"Behold, how good and pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity." - Psalms 133:1
Three percent of the population in this country is traditionally ignored by religious congregations.The annual celebration of Mental Retardation Sabbath/Sunday, scheduled March 11 and 12 this year, is a reminder of the religious needs of the mentally handicapped, said Dave Stewart, president-elect of the Utah Chapter of the Association for Retarded Citizens. Gov. Norm Bangerter has declared March as Mental Retardation Month.
"What we try to do," Stewart said, "is to get churches to think about the fact that persons with mental retardation can be useful in their congregation.
"The thing is, it touches each congregation. One of every 10 families has a member that is retarded, so it really touches churches of every stripe in the state of Utah."
Stewart, formerly the pastor of four Utah congregations, first learned about special religious needs through his daughter.
Sarah, 17, runs the nursery at Calvary Chapel, 237 S. 10th East. Mildly mentally retarded, she is an active, participating member in the mainstream of her religious community.
Janae Holladay, 7, who has Downs syndrome, loves her Sunday School class at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sandy, said her mother, Pam Holladay, director of Christian education for the church. "I guess the biggest success story is that Janae just comes out of that room every week with a big smile on her face and papers in her hand just like everybody else," Holladay said. "The neat thing with her Sunday School class is the kids treat her as one of the gang."
Unfortunately, success stories such as Sarah's and Janae's are rare in this state, said her father. "In terms of Utah, there aren't a whole lot of stories. The mentally retarded tend to be segregated."
Stewart cites the example of a mentally handicapped southern Oregon youth who as an Explorer successfully spoke to 200 schools about his own condition, starting with his own high school, to earn his Eagle Scout award.
"We're really not in favor of segregated church or club activities for the mentally retarded," Stewart said.
Among the churches that actively integrate their retarded members and who support the annual celebration of Mental Retardation Sabbath/-Sunday are: the three congregations of Calvary Chapels in American Fork, Salt Lake and Ogden; Immanuel Christian Reformed, Murray; Ogden Christian Reformed; First Presbyterian; the Bountiful Grace Baptist Church and several stakes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City has a committee to focus on the special religious needs of the mentally retarded.
The way to greater awareness is simple, said Stewart. Church leaders just have to key into their members' individual talents and surround the mentally retarded with a network of supporters.
Such integration serves a twofold purpose. It helps the non-handicapped lose their fear and learn how to support - and accept - the mentally retarded. And it helps retarded people learn social and religious skills.
The Association of Retarded Citizens is an advocacy group for the mentally handicapped. Included among the recommendations for congregations - who might want to use the March Sabbath/Sunday as a starting point to bridge the gaps among their congregation - are ideas such as adopting a nearby group home; inviting mentally retarded members to lead the singing or a congregational prayer; offering respite care to the parents of a mentally handicapped child; organizing friendship clubs; and involving mentally retarded youth in regular programs, such as Scout troops and Sunday School classes.