People with learning difficulties are routinely ignored or overlooked. Jayne Kinghorn is determined to ensure they have an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel
LCM Missionary Jayne Kinghorn is at the front of a class of around a dozen adults with learning difficulties in one of the few day centres in Dagenham. She’s leading a language therapy class, helping to improve communication skills and confidence.
Everybody has a preferred way to greet a visitor to the group. Most introduce themselves and opt for a handshake, though clearly not all find this easy. Others wave hello; there’s one fist bump. Not everybody maintains eye-contact while saying hello.
Jayne carefully talks through a visual display of activities planned for the next hour before introducing the topic of the day, thinking about what people are like. The class has a range of conditions from Down’s syndrome to autistic spectrum disorders, which means that people find different parts of the session challenging.
Today I Am Feeling…
Before starting on the content, everybody has a go at sharing with the rest of the group how they are feeling.
They pass a laminated card with pictures showing faces with emotions from person to person. Everybody says how they are feeling. Most are say they are happy, some surprised.
One, being encouraged to use a full sentence, reads clearly from the sheet 'Today I’m feeling…’ but stalls altogether until another participant, another member of the class helps him out with the options: happy, sad, tired, angry, excited.
What Am I Like?
We’re talking about what people are like, using images of famous personalities to kick off the discussion. There’s Elvis, and the group knows quite a bit about his music, film career, life and death. We conclude that he was a troubled person. Then it’s a rather severe looking picture of the Queen, who is serious.
Jayne is making this look easy, but it’s easy to underestimate the skill and care needed to communicate naturally and with integrity while restricted to simple words and ideas.
While the discussion stays at a simple level, it never talks down to the class or diminishes their dignity.
Next, a picture of Jesus comes out, and we talk about him healing people and being a good helper.
One of the class spontaneously offers that he is in heaven looking down on us, another that he died on the cross on Good Friday. Why? ‘Because that’s the way the world works,’ a third chips in.
Jayne gently talks about Jesus dying for others as the kindest thing anyone can do. Rather like a blood donor, but God gave his whole self. Then we move on to a picture of ex-prime minister Theresa May, for whom the group struggles to find an identifying character trait.
This class is a detached ministry in a secular day centre, so it’s not appropriate to start thinking of this as an evangelistic opportunity.
Yet there’s an urgent need here, Jayne says later. There are thought to be around 3,000 adults of working age with a learning disability in Dagenham, and it is beyond question that they belong to a least reached group.
‘They are very protected,’ she says. ‘They are taken everywhere by either their carers or by family, and it is highly unlikely that they will hear the gospel unless there are believers in their family.’
They come through a system that doesn’t acknowledge God, and they wouldn’t normally think to go to church unless God puts it in their head.
That’s why Jayne always gives an invitation to church at Easter and Christmas. As a result of this, one person from the group now comes to the church gardening club, and in that situation Jayne is able to speak freely about Jesus.
They have an allowance (Personal Independence Payment) and have options to choose how it’s spent. Some stop coming to day centres like this, and opt for things such as water therapy, says Jayne. ‘They quite often then move around community groups in the area. Quite a few people I’ve met in the day centre show up at the Community Lounge in the LCM Bethel Centre.’
The therapy course, though very simple in its content, is carefully structured. It’s no accident that the Queen has been included in the characters for the class to consider.
A little later, the class will be introduced to the concept of Jesus as king, looking at his authority and adding that to the understanding of him as kind and loving. They can easily relate that to the other characters.
Believe In Him
You can’t go in too deep with things such as teaching about sins and remission and forgiveness, but they do understand what it is to be mean, or to do the wrong thing, and they can grasp that Jesus Christ comes to pay for the things we’ve done wrong.
She refers back to the simplicity of Jesus’ own words in John 6: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’.
In any case, salvation is not about anyone’s ability to articulate their understanding to others, she says. ‘It’s not about being able to convince others what I believe; and there are times to say that I am not the judge of this.’
Part of the therapy is about having accurate self-perception. That ranges from hard facts such as getting eye-colour right to awareness of individual personalities.
From there it’s a short leap to recognising that each person is created in the image of the living God, and to ask what did God make me to be?
The meaning of this ministry is simply following Christ’s example, says Jayne. Jesus in his earthly ministry always went to those that no-one else was interested in, who had little influence and appeared to have the least to offer.
Welcoming People In Church
— Always see the person first. Consideration of any physical or learning disability should always be secondary.
— Be aware of barriers in communication and what steps can be taken to overcome them.
— Ask someone with more experience to introduce you and to accompany you.