Abdullahi and Deqa Farah.

Plenty of mission statements for faith-based organizations talk about welcoming everyone. When it comes to people with disabilities, however, it takes more than words and a wheelchair ramp to achieve true inclusion.

Fellows from the Institute’s Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (MNLEND) program are working with a Twin Cities-area church and mosque to think differently about how they serve worshippers with disabilities. MNLEND is an interdisciplinary leadership development program, funded by the U.S. Maternal & Child Health Bureau, that spans more than 16 disciplines across the University of Minnesota.

Deqa Farah, a MNLEND fellow and the mother of a young son who was diagnosed with autism a few years ago, is coordinating a transformation at Dar Al Farooq Youth and Family Center in Bloomington that includes accessibility assessments, leadership training in neurodiversity, and khutbahs (Friday sermons preached in mosques) that center on how faith intersects with disability.

“Deqa is our champion, the one who holds us accountable and pushes us to do better in how we accommodate people with disabilities,” said Abdullahi Farah, Deqa’s brother and the imam at Dar Al Farooq (pictured with his sister). “She empowers others from the community not to lose hope and to speak up. I believe with the right support and resources she can make the dream of a fully accessible and inclusive mosque a reality.”

Deqa arranged for an initial accessibility tour of the mosque with ICI’s Macdonald Metzger and others, and has connected mosque leaders with Muhsen, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that provides advocacy and training to help Muslim communities become more welcoming to people with disabilities. Muhsen provides an accessibility framework and some funding for accommodations, and Deqa aspires to make Dar Al Farooq the first mosque in Minnesota to achieve Muhsen certification.

“We are hoping for resources and education that shows us how we can better serve people with disabilities,” said Mohamed Omar, executive director at Dar Al Farooq. “What we are trying to do here shouldn’t be seen as extraordinary. It is a basic need and our responsibility to make sure everyone can be part of our community.”

Already, mosque leaders are exploring the creation of quiet, secure spaces for children with autism to go if they need to be away from loud noises and crowds momentarily, for example.

“Soon after my son was diagnosed, I struggled to find support in the community,” Deqa said. “Our faith is so integral to everything we do, but to be honest I didn’t find the kind of support I was looking for. As a LEND fellow now and with the support of the University and the leadership at the mosque, I know I’ll continue to be involved with this long after my fellowship is complete this spring.”

Another MNLEND fellow, Elijah Zina, is bringing similar neurodiversity and disability awareness training to Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Maplewood.

Zina, who is also a master’s degree candidate at Luther Seminary, was intrigued with the MNLEND project in part because of what he observed about disability perceptions in his home country of Liberia.

“In Africa, disability is considered a curse. When a relative is disabled, people consider it a curse upon your family and that person is excluded and treated as an outcast, often ending up on the street with no help,” Zina said. “Through this project, we wanted to work with the faith community to advocate for inclusiveness. The church can be a critical voice for people with disabilities. They can serve communion and be greeters, welcoming people. Churches can produce plain-language guides to the service to help people understand what is going on.”

Gethsemane has already reached out in a few different ways. The church rents space to an organization that hosts social events for people with disabilities. Through that relationship, the church a couple of years ago created a weekly worship service geared specifically to people with disabilities that now attracts people without disabilities as well.

“It’s been a great experience. When we have prayers in that service, everybody hugs,” which rarely happens in the traditional service, said Pastor Elizabeth Wilder. After speaking with Zina and becoming involved with the MNLEND program, however, Gethsemane is ready to do more, Wilder said. “If we’re truly going to be welcoming, we need to learn how we can really welcome people in either service. How can we learn to be more inclusive? We want to be part of receiving this training and bringing it to the church at large.”

Though their fellowships are ending soon, Farah and Zina said they are working on securing grant funding to carry on with the projects into next year’s MNLEND program.

“We’d love to expand this to other churches and community groups,” Zina said. “We see the role of the church as critical to disseminate information and serve as a beacon of hope. We don’t want any more families coming to a faith-based center and having to leave their family member with a disability at home.”