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"Mainstreaming" The Alienated: The Church Responds To A "New" Minority

Creator: Harold H. Wilke (author)
Date: March 23, 1977
Publication: The Christian Century
Source: Available at selected libraries

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A Lady Bountiful attitude which assumes that the church's ministry is to the disabled -- rather than with them -- misses the gospel's whole point.


Mr. Wilke is director of the Healing Community, a program of the New Samaritan Corporation.


PRINCESS Dymphna was a lovely Irish lass who lived in about the fifth century A.D. Her father, the king, lusted after her, and she fled to Gheel in what is now Belgium. There, when the king caught up with her, she still refused his advances, and he had her beheaded.


Out of the grisly materials of this violent and sex-filled story there developed a strangely hopeful tradition. People understood the act of the king as obviously that of a mad person and came to believe, as a somewhat illogical corollary, that his daughter had special healing qualities for the mentally ill. People started coming to Gheel from all over Europe, a swelling number through the centuries, and finally in 1245 Princess Dymphna was canonized by the church.


The remarkable thing -- that which speaks to us across the years -- is that all the people who came to be cured stayed in the homes of the parish, the homes of the people in the community, and the visits lasted from a month to a year or more. No institutions were built, no huge dormitories prepared: the homes of church people were opened to the sick who came. In fact, the only change that has come about in this whole expression of acceptance is that about 100 years ago, the Belgian government began reimbursing the people of Gheel for extra costs in room and board for their suffering guests.


What does this story say to us?


The Church and the Alienated


Societally alienated persons are far too often rejected by the local congregation and responded to, if at all, primarily in terms of a "mission" on the part of the church to these groups -- to alcoholics, the mentally retarded, the physically disabled, returnees from mental hospitals, the violence-prone, former prisoners, and the aging. These are the persons who are wounded or ill on the road to Jericho wherever we travel. On this road the church is far too often not the Good Samaritan, but the priest and the Levite passing by on the other side.


Our comfort is disturbed, our feelings are jolted by the presence of such a person in church (and as much on the way to church). We do not want to be reminded of the presence of such alienated persons in overwhelming numbers in our society, and of Christ's response to them.


Their name is legion. The physically disabled and developmentally disabled, for example, number close to 30 million persons in the United States. But they are seen only when one consciously -- as in taking the commuter train through Harlem -- bothers to notice. They are seen only when we remove our blinders, for they exist outside the comfortable purview of most church members. Alienated persons are in every third home on the block, and they are spread throughout our society; but far too often these persons in wheelchairs and otherwise incapacitated remain "in the attic," where society has placed them through the years.


We have a history of keeping people "out of sight, out of mind." In the U.S. it has been thought the proper thing for the church to institutionalize such persons; in many cases the church has turned over to secular society the keeping of such institutions. Several of our denominations have been leaders in this work, which is motivated by humanitarian concern and often is necessary, although institutionalization is not always the best solution. The church in Germany helped to create, both there and through churches in this country that follow their examples, the idea that institutions can best take care of alienated people.


But now, within our churches and in secular society, the process of deinstitutionalization is gathering force. For just one example, the number of persons in mental hospitals -- over a quarter-million seven years ago -- has been cut in half over the past six years. Most of our state governments and the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare follow an intentional program of deinstitutionalization. In many cases our churches have led the way.


Within a stressful, technologically oriented society, the facts are clear. Ever more people are becoming alienated, and ever more of them are coming out into the open. A highly scientific Western world creates so much that is new and effective in medicine and technology that, on the one hand, more and more persons are injured and crippled by the use of that technology; on the other hand, more and more persons severely injured or born with physical abnormalities are saved to life through technology. Thus we are creating and holding on to an ever-increasing number of handicapped individuals.


An overwhelming majority of these persons need not, should not and indeed cannot be institutionalized. They are part of our society, not apart from it. More sharply than ever before, the idea of "main-streaming" -- keeping persons who differ from the norm within the main current of social life -- is becoming a part of Western thinking. In this context, there is an urgent need for society to respond to a "coming-out party" for those who are about to be deinstitutionalized, as well as a need for a far more adequate response to that much larger number who already are in our midst. Certainly the religious community, in its contact with people on every street corner and in every hamlet, has a prime opportunity to help in this mainstreaming process.

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