Elizabeth Bajema: All Belong in God’s Family
Churches sometimes see themselves as inclusive simply because they have attendees from group homes. But true inclusion means getting to know people as individuals with gifts to offer in God’s family.
Elizabeth Bajema is a member of First Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she has served as a deacon. She is on the board of Friendship Ministries and is a recent recipient of the Spirit Award from Compassionate Heart Ministries. In this edited conversation, she discusses how God has gifted her to serve others.
The first question refers to Barbara J. Newman’s puzzle perspective, which sees every person as part of a pink and green jigsaw puzzle depicting God’s kingdom. Each of us is a puzzle piece with green parts for things we are good at or enjoy and pink parts for weaknesses or things we struggle with. Newman, an author, teacher consultant, and director of church services for All Belong, says that none of us is all pink or all green. God designed us to be joined together, with each piece needed to complete the image.
What are the ways you use your gifts, your “green parts,” in God’s family?
I see myself using my “green parts” when I lead a Bible study using the Together curriculum and when I serve on the Friendship Ministries board of directors. I lead the Bible study with the women I live with at Hope House. We call ourselves sisters. We have already gone through many Together Bible study units, like Choosing Courage, Jesus: Face to Face, Unwrapping Your Gifts, and Road to Jerusalem.
What do you and your sisters like about the Together curriculum?
Lately our favorite part has been the drama option. They like the videos too. For each unit at my house, we do the discussion questions and video, and then I pause. I talk about how the questions relate to the study and to our lives. People respond with a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
Some of the sisters can use computers and read. Others have a harder time reading and writing. Many people with disabilities have trouble with print curriculum. We all have different learning styles. Together gives many ways to learn about and respond to the Bible. It has options like pictures, videos, and drama.
What do you wish more churches knew about the Together curriculum?
It’s not about you; it’s about what (the others) want. The whole point is that everyone belongs in the church. These Together Bible studies are the right thing to use. They make it easy to include all kinds of people. At Hope House, we want to continue using Together. So we hope that funds are raised to add more units to the curriculum.
What are your responsibilities on the Friendship Ministries board?
Friendship Ministries has small groups for people with intellectual disabilities. They meet each week at a church to learn about God. Together is the newest Friendship Ministries curriculum. Each week I go to a Friendship group at Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church. At that one, I’m not the leader, but I help out if they need help.
The Friendship Ministries board meetings are sometimes long. My job is to be at the meeting, be a listener, and be there for people with all kinds of disabilities. I also go to the annual fundraiser. Tom Van Wingerden, the director of Friendship Ministries, will retire this year. So we are experiencing different proposals about what to do next. Our last meeting was on Zoom, not in person.
I never used Zoom till the COVID-19 situation started. Is that when you learned it too?
Yes, I got a brand-new computer. When we had to stay home because of the virus, my dad remotely set up Zoom and showed me how to use it. My sister, Rebecca, lives in California. I’ve been doing Zoom with my dad and mom and sister once or twice a week.
Back to the puzzle pieces that Barb Newman talks about: what are your pink parts?
It’s hard. When I think about my pink parts, the hardest part is going to meetings. I moved to Hope House six years ago. Before that I lived with my parents and went to First Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was a deacon at First when my mom was an elder there. Sometimes I went to council meetings [elders and deacons meet together] with her. But some church meetings are four hours long. So the deacons said I didn’t have to go to the meetings. My job as a deacon was to do the offering, help in the church food pantry once a month, and help count the offering once a month.
I’ve heard you used to sing in the First CRC choir. What are some other ways you use your gifts in God’s family?
At First CRC, I have read Scripture during the service, read parts in the Christmas program, served in the nursery, and helped out with summer Bible school programs. I am still a member at First CRC but often go with my sisters to a church nearer to our house.
I got asked by the Friendship Ministries director to go to the CRC Inspire 2019 Conference in Canada. They paid for me and my mom to go. It was a great experience. I met a famous author, Ann Voskamp. And I got to sit at a table to promote the Together curriculum for all churches.
Barb Newman asked me to be on a panel at the 2020 Calvin Symposium on Worship about universal design for worship. The other panelists did their own speeches. For my part, Barb asked me questions about the Together curriculum, and I answered.
How else do you spend your days?
In high school I did an internship at the New 2 You thrift shop. Now I take the GO! Bus to volunteer there three days a week. I’ve been there for ten years now and am a jack of all trades. I clean shelves, take care of hangers from cashiers, take care of bags for customers, hang up clothes, and bag clothes not needed. I’m in charge of the linens department, so I organize the linens. I take care of ties. I clean purses and throw out the junk. Any money left in purses goes into a jar for the staff to get donuts. I’ve made friends with the other volunteers.
During the school year, I usually bowl on Monday mornings, and I take a Noorthoek Academy class at Grand Rapids Community College on Friday afternoons. Noorthoek is for people with intellectual disabilities. We study one topic each semester, like Brazil, Korea, the environment, space, or something else.
With COVID-19, it feels weird that I’m not working or taking a class. But Barb Newman told me to remember the three Rs—reflect, relax, and recharge. I’ve been doing lots of coloring, crafts, and baking.
How is COVID-19 affecting you and your Hope House sisters?
Right now it’s kind of hard for them. They want to see and hug their parents. I do see my parents, but there are different ways of dealing with the virus. After we say goodnight to our house parents and go upstairs, we have evening devotions. We read Bible stories, and I play music from YouTube. We feel encouraged by “Faithful One” by Brian Doerksen and old traditional songs, like “When Peace Like a River” and “All Creatures of Our God and King.”
Are there other places you miss going to right now?
For eight or nine years, my mom took me every Wednesday to Compassionate Heart Ministries in Zeeland, (Michigan). It’s a drop-in center. The part I enjoyed most was hanging out with friends, playing games, and eating lunch together. We volunteered here and there, like at Kids’ Food Basket. I got a Spirit award from them at a fundraiser. But I aged out when I turned 36. So now on Wednesday afternoons I volunteer at Beer City Dog Biscuits. It’s in the kitchen of Central Reformed Church. We bake treats for dogs and sell them at different stores and farmers’ markets. It was started by two moms who have sons with a disability.
Would you like to know more about Beer City Dog Biscuits from their website? I'll read you my favorite part: “We believe all people, regardless of their abilities, enrich our community. Those with disabilities are essential; without their presence in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and churches, our community is incomplete! Our belief is rooted in the knowledge that we are the Body of Christ, and that every person—regardless of ability—is essential to God’s plan.”
What would you like churches to know about people with intellectual disabilities?
All belong. We want to be included in the life of the church and use our gifts. People with disabilities can be part of the worship and community life. They can read the Bible, pray, or be an usher or deacon. They can get involved with the choir or nursery. My house goes to a nearby church that tries to involve people with disabilities, but they are having a hard time. I see lots of houses attending the church, but they are not asked to be part of things. It makes me feel not so good.
Read more about Elizabeth Bajema’s service on the Friendship Ministries board (p. 2). Learn about All Belong and its Together curriculum for inclusive Bible study groups. You can use drama to engage people with disabilities with scripture. Christianity Today offers insights on how the coronavirus may inspire changes that make worship more inclusive.