Matthew Floding: Lessons from Friendship House
Did I mention that this group was committed and passionate? Before long, only a few months after we had first met, we got approval from the seminary’s board of trustees. Had we thought about it back on that first Sunday morning, board approval might have seemed a formidable obstacle. But it wasn’t now.
Basically, the board wanted to know, “Is this initiative consistent with our mission?”
For us, the answer was clear. More than 40 million Americans currently live with a disability, and we need to do more to prepare our students to work with these individuals and their families. In other words, Friendship House would directly support the school’s mission of “preparing men and women called by God to lead the church in mission.” The motion to build Friendship House carried unanimously.
After an intense development campaign -- capped off with a special naming gift by Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus -- construction began in the summer of 2006, and a year later, in the fall of 2007, Friendship House opened.
In each of six apartment pods, three seminary students live with one “friend resident” -- a young adult with disabilities who previously lived at home with his or her parents. Friend residents are expected to be employed, care for themselves, be a friend to seminarians and keep growing in independent living skills. With only 18 seminarians and six friend residents, Friendship House accounts for only a small part of student housing at Western, but its impact has been felt far beyond numbers alone.
In four years of operation, we have learned that our residents with disabilities can grow further and faster than even family members imagined. When we selected the friend residents, we used a psychological/development instrument to help assess their readiness for independent living in several areas. But today, that instrument is no longer applicable. Our friends have literally outgrown it. As one parent exclaimed, “My child has just blossomed.”
The friends, however, are not the only ones who’ve benefited from Friendship House. They have clearly contributed to and enriched the lives of seminarians. Students who live in Friendship House report a deeper appreciation for all people and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
Breaking down prejudices
“Living in Friendship House will break down any prejudices, any preconceived notions that you have about persons with disabilities,” one student said.
Parents agree, saying they have witnessed the changes in their offspring’s seminarian roommates. “You can see the change in the student’s face when she realizes that your daughter is a person in her own right and not just a diagnosis,” one parent said.
But the changes that our seminarians have experienced go far deeper than just a greater appreciation for those with disabilities. Students tell me that the friend residents have opened their eyes to deeper insights into the nature of love and of God. One student told me he had experienced unconditional love and acceptance from his friend roommate. It was something he had never experienced before in the performance-oriented home in which he was raised. “I now understand God’s love in a whole new way,” he said.
Other students report similar insights, insisting that a deeper sense of community is fostered through living in Friendship House. One student told me that Christianity is about community first and individuals second. “Friendship House is helping us open our minds to a deeper sense of community and diminishes the tendency to discriminate against those who are different,” he said.
Perhaps the most important of the many lessons we’ve learned, though, is that the housing opportunity that Friendship House provides is urgently needed throughout our country. Building on the success of our efforts at Western, we’ve formed a nonprofit organization, Friendship House Partners, to work alongside people with intellectual disabilities and their families to secure safe, affordable, community-oriented housing. This new organization is, of course, a matter of justice for people with disabilities. But it is also about empowering people with disabilities to offer a life-changing experience to seminary and divinity school students in a residential setting.
We at Western Seminary would be diminished without the presence of our Friendship House friends. In only a few years, they have made contributions to our seminary community that we never could have imagined. We discern the body of Christ more deeply when we participate in the Lord’s Supper together. Worship is enriched by the offering of liturgical dance. Michigan football wins are celebrated, losses grieved. Laughter abounds.
I can barely remember Western Seminary before Friendship House. I cannot imagine the school now without it.