By Daniel J. Vance MS, LPCC

Friendship Ministries of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a nonprofit organization that has helped start 1,300 “Friendship groups” in the U.S. and Latin America, groups which link adults with intellectual disabilities one-on-one with individual mentors in order to bring about spiritual growth and build personal and meaningful relationships.

In a telephone interview, Friendship Ministries Administrative Specialist LaVonne Carlson said, “I really had no experience working with people with intellectual disabilities before beginning here in 2008. Working in this position certainly increased my awareness of how much people with (intellectual) disabilities have to offer. The assumption often is that (groups like ours) have to do something for the people we serve. To some extent that is true. But in hearing the stories that come out of Friendship groups you begin to understand how much (people with intellectual disabilities) themselves have to offer in terms of love, compassion, and showing the face of Jesus in a way that you don't often see necessarily from other people.”

The organization began in the '80s after parents of a young adult with Down syndrome asked the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) about available Bible study material for adults with intellectual disabilities. The answer: There wasn't any. This sparked the creation of Friendship Ministries. Besides facilitating the creation of adult Friendship groups in North America and publishing English language lesson material for those groups, Friendship is the only known publisher of Spanish language Bible study material for adults with intellectual disabilities, said Carlson. Friendship group participants have disabilities such as lower-functioning autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, general developmental disabilities or fetal alcohol syndrome. You can find Friendship groups in the churches of 80 different denominations, including various Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Christian Reformed, and United Methodist churches.

Carlson said, “A Friendship group is about friendships. We have a one-on-one mentoring model. Every friend has a mentor. They go through lessons together in a small group with other friends, and then in a different way by themselves. It fosters learning and close and personal relationships.” A meeting might include singing, prayer, socializing, special events, and a Bible lesson.

The organization's website states, “Friendship is not a ministry to people with intellectual disabilities. Rather, it is a ministry with them.” Friendship Ministries lately has been transitioning from its traditional printed material model to one called “Together,” which brings in more people without intellectual disabilities and incorporates more interaction, the Internet, and video clips.

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