coming from mentally retarded people. For instance, I considered that it should not be unexpected if divine messages about the present patterning of offenses should come from people who, in their roles and identities, are exactly the opposite of what our era idolotrates. Who and what is the opposite? The opposite is a person who is not intellectual, not scientific, not technological, and not academic; who does simple instead of complex things; who cannot cope with complexity, and technology which passes him by; and who, possibly, is despised for lack of modernity and intellectuality. Is that not the retarded persons of our age?
But if it is, is there any evidence that God has thrust retarded people into a prophetic role? I submit to you that there is indeed . . .

The article goes on to list 10 signs to substantiate the possibility that persons with cognitive disability are indeed carrying a prophetic message.

-Mentally Retarded Persons are Becoming Much More Public and Visible
-Retarded People are Becoming Internationally Known
-Non-Handicapped and Handicapped Persons are Sharing Their Lives, Often Living Together
-Retarded Persons are Gentling Others
-The Prophetic Manifestation of the Presence of God via Retarded People
-Retarded People Speaking in Tongues
-Retarded People may Withstand Their Culture
-Retarded People May Be Parodying Intellectualism
-The Dance of Spiritual Joy
-Retarded People Are Beginning to Be Persecuted and Martyred

(The “speaking in tongues” refers to instances when persons with cognitive disability who usually speak very little and even then very unclearly say something very clearly that is profound, such as “This is my Body.” The martyrdom referred to is the high percentage of unborn children found to have disabilities that are aborted. Some of these prophetic signs remain unclear to me. A more thorough re-reading Wolf Wolfensberger would probably help clear some of them up.)

From my prior reading of the book I do remember that many of these impressions Wolf received that people with developmental disability are prophetic to our age came from experiences with L’Arche community gatherings. L’Arche is a worldwide community, Roman Catholic in origin but now encompassing many other kinds of Christians (including a few Orthodox Christians) in which people without developmental disabilities share their lives with those with developmental disabilities- living together.

This is not an Orthodox mission, and there are no Orthodox missions like it that I know of , though in the monastic vision of St. Basil the Great, which included service to needy people, there would be a place for something like it. Until it happens, in the meantime, the challenge remains to incorporate the gifts of people with disabilites- prophetic or otherwise- into our parish families.

The Theological Voice of Wolf Wolfensberger, by William C. Gaventa & David L. Coulter:

and for confirmation of these insights, read the story in this previous post:

reprinted from July & August 2007

“Ecumenism and Social Ministry/Outreach” by Fr. Michael Plekon

The Orthodox Peace Fellowshio has an online forum and this talk by Fr. Michael Plekon was sent to me a while back. Some of what is said may raise questions among Orthodox Christians who would consider it to be improper to engage in ecumenical ministry alongside non-Orthodox Christians. But the needs in this world are great, and in creating workable ministries this may, in some circumstances, be the only way to amass the necessary resources to meet the need. Love is the goal and one must assess the situation and make the best of it for the needs of others.

Margaret and I have continued with the evangelical Protestant Christian organization Friendship Community for this reason- we have forged relationships with four persons with developmental disability, relationships of trust that call for our fidelity.

Love calls for adjustments. Of course, worship is another matter- we must be true to who we are in Christ- Orthodox Christians. And then, as Orthodox Christians, we proceed to be servants to all. ***

Here is the text of a talk given by Fr Michael Plekon at conference
on the theme of Ecumenical Social Week / “Help Your Neighbor!”
held in the Ukrainian city of Lviv from June 9th to the 15th.
-Jim Forest
* * *

Ecumenism and social ministry/outreach:
some notes from America and the Orthodox Church

By Father Michael Plekon
(Sociology/Anthropology, Program in Religion and Culture, Baruch
College of the City University of New York; a priest of the Orthodox
Church in America)

“The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment
I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises,
nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked,
Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the
prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and
imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was
sick and in prison..'”(1)

There could be no more powerful or direct and clear statement of the
New Testament understanding of social ministry than these words of
St. Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945). She was committed not
only to protecting those whom the Nazis wanted to exterminate but
also to providing food, shelter, clothing and compassion to many left
homeless and jobless in the Great Depression in the 1930s. A
colleague of hers in the Russian emigration in Paris, Paul Evdokimov
(1900-1969), similarly worked in the Resistance during World War II,
protecting the targets of oppression and then afterwards, directing
hostels for immigrants and foreign students. Here is what he had to say
about Christian involvement in the world:

“The only true revolution will come from the Gospel, for here it is
God himself who will overtake us in order to bring about the Kingdom
and establish its justice. In the Book of Revelation, Christ is ‘the One
who is, who was and who is to come…’ But eschatology is a two-
edged sword. It is never enough to speak of the end of the world if this
means a kind of passivity or a theological obscurantism and
indifference to our world. The eschatology of the Bible and the Fathers
is explosive, demanding solutions in this earthly life in connection
with the Apocalypse and the deepest meaning of our present crisis is
that the visible judgment of God upon the world and the Church.”(2)

We, at this Ecumenical Social Week in Lviv, the first to be held in
Ukraine, ought to take away several important lessons from these two
“living icons,” true saints of our time.

1. In the words of my favorite Beatles’ song, we need to be reminded:
“All you need is love.” Now the temptation of course is that we think
that ALL we need to do is keep the rules of God and of the church,
that is, attend the services, keep the fasts, light candles, say our daily
prayers. But St. Maria and Paul Evdokimov, who understood that the
love of God requires the love of the neighbor, urge us to recognize that
the care for those who are in need is in fact orthodoxia, real worship.

Just as fascinating, though enigmatic, for us is the expression “liturgy
outside the church.” The church liturgy and the words spoken in it
give us the key for understanding this truth. We hear: “Let us love one
another, that with one mind we may confess . . .” And further on:
“Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for
all.” These “others” whom we love with one mind in the church also
work with us outside the church, rejoicing, suffering, living with us.
And those who are his and of him, offering unto him on behalf of all
and for all, are indeed “all,” that is, all are possible encounters on our
way, all are people sent to us by God. No, the walls of the church do
not separate some little flock from the rest of the world. Further, do
we not believe that the eucharistic sacrament offers up the Lamb of
God, the Body of Christ, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world? And,
being in communion with this sacrificial Body, we ourselves are
offered in sacrifice – “on behalf of all and for all.”

In this sense, the “liturgy outside the church” is our sacrificial ministry
in the church of the world, adorned with living icons of God, our
common ministry, an all-human sacrificial offering of love, the great
act of our divine-human union, the united prayerful breath of our
divine-human spirit. In this liturgical relationship with others, we are
in communion with God; we really become one flock and one
Shepherd, one body, of which the inalienable head is Christ.(3)

2. In Mother Maria’s and Paul Evdokimov’s houses of hospitality, no
one was asked their church affiliation — whether they were Orthodox
or Catholic or Protestant or even Christian.

The second important realization is an ecumenical one. We are ALL
children of God. God’s love is given to all of us, and of course, all of
us are sinner—as we pray just before receiving communion: “…of
sinners I am the first…” in the words of St. Paul. In America,
members of a Lutheran parish collect food and serve dinner at a
Catholic Worker center. Members of my own Orthodox parish do
likewise for an ecumenical soup kitchen/dining room open to all who
are hungry. After the hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans,
Orthodox but also Catholic and Protestant Christians, along with every
other faith community collected funds, went down even to volunteer to
care for survivors and rebuild the city. Throughout Manhattan,
volunteers of every religious background collect food from the finest
restaurants, then bring it to those too old or sick or poor to feed
themselves. On the sides of the trucks is the name of their group:
“God’s Love—we deliver.”

One Sunday morning, Anglican writer Sara Miles morning saw Christ
in the eucharistic bread and cup offered to her at St. Gregory of Nyssa
church in San Francisco. It was her moment “on the Damascus road,”
like St. Paul. Years later, she not only communes people at the liturgy
as a deacon but she feeds hundreds in a food distribution center
opened to any person who is hungry.(4) I am not saying that in
America we have the answer to everything. Far from it. We are racist,
prejudiced, stubborn. But we also have learned to respect each other,
to work and live together and I can think of no better hope for the
Christians of Ukraine—to let the walls that divide Greek Catholics
from the Orthodox and Protestant Christian fall down. The
commandment to love found in the 25th chapter of St Matthew’s
gospel or in the First Letter of St. John contains no requirements based
on church membership or ethnicity.

3. Christians need not be embarrassed, afraid to reach out in the name
of God. All Christians have to do is to be faithful to the God who
loves them, who is called so many times in the Divine Liturgy “The
Lover of humankind.” If anything, Christians then will find what binds
them in solidarity with those of other faith communities whether
Jewish or Islamic or whatever. Again, Mother Maria:

“Christ gave us two commandments: to love God and to love our
fellow man. Everything else, even the commandments contained in the
Beatitudes, is merely an elaboration of these two commandments,
which contain within themselves the totality of Christ’s “Good News.”
Furthermore, Christ’s earthly life is nothing other than the revelation
of the mystery of love of God and love of the neighbor. These are, in
sum, not only the true but the only measure of all things. And it is
remarkable that their truth is found only in the way they are linked
together. Love for man alone leads us into the blind alley of an anti-
Christian humanism, out of which the only exit is, at times, the
rejection of the individual human being and love toward him in the
name of all mankind. Love for God without love for man, however, is
condemned: “You hypocrite, how can you love God whom you have
not seen, if you hate your brother whom you have seen” (1 Jn 4.20).
Their linkage is not simply a combination of two great truths taken
from two spiritual worlds. Their linkage is the union of two parts of a
single whole. These two commandments are two aspects of a single
truth. Destroy either one of them and you destroy truth as a whole.”(5)

4. Last of all, we need to demand of other institutions in our society
that they become compassionate to those who suffer—those of the
government at every level, also schools, hospitals, and especially the
churches. American sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues
stressed this.(6)

Many admire American individualism and commitment to hard work
— the way to prosperity, the real “gold” with which the streets are
paved in America. Yet Bellah points out that we would have hell
rather than heaven on earth if it were only a pursuit of self-interest in
America. Rather, he says, there has always been a sense of
community—of concern for the neighbor, of generosity and sharing.

It can never be just what is good for me, but what is good for us all.
After World War II, the Marshall Plan was created not to dominate
Europe but to help rebuild hospitals, schools, homes and feed and heal
those hurt by war. So many philanthropic groups continue this work
today: Doctors without borders, Save the children, Habitat for
humanity, Care. Perhaps it is not too long until Ukrainians themselves
contribute to assistance of those in need, after having received such
help themselves.

* * *

1 Pravoslavnoe Delo (Orthodox Action, Paris, 1939, 30), cited by
Sergei Hackel, Pearl of Great Price, Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s
Seminary Press, 1981, 29-30, from Constantine Mochulsky,
“Monakhinia Mariia Skobtsova,” Tretii Chas, no. 1 (1946), 70-71.
Pravoslavnoe Delo (Orthodox Action, Paris, 1939, 30.

2 “The Church and Society,” In the World, Of the Church: A Paul
Evdokimov Reader, Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov, eds. &
trans., Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001, 73-4.

3 “The Mysticism of Human Communion,” in Mother Maria
Skobtsova :Essential Writings, Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2003, 79.

4 Sara Miles, Take this Bread, NY: Ballantine Books, 2007.

5 “Types of Religious Lives,” Essential Writings, 173-174.

6 Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American
Life, University of California Press, 1985, 1996.


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