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Elizabeth Rodriguez on Spanish-Language Disability Ministry

As more congregations realize that all people and all abilities belong together in God's family, they seek resources and training for inclusion. Ministerio Amistad provides comprehensive Spanish-language Bible study materials for people with intellectual disabilities.

As a teen in Colombia, South America, Elizabeth Rodriguez became interested in sharing God's love with people who have cognitive challenges. After earning degrees in finance, marketing, and English as a second language, she moved to the United States. Rodriguez coordinated sales and marketing for Libros Desafío, the Spanish-language imprint of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Rodriguez now lives near Miami, Florida. In this edited conversation, she talks about directing Ministerio Amistad, the Spanish-language version of a ministry for people who have intellectual disabilities.

How did you get interested in disability ministry? 

My interest in ministry to people with disabilities began in my teens, when I belonged to the youth group in my Catholic parish in Bucaramanga, Colombia. One of the apostolates (ministries) we carried out was visiting shelters with people with cognitive disabilities. In that apostolate, I understood that we are all children of God, that we all belong to the family of God, and that we all need to know more about God's love.

I had the opportunity as a catechist in Colombia to prepare people with different abilities to receive the sacraments. I was able to be with them at their first communion and confirmation. It was the first time they really felt part of God's family at the church.

When and why did Ministerio Amistad begin? 

Ministerio Amistad, which means Friendship Ministries, began in the late 1990s due to the need to offer a Bible study program in Spanish for people with cognitive disabilities. The initial audience was Hispanic churches in the United States. It grew out of the Friendship Ministries program that was designed in the 1980s to share God's love with people who have cognitive impairments. 

The original Friendship curriculum was written by Martie Bultman and Marcy Vanderwell and illustrated by Joy Visser and Maarten Van Voorthuysen. Vicenta C. Andrade and Gabriel Montaña translated it into Spanish for Ministerio Amistad. Initially, Jesus, Our Savior (New Testament lessons) was translated into Spanish, which also began to be applied in Latin America, and after that, God, Our Father (Old Testament lessons) was translated. 

Friendship materials, including Ministerio Amistad materials, are published by Faith Alive Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America.

Is Ministerio Amistad still the only Spanish-language Bible study program for people with intellectual disabilities? 

The Amistad program continues to be the most complete Spanish-language Bible study for people with intellectual disabilities. It includes lessons from the whole Bible and explains, step by step, how to develop a Bible class with people of diverse capacities. Durable visuals are very important in this ministry, so we use illustrated books, videos, cards, posters, banners, flannelgraph figures, and take-home activity sheets. Each lesson includes graphics for each class for both the teacher and for people with intellectual disabilities. 

We also have resources such as books and volunteer forms, worship resources, and using people-first language. I have seen that the book El Autismo y tu Iglesia, translated from Barbara J. Newman's Autism and Your Church, works very well in Protestant and Catholic settings. It helps Catholics include kids with autism in catechist groups.

What does each year of the Amistad curriculum cover? 

The first year, Dios, nuestro Padre (God, our Father), contains 24 themes from the Old Testament. The second year, Jesus, nuestro Salvador (Jesus, our Savior), contains 24 themes from the New Testament. Each lesson includes graphics and is divided into two classes, one for youth and one for adults.

What is the average group size? 

We have different sizes of groups. Some develop in remote areas and others in homes or churches. I consider that the average number of members of the Amistad groups is ten people with different abilities and five to seven volunteers. Many Amistad groups meet on weekends, especially Saturdays. Most Amistad group members live at home with their family.

How widely have Amistad groups spread? 

Amistad is designed to promote inclusive Christian education in Hispanic communities in the United States and Latin America. It is used in Catholic, Protestant, and other Christian traditions. I have learned many things from the Protestant community, but I fully identify with Catholic doctrine. Like many catechists, I have used Amistad to prepare people of diverse abilities for confirmation and Eucharist.

Thanks to God and donor help, Ministerio Amistad has reached 23 countries, helping to create or support around 380 groups of people with all abilities. Approximately 300 groups are in churches of different denominations, about 50 are in schools, and the rest are in rehabilitation centers. These data are approximate, because most likely there are more than 380 Amistad groups, since several of them share the materials with other churches or communities.

What cultural differences have you noticed among Amistad groups?

Some Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Colombia, and Peru, have better training or inclusive education in their communities. These countries apply more laws in favor of families with people with disabilities than other countries in the same region. There are also churches in the region that carry out the inclusion programs in their congregations with great efforts. 

Many of these churches are poor, such as a Baptist congregation in Cuba. But thanks to the donations received, we can send them the appropriate material for the Amistad groups. Besides curriculum, we share ideas and guidelines for the proper development of each Amistad program. The Baptist woman leading two Amistad groups in Cuba was grateful for the guidance we offer on abuse prevention, since many of her group members have been victims of abuse.

Which core ideas of Amistad and Friendship transcend cultures?

In my many years with this beautiful ministry, I have found that a key word is respect. In Latin America, we have a lot to work on to build respect for people with disabilities. I know that is true in the United States too. A big problem in Latin America is that beautiful historic cathedrals don't have easy access for people with mobility issues. But the newer churches in Latin America are more physically accessible. Victoria White, the All Belong director of church services, says that the church should be the model of respect and inclusion even though religious entities are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act

But it is our core belief that every congregation needs to do inclusion ministry. We are all children of God with the same spiritual needs. We are all different and we need each other. That means an Amistad group is not just for the persons with a disability. It is for their families and for the entire congregation. The reason is that diversity of ability is necessary for complete community. We experience God's love through belonging in community. We bring glory to God when we learn, serve, and worship together in an interdependent community.

What do you hope to see now that Ministerio Amistad and Friendship Ministries have joined All Belong?

Ministerio Amistad has been the Spanish-language branch of Friendship Ministries. In March 2021, Friendship Ministries became an All Belong subsidiary. Now all of us can offer more materials to our groups. This has been a blessing especially for Ministerio Amistad, as there is a need for more resources in inclusive education in Spanish for the Latin American community. I am sure that as we include more resources in Spanish we will reach more Spanish-speaking churches and ministerial groups with the appropriate materials for the full integration of all abilities in our communities.

What's your advice for families at churches that don't have an inclusion ministry?

If you can't find support in your church, then start doing Amistad in your home. I know of a mother in Argentina who uses our lessons with a daughter who cannot attend class outside of her home. Once you start at home, you can invite another family to join you. Look around for a church that does have an inclusion ministry. Many Amistad groups have families from several churches. 

Some churches consider that they don't need to open inclusion work, saying they don't have any families with a person who has a disability. But maybe if you check, explore, and ask around more, you will find that people came but did not find a place with you. You can ask, "Would you like to participate? Does your son or daughter need catechesis?"

Anything else you want to share?

I just want to mention that Ministerio Amistad exists thanks to the generosity of many people and churches. Thanks to these donations, we have reached many families and churches, especially in Latin America. We still have a long way to go to reach more communities with the Word of God, until we achieve total inclusion. Therefore, I want to request your generosity and invite you to make your donations (designate gift for Ministerio Amistad) to allow us to continue promoting inclusion with people of all abilities. 

LEARN MORE

Contact Elizabeth Rodriguez about Ministerio Amistad through the website or Facebook page. Read in English or Spanish about Ministerio Amistad resources. Both Protestants and Catholics will find good tips in this free All Belong webinar about Catholic perspectives on inclusive worship: Part 1 (Elizabeth Rodriguez section begins at 43:55) and Part 2 (Rodriguez is the main presenter).

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