In April of 2015, the Ministry for People with Disabilities held Meet & Greets in Fort Wayne and South Bend. These evenings were open to anyone interested in discussing effective ways to engage people with disabilities such as cognitive, physical, emotional and mental illness, into a full and meaningful participation in our Church. People shared their experiences of being welcomed and supported by members of their parish or school communities as well as the negative experiences of unintentional and sometimes intentional harmful words and actions. The testimonies revealed what was possible and how much needed to be done. About twenty-five people attended both locations and follow-up meetings were scheduled for May to discuss how parishes could address the needs of people with disabilities and be part of the effort to help parishes make the necessary accommodations to help all people feel welcomed, respected, and valued.
When a small number of people from the Fort Wayne area gathered for the follow-up meeting in May, Building Inclusive Parishes (BIP) was formed. These core members came from various Fort Wayne area parishes and represented different disabilities. They began meeting once a month at Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church and in their first few months, BIP created a Mission Statement, established Goals & Objectives, and created an email account (firstname.lastname@example.org). One of the primary considerations of this group was to help people who contacted them feel connected and supported. Different core members responded to emails and phone calls and would then connect them with a member of BIP who shared a similar experience to accompany them.
In the fall of 2015, representatives of BIP participated in the ZEAL" Missionary Discipleship Ministry Fair" at Bishop Dwenger High School and provided information tables at the Catholic Schools Mission Days in Fort Wayne & South Bend. BIP continued to meet monthly with a desire to spread the word about its mission and increase their numbers. They offered a Meet & Greet at Our Lady of Good Hope in the spring of 2016. Several people joined the core group including a couple who helped to develop a logo and branding for the group. The website was also created.
In May 2016, BIP asked to meet with Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades to introduce their group and to ask for his support. They spoke of their experiences of priests who made the effort to include their loved one with a disability and the difference it made. They shared concrete examples of things that could be done to make our parishes more inclusive - having "handicap-accessible" parish grounds, provide opportunities for people with disabilities to be included in faith formation classes and in parish schools, to be "asked" to serve in ministerial and leadership roles, and to make it a priority for people with special needs to receive their sacraments. They shared their hope that all of our faith communities could be places where all people would feel welcomed. Bishop Rhoades invited BIP to speak at the Presbyteral Meeting that September. At this gathering ten different BIP members spoke very briefly about their personal experience and their willingness to help the priests to serve and support people with disabilities. Information like "Pastoral Practices", listing simple and concrete ways to make parishes more accommodating, and contact information for BIP was distributed. One of the core members, who was serving as the Director of Religious Education at a Fort Wayne parish (and helping some children with special needs at a couple of parishes prepare to receive their sacraments), informed the priests that she was offering two different workshops in October 2016 - one for DRE's and parish staffs and another for parents of children with special needs at the Archbishop Noll Center. This invitation was also extended to the diocesan educators at the Catholic School Mission Days in Fort Wayne and South Bend. The workshops for the DRE's, educators, and parish staff were offered in the afternoon and evening.
As BIP continued to work on initiatives in the Fort Wayne area, they wanted to spread this "grassroots" movement to the South Bend Area. In honor of Disabilities Awareness Month, BIP offered a Mass & Mingle at St. Anthony de Padua, South Bend in March of 2017. Fr. David Ruppert celebrated Mass and then all were invited to enjoy a light meal. Several "Fort Wayne" BIP members were on hand to share their personal experiences of having a loved one with a disability and what being part of BIP had meant to them. Soon after, a couple of people who attended this gathering expressed their desire to start a BIP "chapter" in the South Bend area. Their first meeting was August 14, 2017 at St. Jude Catholic Church. BIP is supported by the staff in the Secretariat for Evangelization and is committed to helping individuals and parishes across the diocese make our parish communities inclusive and welcoming. If you are interested in starting a BIP "chapter" in your area, diocesan staff and members of BIP are ready to help.