The Blessings of Birmingham

“A Heart Full of Grace, A Soul Generated By Love”

Catholic school teachers in a nutshell: A Soul Generated By Love, A Heart Full of Grace

Over the summer, many schools and families reached out to the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion…asking for help, wondering about schools that offered a welcome, trying to find someplace that might open the doors to their child. The schools asked questions…wondering how to do this, what does it look like, worrying that they wouldn’t do right by the child.

It always seems to happen that a hotspot of inquiry knocks on our door. Several people or schools from the same general area reach out to us but don’t realize that there are like-minded people asking the same questions, hoping for the same thing, right where they are.

This summer it was Alabama.

Five different people reached out. They shared stories. They whispered dreams. They prayed out loud. They offered expertise.

With a bird’s eye view, I could see the glow on the ground in Alabama. I shared with each of them that there were others right near them hoping and working for inclusion…I gave them the contact information and hoped they might gather together.

I thought my work was over.

Then the Diocese of Alabama reached out. Julie Emory-Johnson called up. She’s the Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Staff Development for the Diocese of Birmingham. She shared with me the different ways the diocese was already supporting inclusion. She talked about concerns. She shared victories and milestones. She shared her heart as an educator and her vision as an administrator. She asked if I could come to Birmingham.

It was a soul touching connection…and that’s the thing with inclusion.

It breaks your heart open.

It acts as a homing beacon, soul to soul, heart to heart…you find your way using the light generated by others.

It was a busy time of year…Julie was creating the inservice day for all of the teachers and administrators in the Diocese of Birmingham.
Wouldn’t it be great to start the year off talking inclusion?

“Just tell your story.”
That’s all she asked.

It felt just right…and because of the hum of Birmingham, it made perfect sense to get on a plane and head cross country to the deep south.

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey’s 4 Rules of Improv…which turn out to pretty much be the 4 Rules of Inclusion:


Tina Fey’s Four Rules of Improv (and Inclusion)

On my way to Birmingham, my cocktail napkin nudged me forward:

“In a world full of no, we’re a plane full of yes.”
-Southwest Airlines

On the plane, in the Southwest Magazine, again the universe pointed the way…preparing my heart.
I read the story of Sybil Jordan, a student that desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1959. While she was a student there NOT A SINGLE WHITE STUDENT SPOKE TO HER…for three years.
Three years.

You can read it here:
It took my breath away.

Knowing the way we long to belong – knowing Sybil’s isolation – knowing what is unfolding in our world with racial injustice and discord…and knowing what so many families hope for with their children with disabilities and Catholic schools, it felt like this time in Birmingham was divinely guided in the most extraordinary way.

Arriving in Birmingham, I met many enthusiastic, hard-working, devoted Catholic educators. I met teachers and principals, support teachers and priests. I met someone who works for Catholic Relief Services and after the devastation of both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, that effort and grace of providing relief, real action at a time of desperate need, never felt more important.

After sharing my story, knowing that many were in my session because a beloved speaker was prevented from coming because of Hurricane Irma, I could feel the ripples begin…see the ways that individuals could work on this in their schools, feel the energy and enthusiasm of making inclusion happen.

It felt like holy work.

Little did I know that I would meet a real holy man, Dr. Gary Edwards, CEO and Chief Visionary for United Ability.

This is a man who has spent 35 years creating an organization that supports people with disabilities from six weeks old all the way through adulthood.
35 years.

Imagine what the world looked like then for people with significant physical and intellectual disabilities.
Imagine believing that these people had a right to an independent adulthood…to support at every stage of development…to the very best therapy, care and love around.
Imagine working every single day for a world that is fully inclusive…offering access and support so that every person in Birmingham could become the best person they can be.

Imagine that and you will know Dr. Edwards.

The campus of United Ability offers 10 classrooms that support babies with disabilities as young as six weeks old all the way up to preschool. The classrooms are fully inclusive and offer every kind of support you can imagine: Physical Therapy – United Ability has a nun that is a PT there – Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, Behaviorists, Inclusion Specialists. After the 10 classrooms, you can wander onto the inclusive playground…wheelchair accessible in every way…in fact accessible to every child. There is an outdoor classroom and an accessible garden.

There is a gorgeous facility that is often used for weddings that holds the programs and opportunities for the adults with disabilities that live in Birmingham. They run a paper shredding business, which allows for job opportunities. They provide job coaching, life skills training, supported employment and most of all belonging.

What’s happening at United Ability is a glimpse of what is possible for every community.

Julie Emory-Johnson found United Ability and immediately could see a partner ship with the Diocese of Birmingham.
United Ability’s campus is only three miles away from John Carroll Catholic High School.
Three miles.

So much good work…choosing to work together to amplify each other’s efforts is the way to truly move inclusion forward.

We don’t need to be working in isolation – reinventing the wheel.
People are doing this all over the place.

Let us work together to find them.
To create working relationships.

Let us share our best ideas and inclusive practices that work.

Together, we can each become a pillar for peace…a beacon of light.
Just like the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham has chosen to be.

Today, I am grateful for the beauty of Birmingham…the hard work of inclusion…the open hearts and deep faith of so many.
Let peace begin with me.