Nolan Smith: "I love my faith. I want to be part of the Church, to participate in its activities."

Nolan Smith was part of the group of people who gave voice to the community of people with varying disabilities in the Church through the document The Church is our home. This young man with Down syndrome shows, together with his family, the challenge of the full integration of people with diverse disabilities within the Church. 

Maria José Atienza-December 27, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes

At 22 years old, Nolan Smith lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and is currently in the University's Transition to Post-Secondary Education Program from Kansas and is studying Early Childhood Education. Since her birth, she has shared the life of faith in her home. Her participation in parish life has also opened new paths in her community.

Nolan participated in the development of the document. The Church is our home. Together with his father, Sean Joseph, he gave an interview to Omnes to talk about his experience. An experience that highlights the richness that these people bring to the community, their willingness to offer their talents and the support of their family in the life of faith. 

Nolan, how have you lived your faith at home, in your family, with your friends?

-I have lived my faith at home in many ways. First, as a family, we pray. We prayed at mealtimes and also at night. We have also helped the community and the parish as a family. My parents say that doing this helps others and is what God would want. I try to be a good person. I seek to share with others. I want to make sure my friends know they are special. I care about them and want to make them happy. If I can help them in any way, I do. I also prayed with my grandmother. She lived close by for the last four years of her life. Every night I would go to her house, my father would bring us dinner and we would both eat. Then we would play music and also pray the rosary.

Sean, as Nolan's father, what is your perspective on this experience?

-Nolan is one of our four children. He, like his siblings, has participated in religious education, sacraments, prayers at home and education through the Church. As a family, we attend Mass. They have been asked to help with the Church at various events, including parish activities. 

Our younger children attended parochial school. Nolan and his older sister did not because Nolan was not allowed to attend. Now, they accept and educate children with Down syndrome.

You are a young man now, Nolan, how do you participate in your parish community? 

-I have helped my church in various ways. I have served as an altar server, I have helped in teaching religious education with my father, and I serve as a lector at this time. I have also helped with the Christmas Eve children's pageant and have also decorated the church at Christmas and Easter time.

 Have you found it difficult or easy to live your faith?

-I love my faith. My grandmother was very special to me and also helped me to know God. I miss her but I feel she helped me live my faith. Going to church and learning about God has been part of what we do as a family. So, it's pretty easy to live my faith.

You were one of the participants in the Dicastery meeting that resulted in the document. The Church is our homeHow was your participation in the meeting?

-It was good. I had the opportunity to introduce myself and listen to the others: who they were and where they were from. The first zoom meeting was a get-to-know-you meeting. I enjoyed listening to the translator and was surprised to see all the languages spoken. We were given an assignment to complete a booklet. My father and I put in what we thought about the Church, what we saw about the Church's vision for people with disabilities and the like. Then they gave us a summary of what they had learned. 

What do you ask of the Church?

-I want to be part of the Church. To be part is to be able to attend mass. But also to participate in church activities, social events, learning and other events. Before the pandemic, I used to go to an event that a priest organized on Sundays after mass. I would go with my grandmother and we would have refreshments and listen to the priest talk about the readings and other church things. I was part of this group and that was important. Things like that are important to me.

Do you think there is a change of mentality within the Church in the pastoral care of people with disabilities? 

[Nolan] I don't know. I know that I am part of my parish. I have been able to do everything I have wanted to do. I have been able to participate like my siblings. My dad says the Catholic school wouldn't accept me, but now they are teaching kids with Down syndrome. So that's good.

[Sean Joseph] I think the Church has been slower than society. I serve on our disability committee. The current focus on the part of the parish and the archdiocese is access. Access in the sense that we have to provide basic access to the Church and the sacraments. Society was talking about access and basic access 40 years ago. Today, society is talking about and facilitating meaningful inclusion. Inclusion where people with disabilities are part of the community, are included in typical activities (e.g., serving at the altar, being a lector, parish school) and are contributing members of society. Unfortunately, sometimes the Church just talks about how we build ramps in buildings, how we provide audio supports for deaf people. They don't talk about the needs of people with intellectual disabilities or autism. They don't focus on developmental disabilities, which society is very focused on. 

Unfortunately, I would say that they are looking at things from a 20th century perspective, when we are in the third decade of the 21st century.

At The Church our home It is emphasized that people with disabilities are also called to give. What do they bring to the church community?

[Nolan] Well, first of all, I am a person. So this idea that I'm a needy person is a problem. If the church is opened up and reasonable accommodations are offered, I can be part of the church. 

Don't treat me as someone who is different and someone who needs to be pitied or needed. When we do this we treat people with disabilities differently. I have three siblings. Don't treat me differently than my siblings just because I have a disability. 

The Church has to learn from what society has learned. I can contribute like anyone else. I have been an altar boy. Now I am a lector. I can participate in the choir. I have helped teach Sunday school. Just give me a chance and some props (when needed) and I'll be a part.

If they treat me differently because I have Down syndrome or prevent me from helping because I have Down syndrome, that's wrong.

[Sean Joseph] Nolan is part of the parish. He is a member and an active member. Now, I would say that this was initially due to my expectation and support. For example, I helped him train as an altar server and also facilitated his participation in that process. His brother also helped him when they were at the altar together. I am also in charge of the lectors and therefore trained him. 

The parish community, when they have participated in these activities, has been very well received. They have been very supportive and have endorsed his participation throughout the parish. They consider this to be typical of Nolan. 

However, I have seen that other people with disabilities are not as included. So the parish has work to do. Why? Because people with disabilities can and should participate on an equal basis with the church community. 

We are all children of God and when we treat them as such (e.g., offer support, create a structure and climate of inclusion, see everyone as a person first, not as a disability and then as a person), we can easily include them in our Church.

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