I’ve been in Lima, in the shanty town area, just over 20 years. I lead Shalom, a church for people with disabilities and their families and a centre for children with disabilities and other special needs, providing a range of therapies.
By Pat Blanchard
Before lockdown, we had 108 children coming to the centre every week. They would come once or twice, depending on the therapies, their diagnosis, what their needs were and also, because we charge a nominal amount, what the parents were able to afford. We mainly cater for those who are not able to afford regular therapies or weren’t able to travel to the big hospitals. But working with people with disabilities was never part of my plan…
I came to Peru in 2000 at the invitation of the bishop to work with income-generating and social projects – a sewing project, schools, medical work – to try to help them become sustainable. I’m a teacher and also worked for Tearfund. I had some background in development. I did a lot of project writing and training on how to write reports, how to be sustainable, how to develop income-generating small businesses.
When I arrived, I started attending and serving with Jesus El Nazareno Church, who were looking for a woman to work with the women of the church. When there were changes and the deacons moved on, I took on leading the church in 2005 as a lay minister, before being ordained deacon in November 2006 (having previously studied at London Bible College).
We came across a young man with cerebral palsy and he needed a wheelchair. We found out where we could get one and continued working with the organisation that helped us, providing wheelchairs and support. People were trained and we started going out into the community, getting to know some of the mums with children with disabilities. And we saw a great need.
An accessible church
We started the therapies in 2005. People wanted to know more about faith, so we started a church in 2008. My first church was up in the hills, had lots of cobblestones and wasn’t accessible. We started somewhere with ramps, on the ground floor, meeting in somebody’s garage. The church community is made up of families of children with disabilities, people with disabilities, those who have got wheelchairs from us. The therapy centre and church kind of blended together. We’re always doing stuff with the mums while they’re waiting: showing videos, doing Bible studies, sharing faith.
Shalom is part of a network in our district. It’s been great to work with other NGOs, share resources and be involved in training local government officers in how to work with people with disabilities.
I didn’t intend to set up projects for people with disabilities. It’s not something I was involved in previously. It’s been an amazing opportunity, but very challenging. It’s something God has put on my heart. We really enjoy being a community together, realising that we’re all loved by God and that we’ve all got a place and we can all do things.
For me, an important passage is 2 Samuel 9. David asks how he can show kindness to one of Saul’s descendants and Mephibosheth is carried to the king’s table and invited to eat there. We’re in that party. I think that’s what people with disabilities need to know, that they don’t just have to wait for heaven. They can enjoy life now. Sitting at the king’s table starts now, once people know that God loves them and they are welcomed into community, not excluded.
Most of our church family have disabilities, but we all worship together, whether we have a disability or not. We try to be creative, using images in our liturgy and a lot of singing, which I try to promote in the diocese. They’ve kept that for Sunday school, but even adults engage better seeing an image, drawing or listening to music, so there’s a range of sensory approaches to incorporate.
I’d like to make sure all our churches are accessible, practically and spiritually. People with disabilities can engage and touch other people’s lives.
I remember an amazing time when we confirmed three young people with disabilities. The bishop asked a question and their faces just lit up. And as they opened their mouths, the whole congregation were almost in tears. That’s probably one of the most amazing times, when I really felt that God was so present.
People can express themselves if you give them the opportunity. We have an open prayer time in church. And Brenda, who’s 25 with learning difficulties, prays. We don’t always understand it, but she knows she’s talking to God, she knows he’s going to answer and we can all respond with amen.
The Shalom project has been paused since the end of September and Shalom church continues to meet virtually. So we look to the future when things can restart again, perhaps in an even better form to include many others. We’ve distributed food parcels to new contacts in the local community so we hope we can include them in a more positive way in faith and community.