Ministering to Residents of an Adult Foster Care Home

By Fr. Michael Matsko

Good Samaritan Ministry

Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Livonia, MI was founded in 1988. As a new parish of the OCA, we knew that our task was to "bring the Kingdom of God to all people." In our organizational meetings, we recalled that those who came before us, building the Orthodox Church in America, did their work with a vision of Orthodox mission and witness, based on the vision St. Paul describes when he said:

speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him Who is the head, into Christ, from Whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Eph. 4:15-16)

Recalling the words of Jeremiah the prophet, "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope," (Jeremiah 29:11), we sought to discern the ways in which God was inviting us forward toward that future.

For the Orthodox Christian, discerning the future is an easy task; it is simply remembering the past and celebrating the present. It became readily apparent that the vision of the apostolic church must be our vision as well. Liturgical life and prayer, Discipling (learning, teaching and sending), and Christian Service -- Diakonia -- is how Christ invites us to share His life and mission. The Church then becomes the key to understanding Christian service. It is the key because it is only in the Church that Christ is to be known as He really is in the fullness of His divine and human life and being. We come to know and understand that the fundamental mission of Orthodox Christians today is to serve man and the world by bearing witness to the fact that Christ is our Savior, and that Christ is present now in the midst of the earth in His Church and in the "least of the brethren." We must be ready, therefore, to make every effort and sacrifice to support our claims by our actions; witnessing and serving with a love "not in words and speech, but in deed and truth." (1 John 3:18) This understanding gave birth to our Good Samaritan Ministry.

Ministry to People in Adult Foster Care

At our annual Thanksgiving Dinner, Holy Transfiguration plays host to several hundred men, women and children from various social service agencies, women's shelters, group homes, senior and children's agencies throughout our area. It is an event that both the guests and our parishioners have come to love. One of our own registered nurses, who also works with the developmentally challenged, spoke with another nurse about adopting one of the Adult Foster Care Homes under her supervision. The Supervising Nurse was rather intrigued, but responded: "I don't know!" "We've never had a church ask if they could adopt a group home." From this simple conversation a ministry opportunity presented itself. "For I know the plans I have for you sayeth the Lord...." Thus, five years ago we began a network of relationships with five developmentally disabled men, their caregivers, and our parishioners, involving support, recreation, friendship, love and church.

Our Adopted Foster Care Family

We are going to introduce you to them and give you a little history; however, confidentiality issues preclude us from using their real names. The men range in age from 32 to 59.

Donald -- has no attachments to anyone except the staff at the group home. He does not readily feel emotions like love, happiness, or sadness. He is mentally retarded with an accompanying obsessive/compulsive disorder. He has been in state hospitals and group homes for many, many years. Humor works with Donald. After watching the movie, "The Ten Commandments," on the night before coming to church, he came to church, stood up, raised his hands and arms in the position of supplicatory prayer (orans) and said: "Can I not make it rain?" No one really noticed him except the staff members, and I'm sure God was not offended. We asked Donald to tell in his own words what he likes about the relationship with our church. "I love the Easter Egg hunt. Next time could we hide cantaloupes or watermelons? I love it when you make the smell (incense) in church. I really like Jaimie, the guy with the truck."

Brian -- is mentally retarded with a generalized anxiety disorder. He again shows little emotion or hugging. He has relatives who very rarely visit him. He has been institutionalized for the majority of his life. This is what he states: "I cannot read or write yet. I did attend church when I was younger, but I moved around a lot. The staff
did not have time to take me. Kelly (the group home provider) told me that I was very lucky to have so many wonderful people who care about me. I am lucky."

Edward -- is mentally retarded with periods of psychosis. He has not been psychotic, however, for several years. His mother abandoned him when he was two years old. He was placed in state mental hospitals and group homes all his life. He has a sensitive streak, but grew up hating God. He screamed when he was told that he was going to church. He relates the following: "I am learning to write. I am going to night school. I never really liked to go to church. I hated it. But when I came to Holy Transfiguration it was nothing like I thought it would be. People were nice and even talked to me. I am still not too crazy about going to church but it is so much better with everyone who makes it fun. Father Michael is always glad to see me and (names parishioners) also like to see me. I really like the new church. When I had to go to church on the night before Thanksgiving to peel potatoes, the people at the Center were excited for me. Thank you for being a super part of my life."

Albert -- is mentally retarded with cerebral palsy. He also has been in state mental hospitals since the age of two. He remembers sleeping on a bed of boards with no pillow. He has four brothers and sisters. The family, however, sets him up for failure. They shorten their stay with him, and when they leave, Albert cries at being rejected. He yearns for acceptance and has been labeled as narcissistic. He relates the following: "I cannot write or read. Kelly is helping me. I am so excited to come to see everyone at Holy Transfiguration. My father couldn't keep me on Easter Sunday. He had other plans with family members, and he could not take me. I was angry. Kelly told me we were going to church and that Fr. Michael had invited all of us to his home. When I found out I was going to be with them, I was not so mad anymore. I am looking to come to church more often. Sometimes with the other guys it's hard for staff to get me places. So I am looking to get a taxi to bring me to church more often. I have to find out how much it costs and if they can get me there on time and pick me up on time. I love everyone at Holy Transfiguration. Thank you for being a part of my life."

John -- is the youngest member of the group. He is thirty-two. He is diagnosed with a hypo-manic, rapid cyclic, bi-polar disorder. John can stay awake long periods of time (21 days) without sleeping. He also was institutionalized at a young age. He was caged, sexually abused, never loved or hugged by his grandmother. He can't distinguish good and bad. He saw himself as bad, not worth anything. When he was taken to night school, he found a darkened room and laid on the floor in a fetal position, isolated and alone. He preferred it that way. No one could hurt him there. He was hospitalized six times in five years. When he becomes afraid, he goes to his room where he feels safe. John relates the following: "I cannot write yet, but I am going to night school to learn. I love the people at Holy Transfiguration. I get really excited when I know I am going to see everyone.
You make me feel happy and I know everyone likes me. I like the church services and the singing. I haven't really been to church since I was little. I like the singing. I love Fr. Michael, Debbie, Scott, Jamie, Jane, Dan, Nick, Luke, Nicole, Jaimie and Mrs. Father Michael. When people at workshop ask me if I go to church, I say proudly 'yes.' And they are part of my family."

What Do We Mean by Adoption?

Basically what we have done is incorporate these five men and their caregivers into the life of our Community. They go with us to Detroit Tiger Baseball games and Detroit Piston Basketball games. This Saturday they will go bowling with our teens. They dress up in costume for the Fall Fest and enjoy games and dancing with our kids and grown ups. They especially enjoy coming to watch the children perform at the Christmas Yolka and going to Vespers. They help the kids wash cars to raise money for their various projects. They come to work at our annual Thanksgiving Day dinner for the needy. They want to be productive and to engage in work that is meaningful and socially valued. They want to be accepted and to be contributing members of society. They use their gifts and capacities as God has enabled them. They love the Easter Egg hunt on Pascha Day. The Church School Graduation and Parish Picnic are other favorite events. At Christmas they receive gifts, but they also make gifts to give to us. The capacity to love is sometime latent in the depths of those who have been abused and mentally challenged, but it is there! It just needs to be brought out. And who better to bring it out than Christ! The power of Christ is more effective in transforming human life than anything else. And what better Life than the eschatological community the Church.

The Impact of This Ministry On Our Community

First of all, we give thanks for the opportunity to serve others in the name of Christ. We are humbled in the presence of "the least of the brethren." These are stigmatized people who, for the most part, have been exiled from the community at large all their lives. But now they are no longer exiles and we "have been renewed in the spirit of our minds" (Eph. 4:23). We have a more spiritually developed identity, and as you can see in their writings, so have they. We have experienced this transformation in our people. We have learned the truth that God's image is present in all people. We have learned to respect the dignity, value and worth of every human being. There has been social and spiritual rebirth in them and us. As one of our parishioners relates: "Our kids and adults have learned to interact with people with disabilities. We have learned not to fear mental illness. We have learned the value of disabled people. We have felt the blessings of reaching out to others." She continues, "What is positive for the men is that they feel valued and loved, that they are included in a group that is not specifically geared for the disabled, and that they are exposed to Orthodox Christianity and the Church." It should
be noted that none of the men have been received into the Orthodox Church. That is not the intent of this ministry. If God so wills it, obviously we will say, Amen!

Comments from the Caregivers

Comments from those in charge of the daily care of these men echo those of the parishioners. "People really care about them. We have seen a change in behaviors because of this relationship. The men are less angry and more social. They are a part of something they have never been a part of before, both individually and collectively. Men who were hiding in their rooms now feel safe enough to come to church and interact with people. The men of the church provide good role models for them. The teens are wonderful, natural, and loving role models and interact well with the men. Even the retarded know about church! They lay their clothes out the night before and are excited to come."

Potential Problems

What makes our relationship with the group home so successful is the attitude and love of its staff. The providers or owners of this home have been caregivers for many years. They are sincerely involved in the lives of the men. Some have been with them for twenty years. If the Adult Foster Care provider is not involved, the staff could try to push the men off on the church for caretaking. Good, loving, caring providers create an environment for healing. The parish community can help take healing to another level.

One area that we are careful not to get involved in is the day-to-day care of the men, especially their regimen of medications. We accept the men as they are. When they're with us, any questions that arise dealing with their daily care we refer to the caregivers and follow their wishes.

Lessons in Love

Our teens have interacted with the men more than any other group in the church, and they've formed a special relationship. Perhaps the impact that this adoption has had on our parish is best summed up by the Youth Group when they write:

Over the years our youth group at Holy Transfiguration has been blessed with the opportunity to meet and enjoy the friendship of five handicapped men living in an adult foster care home. We have gotten to know the men through numerous activities throughout the year. We first met the men with great anticipation and now have grown to become a family. The experiences we encounter throughout this friendship bring many lessons for each of us. The simplest gestures bring such joy to each of them, which taught us to cherish the countless blessings we often take for granted. The endless smiles, stories, and moments of laughter have bestowed upon us a greater reward than any material item can ever replace. God has truly blessed us by bringing these men into our lives and teaching us the value of friendship and love.

Fr. Michael Matsko is pastor of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Livonia, Michigan

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries