The following is an account of how Rev. Gerry and Laura Koning utilized The 5 Stages to support conversations and assist fellow believers in El Salvador in changing attitudes about disabilities. Rev. and Mrs. Koning visited El Salvador in June, and used the Spanish translation of The 5 Stages as developed by Paul Blas, Church Relationship Coordinator for Tesoros de Dios.
Our activities in El Salvador during the month of June were due to a request made to us in the fall of 2013 by some of the reformed pastors in that country. Many of them were Gerry’s students back in the mid-eighties when we lived there. We were contacted in the fall of 2013 to consider coming back to El Salvador to visit the work the reformed pastors had been engaged in during the years of our absence (24 years later). Our daughter, Leslie, was born in El Salvador, and due to her seizure disorder and developmental delay, we were led to return to the United States for medical reasons…and family support. It was a vary painful time of our lives since our calling to serve in CRC World Missions was our guiding thought throughout seminary and the early years of our marriage.
When we were asked to consider returning to El Salvador for two weeks, Gerry responded with a concern that we have two children with disabilities that require a lot of care, and, we would pray about the request and get back to them. Immediately following that email to our contact person, Ivan Montes, wrote again and prevailed on the opportunity to invite us to speak on the subject of ministry among the disabled population of El Salvador. Many people live with injury and disability as a result of the Civil War of the 1980’s. Since Ivan serves on a government appointed committee that serves the population of individuals living with disabilities, he set about convening groups of people that would benefit from our experience as parents of children with differences.
A Perfect Tool for Presentations
We discussed what material we would use and reproduce for these presentations and naturally The 5 Stages came to mind. We also used the CRC/RCA publication “Inclusion Handbook: Everybody Belongs, Everybody Serves” (first edition). We discovered that these were already translated into Spanish so we sent the material down to Ivan who began to review it and got very excited about it. We had 100 copies of Las Cinco Etapas and the Inclusion Handbook reproduced to use at our presentations. Both were well-received as new resources for the leadership of the Church in El Salvador.
- Our first presentation was to approximately 30 church leaders and government officials who were convened to assist civic agencies in complying with the laws established in 1993 regarding the rights of the population of individuals with disabilities. CONAIPD is the acronym for El Consejo Nacional de Atención Integral a la Persona con Discapacidad. This government-appointed committee is assigned the work of assessing, promoting, educating, and monitoring the application of the law concerning rights for the disabled in all of El Salvador. Ivan, our contact person (and a reformed pastor), asked that we speak to this very ecumenical group of church leaders, not to teach the reformed perspective, rather to prompt a response to Christ’s call to assist “the weak and vulnerable” in our societies. The churches represented were from Roman Catholic, Jewish, Reformed, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Pentecostal congregations. The 5 Stages document and Inclusion Handbook now have a very broad exposure in the country of El Salvador through the lives and ministries of these conference participants.
- Another presentation was made to about 50 members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal which has the government mandate of creating models of participation for those living with disabilities in becoming educated on voting ballot issues and candidates running for office, as well as providing opportunities for those with disabilities to participate in federal and local elections. A lively discussion of assisting the population who live with disabilities in the voting process from a bi-partisan perspective ensued, which included discussion of the difficulties of giving a voice to the most vulnerable in society. The 5 Stages document provided a springboard to a discussion of what attitude we have in allowing someone with differing political opinions to express them publicly. The task of educating children with special needs in El Salvador requires that these students be included in the general education classroom without the luxury of classroom aides or paraprofessionals.
- A third opportunity to use Las Cinco Etapas was at a teacher training at the headquarters of “Marcos 2: Ministerio a Personas con Discapacidad.” Approximately 25 men and women involved in ministry among the disabled population in local churches gathered to discuss changing attitudes toward those living with disabilities. When asked where we locate ourselves in the journey of Las Cinco Etapas, there were many testimonies of inclusion from the participants, but also tears of repentance and grief for misunderstanding the needs of the marginalized population.
- Fourth, Gerry and Ivan led a discussion of The 5 Stages with a group of public school teachers who are given the task of classroom instruction for the general education population and the special education population in one classroom without the luxury of paraprofessionals or other interventionists. Special education classrooms are diminishing due to funding limitations, so the general education teachers are expected to instruct children with special needs without any formal training themselves. The need for developing compassion in the teachers and in the homes from which the special needs students come is profound and The 5 Stages document raises that compassion level by addressing the attitudes towards those who live with challenges. Several participants expressed new energy, hope and ideas for inclusion as a result of that particular presentation.
I believe that God blessed a great many Salvadoran church leaders and schools with Las Cinco Etapas journey document. One pastor responded by saying that his copy would be the basis for his sermon on Sunday…projected on the screen for all to see. Our contact person was thrilled by the reaction of many of the church leaders and their response to Las Cinco Etapas journey. Our prayer is that it will reach into the lives of many so that hope is rekindled in their hearts and lives.
Laura Koning has been involved in disability ministry for about 26 years. She is the mother of four children, two of which live with distinctive disabilities. One daughter has severe and multiple disabilities and a son who has Down Syndrome. Recently Laura and her husband, Rev. Gerry A. Koning, were invited back to San Salvador, El Salvador, where they served briefly as missionaries working in church development and theological education in the late 1980’s. Since Laura’s daughter with severe disabilities was born in El Salvador, she was asked to speak on the topic of including individuals with disabilities in church, school and society. Laura is also a member of the Advisory Committee to the Disability Concerns office of the Christian Reformed Church of North America.