[Episcopal News Service] The pastor’s wife rose to pray at the end of the first meeting of a support group for 25 Tanzanian families caring for children with disabilities. “I’m really sorry that your child has been cursed by the devil,” she began.
A year later, the same woman stood up at another meeting of the group to say she had misspoken and to ask for forgiveness, describing the youngsters with disabilities as “beloved children of God.”
Transformation of religious beliefs and cultural attitudes towards disabilities underlies the goals of the Bethesda Disability Program that Wendy Broadbent, a Utah Episcopalian, founded in 2015, the same year Broadbent became an Episcopal Church volunteer in mission. The Bethesda program is now part of the St. Philip’s Theological College in Kongwa in central Tanzania. The program rests on a family support group model “which encourages the adults caring for children with disabilities to come out of hiding and learn about empowerment,” according to the St. Philip’s website.
A year before Broadbent started her work, the African Child Policy Forum reported that children with disabilities “face extreme forms of violence, stigma and discrimination based on misconceptions about the cause of disability that are rooted in cultural beliefs and traditions.” Its report noted that, in truth, “disability in Africa is largely attributable to war, poverty, and inadequate access to health and rehabilitation services.”
Broadbent’s work in Tanzania is rooted in her experience caring for and advocating for her three children, all now in their thirties, who have experienced physical, learning and trauma challenges. She’s spent more than 25 years working with families of children with disabilities, currently with New Jersey-based SPAN Parent Advocacy Network. Broadbent’s career as a corporate lawyer helped her navigate her children’s legal rights and teach others to do the same.
Her work turned towards Africa after she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in November 2013, she told Episcopal News Service in an interview. She was about to go home to Ridgewood, New Jersey, where she then lived, when she met some people with disabilities employed in a workshop attached to a boutique in Arusha, Tanzania.
Later, standing outside the boutique, “I just looked up and I just prayed. I was at a point in my life where I was looking for the next adventure, for lack of a better word, that would take my experiences to the next level,” she said. “What came to me, and this is the first time in my life, and I am sort of embarrassed to articulate it because I’m in a corporate world, not a religious world, but it really felt to me like God was speaking to me and saying, ‘You need to come back.’”
Broadbent said it was clear to her that she was being called to work with parents and grandparents of children with disabilities.
Friends put her in contact with Kirsten Muth, then a staff member of Episcopal Relief & Development, who put suggested she contact the Anglican Church of Tanzania Archbishop Jacob Chimeledya. When he invited her to come to Tanzania, Muth introduced her to the Rev. David Copley, The Episcopal Church’s director of global partnerships and mission personnel.
The Office of Global Partnerships “basically adopted” Broadbent and her work, making her a volunteer in mission, which means she gets help with travel expenses and insurance, Copley told ENS.
“As the program grew, we realized there was an incredible potential that Wendy was already tapping that we could be supportive of,” Copley said. That potential recently resulted in a two-day retreat in May at St. Philip’s with the heads of theological institutions in that country, as well as Burundi, Congo and Kenya.
Broadbent and the Rev. Daniel N. Karanja, The Episcopal Church’s Africa partnership officer, envision a network of Anglicans in Africa who are involved in the same work or interested in learning about “how the churches in Africa can be better supportive of people who are differently abled,” Copley said.
He added that “the religious leaders are often the thought leaders of a community and are respected. They have probably a lot more influence than their equivalent in the United States. They can make a significant difference with the right training and support.”
Karanja knows firsthand about the challenges to Africans who are differently abled. His brother, Peter, who is no longer living, “taught me many lessons.” Growing up together in Kenya, Karanja saw how the church “included and excluded him.” That experience, Karanja said, drives his “passion” for changing attitudes towards children with disabilities.
St. Philip’s is showing how a theological college can equip new clergy and lay people to work with families who have children with disabilities, embracing a philosophy that disabilities affect the whole family, according to its website. Organizers believe that partnerships among families, the church and the community can assist families to help their children reach their potential, beginning with coming out of hiding to counter community biases.
St. Philip’s students have started family support groups in many dioceses. The college says students can use the family support group model to help organize other groups to build community, such as widows, orphans or alcoholics.
The students themselves are often challenged but ultimately transformed by what they learn and experience, Broadbent said. Their attitudes went from “why bother” to a point when “their hearts were transformed to why not?” she said.
Some clergy trained at St. Philip’s themselves have disabilities, and that has led to change at another level. The Rev. Frank Joseph, a nearly blind Tanzanian priest, presided at the May retreat’s closing Eucharist using a Braille prayer book. The Rev. Yohana Lukumayi, a transitional deacon who uses a cane because he does not have full use of one leg, also participated.
That “visual witness” showed that “God is so inclusive; God called these people the way they are,” Karanja said. “They are serving, and they are fully effective in their work.”
During the service, Joseph and Lukumayi came down the steps from the altar to bring communion to a woman whose wheelchair was broken and who had crawled on the floor to get into the church. A participant from Burundi “was transformed; he said, ‘I‘ve just never seen anything like that,’” Broadbent recalled.
That is an example, Karanja said, The Episcopal Church ought to follow. “We need more differently abled women and men in our seminaries, in our leadership positions,” he said. “We cannot just say it’s a challenge in Africa. I think it’s a challenge right here at home, because the church has not done what we are now doing in Tanzania.”
Partnering with the church can be rewarding and a challenge, Broadbent said. “The church is an incredibly strong place to change attitudes and transform mindsets,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s got a huge mountain to climb” because of the way it treats people with disabilities and their families.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired in July 2019 as senior editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.