Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Horizons of BelongingHorizons of Belonging

Horizons of Belonging

The CEO of Christian Horizons talks about the gifts that people with intellectual disabilities give to the larger society, and what it means to move beyond welcome to genuine belonging.

Peter Stockland
Janet Nolan
21 minute read

Convivium: I am struck by the idea and the reality that Christian Horizons was a family initiative. It began as a family fulfilling a need it had. You talked about this at the 50th anniversary celebration, that the Reese family identified a need and went out and built it. Can you tell me more about this history? What kind of people were the Reeses that they did that for their son, Steven?

Janet Nolan: You have to remember what Canada was like, what the world was like, for a person with an intellectual disability 50-plus years ago. The Reeses had a number of kids, and when Steven was born in 1963, there really were no options other than large-scale institutions. There were no school programs. There were very few doctors in the community who would treat a child with an intellectual disability. People with intellectual disabilities were “other.” We needed to put them away.

C: It seems horrendous looking back….

JN: The perspective was that people with intellectual disabilities were a burden and a tragedy for a family. Both Jim and Adrienne Reese, when Steven was born, saw him as a blessing. They saw it as God purposefully putting Steven in their family for something good, and they prayed from the first minute. They saw it as an opportunity. Jim was travelling as an evangelist and he was meeting families all across the country; and he was hearing that they had children with developmental disabilities. It resonated with him, so in 1965 he called a group of families together and dreamed of something different.

Society and government were then starting to think about a different approach to supporting people with intellectual disabilities in communities. So movements like L’Arche and Community Living were being initiated. Jim and Adrienne put together a group that incorporated in 1965 under the name Ontario Christian Association for Exceptional Children.

They started with a summer camp, which grew, and in 1975, they were approached to consider serving a number of people through a new community living initiative. They had to come up with resources. They had a large estate bequeathed to them and were able to buy a house. Things just started to roll.

Government and different organizations, parent groups… saw community as a geographical community. For Christian Horizons, what the Reeses introduced to the conversation was a community of a different sort, a community of faith that could come around people with intellectual disabilities and was not geographically based. They worked night and day to pull resources together for the different programs they were going to offer, to hire staff. Our first CEO was Noel Churchman, and he tells a story about a shoebox where they kept the money that would come in and out of which they’d pay the bills. If there was any money left at the end of the month, that’s how they got paid.

C: Two things strike me: I was a little kid in the era you’re talking about. In the small town where I grew up, people with disabilities were housed in an old tuberculosis sanatorium. TB had been defeated, but prejudice toward people with intellectual disabilities had not. They were kept outside of town and brought in on Saturdays in a blue bus. It was a standard joke if you misbehaved, if you were being silly, that you would be told, “Smarten up or we’ll put you on the blue bus….”

In our neighbourhood, there was a husband and wife who ran the corner store, and they had an adult son with an intellectual disability. But we had no idea he existed, until we met them out at the lake one time and he was with them. He was normally kept hidden outside of town. It was a source of shame, right?

What’s fascinating is that the Reese family were able to overcome that as an overtly Christian organization. Today, we’ve opened ourselves up to a far more charitable understanding of the inherent human dignity of people who face those challenges. Yet if we frame it in a Christian way, that is suddenly suspect or troubling. The whole dynamic has shifted.

JN: I think that’s true for two reasons. Typically, in communities of faith, there’s a desire to be charitable and benevolent, so there’s already well-established in the Christian community an approach to reaching out to people who may have been seen as the least of these. I always struggle with that part of Scripture because what the world sees as “the least” seems derogatory, but that’s not what the Bible is saying. But there was already an established approach to charity and benevolence, which was a starting point. I’m glad to say that society and the Christian community are moving past an approach of charity and benevolence to one of belonging.

Second, there was from the very beginning of Christian Horizons, a firm commitment that all people are created in God’s image, and therefore all people are of value and need to participate in order for the community to be full. Since I started at Christian Horizons 26 years ago, I’ve seen such a shift in that understanding by society at large. I still think we have a huge journey to go until people fully recognize them as people in God’s image.

JN: There were really troubling perspectives and attitudes around a person with a disability and, therefore, families had this deep level of shame. It’s not surprising that your neighbours hid their son, because that’s what people did. Internationally, we see people with disabilities still being regarded as sins of the parents or a punishment for something that families did, which affects how that person lives.

When you think of those institutions that we put people with intellectual disabilities into, the sheer numbers and the approach, it just makes my skin crawl. Just now, we’re helping the government in Saskatchewan to close a couple of institutions. We’re creating community resources in their place. There are horrible stories of how human beings emerge in those large-scale facilities. It’s beyond me to think that we would have people live like that only because they have an intellectual disability. That’s what makes what the Reese family did even more remarkable: that in 1963 they had the stamina, the foresight, the strength to be able to go against current thinking and establish something different.

C: I loved what you said in your talk at the anniversary celebration last week about inclusiveness being welcome, but belonging being somebody noticing you are missing and going to find you. In many ways, that seems to be a real microcosm of what happened. The Reese family recognized, hey, wait something’s missing: recognition of the profound humanity of this person. And they went to find it.

JN: Absolutely. Again, in 50 or 60 years, we can really look back and see the history of society’s attitudes changing around a person with an intellectual disability. There’s a lot more that needs to be done. The term “belonging” really resonates with us as an organization. The United Nations has established expectations for countries around the world about how people with disabilities have access to education, employment, health care; and certainly in Canada, human rights have dictated that people with disabilities can’t be marginalized.

There are lots of great laws and policies that ensure people with disabilities are included. Included just means that there’s a place for you. Included means that you can take someone to court if they don’t allow you to have a place in your school or assure that there’s accessibility to use public transit. I think Christian Horizons is uniquely positioned to really affect the opportunity for people to truly belong because we can look to government for funding and services and programs and laws and policies, but government can’t build community. Now our focus is that we believe not only that the person benefits from being in the community and having a great life and having friends but also that community benefits.

You and I talked earlier about that family in Quebec where the wife said everybody’s welcome at her table. There’s actually a Scripture passage in which Jesus talks about the wedding feast. The wealthy landowners and the merchants are all too busy to go out and get the people who are sick and lame, and it’s only when they are at the table that the community is full. You and I, many years ago, talked about reciprocity. It was one of the first times I’d heard that term. We’ve seen real evidence of it the last few years. When a person with a disability is there, the whole group—whether it’s a school, a church or a place of employment—benefits. What those with disabilities give back to that community, how they affect how people think and slow down and maybe consider how someone feels, has a huge impact. That reciprocal relationship is just beautiful, and that’s belonging.

C: Yes, that’s belonging. It’s interesting, too, what you were saying about the dynamic where everyone has a place at the table. I think my favourite Gospel passage is the wedding feast at Cana. Mary says to Jesus, “We’ve got to have some more wine.” And he says, “This is going to be messy, I don’t think I can do this; my time has not yet come.” And she says, “Just do it. We need it.” And there it is, on the table, a miracle. A messy miracle. That’s what the wife said in that family in Quebec we were talking about. She said, “Anyone is welcome at our table. They just have to understand that our table can get messy.” They look after more than a dozen children with intellectual disabilities. Their life is messy. It’s also miraculous.

JN: I don’t think there’s a whole lot of people who get to middle age or later who can’t look back and say that life is messy. But when you embrace that mess, when you’re walking people through that, boy, oh boy, incredible things can happen.

C: If life is messy, leadership is a kind of subset of that messiness, isn’t it? You’ve been with Christian Horizons for 25 years now and CEO for….?

JN: Four and a half years.

C: Tell me about the meaning of leadership through what must at times seem like the most miraculous, yet messiest of the messiest, in some ways.

JN: As a leader, it’s understanding how an organization that is overtly and intentionally Christian can operate in the public square. With our 50-year history, we’re the largest organization in Ontario. We’re now serving in Saskatchewan. I think actually we’re the largest organization that does this kind of work in Canada, although we’re not all over Canada. It’s never been our intention to be the biggest organization. It’s just as we’ve been invited, we’ve served in communities. When we can add value or make a difference, we do.

Sometimes we’re called on to support some of the most challenging folks in their communities, and Christian Horizons has an incredible staff, and there’s always this attitude of “they have value.” That’s precipitated all sorts of really interesting relationships with community, with community organizational partners as well as with government. Part of our journey has been to understand how we operate as a Christian organization: How do we ensure that we are fully in step with expectations from a public, yet maintain who we are and why we are?

One might think that we would focus on our right to exist. We like to focus on our reason to exist. As an organization, our focus is to think about what value is added. What is it that’s different because we’re present? We’ve had some challenging human rights issues that I would say are representative of the broader society. Christian Horizons is no different.

I’m really... proud is probably the wrong word… but pleased… content with how we’ve advocated through some of those interesting days. Figuring out how we live and breathe the reality of being a Christian organization yet open the doors and say welcome, who wants to partner with us, participate with us, work with us?

C: It’s so important what you just said about not insisting on our right to exist, but insisting on our reason to exist. One of the shifts that is extraordinarily powerful, with both positive and negative consequences, is the assertion of right while forgetting the good. It’s interesting, Christian Horizons, especially as you described it earlier, sounds like it didn’t emerge out of the assertion of the right of the Reese family. It arose out of an assertion of what was good for their son and what was good for society as a whole, to recognize the fundamental humanity of that boy. It seems like a distinction that’s been lost, but your continued presence actually calls us back to the distinction between those two things.

JN: That’s 100 per cent the case. I think of who Jesus is or was or continues to be in my life and how he had presence with people. His interest wasn’t in the religious folks. It wasn’t in the establishment. It wasn’t in the existing rules and regulations. It was kind of getting messy and getting out there, and I hope that that’s what Christian Horizons does. I hope that we represent a segment of society in Canada that comes from the Christian faith. That is what drives us and how we exist. Our focus isn’t to serve our own. Our focus, because of who we are as people of faith, is to serve—period.

It’s not about drawing hard lines. It’s about reaching out and inviting other people in and having conversations. I think some of the challenges that we’ve faced as an organization are figuring out who we are and how we are. It’s really strengthened us to have conversations with people. How amazing is it when you can enter into a conversation that you don’t feel that you have to defend something but can just explore opportunities and welcome perspectives and get to the best place in whatever that discussion is?

C: I’m interested in how you got to that place. Did you ever envision yourself doing what you’re doing now? Is this sort of what you wanted your life work to be?

JN: When I was in university, I was working part-time at Christian Horizons and serving in one of the group homes. It was an awesome job. I loved the organization and I loved what we were doing, and it just felt like such a privilege to be able to walk alongside people in some of their most personal living experiences so that they could have a great life. To be honest, back then, I had the absolute joy of helping someone get their first job, their first apartment, meet their first partner, learn how to grocery shop and take the bus. It was so neat to watch the parents of some of these young folks watch with absolute awe as this was happening. They’d never dreamt it was possible.

When I entered the Christian Horizons workforce, I certainly thought it was a temporary opportunity that I found extremely rewarding and felt like I was really privileged. Life happened, and there were lots of opportunities. There was always a spirit of innovation and creativity and growth in the organization, and so as a career, lots of interesting things were happening. I can honestly tell you that until I submitted my application for the Chief Executive Officer position four years ago, until that happened, it was never a plan. It was just to serve where I was called to serve.

C: It’s not a conventional thing for someone at university to do. How did you get directed toward it? What was going on in your life? I mean it’s not like you said, “Oh, maybe I’ll go and work as a stevedore on the docks or maybe I’ll work for Christian Horizons. Which shall I do?” You made a choice, but that came from something within you.

JN: My mom worked at a school for children with special needs in Newfoundland. So I’d grown up with people with disabilities; they were part of our lives. She was very proud of the work she did and very proud of the kids and their successes. When I came here, I knew some people through my church who worked [at Christian Horizons].

C: My daughter moved to Newfoundland last year and when we visited her I was struck, standing in the harbour in St. John’s, by the basic historic fact that there’s been the origins of a European community there for more than 500 years, and that community has endured. It’s existed through all kinds of trials, with families that go 10 generations deep. There’s a kind of claustrophobia in that everybody knows everybody else but also supports each other, don’t they? If you know someone, you have to help them.

It becomes part of the character of the place, which in places like Ottawa or Vancouver or Montreal or Toronto has largely dissipated. As a broader society, we don’t do that in the way Newfoundlanders do. So, that was really part of your life, it formed your identity.

JN: You describe it beautifully. I don’t know if I would have articulated it exactly like that, but I love the way you talk about it. Certainly it was an incredible childhood, a wonderful network of friends and family, and they go out wide and deep. Last summer we were down they’re with the kids, and my youngest, Emma, who just turned 18, and her two cousins who live here but are from Newfoundland were all talking about going back.

She said, “This time was the first time that I realized where I come from, how beautiful that was.” I listen to these young folks talk about that and I’m excited not only that I know it, having grown up there, but these kids, particularly my daughter who grew up here in Ontario, by going back so often, has a sense of being from there and of that concept of community. It is a great example of community and what it could be with our intentionality through the work that we do at Christian Horizons.

You know what, there are other great organizations out there. We’re large and we have lots of opportunity to participate in conversations around policy and government activities and that sort of thing. It would be really negligent of me not to mention we have, I think, over 300 organizations in Ontario that do the kind of work we do, some of them from a perspective of faith, some of them not. When you think about community builders and what we can dream for the future, there are a lot of people at that table for sure.

There is one thing, though, that I could mention that is unique in our sector. I don’t know if there is such a group that comes together in other sectors where there’s faith-based service providers, but we helped establish what we call the Faith and Culture Inclusion Network in developmental services about 20 years ago. The idea is that there be a table, a place where organizations who serve from a faith-based perspective, not just Christians but Jewish organizations and others as well, come together to talk about how within the mosaic of services that are offered on behalf of government, how faith plays a role there. The inclusion of faith and culture in the conversation about how people live is critically important. The Faith and Culture Inclusion Network, what it’s done is given a place, a voice, a collaborative voice, for people that come from a bit of a different perspective on how their organization was built.

Not everybody has the Reese family as pioneers. It’s ensured that all of us build into the importance of faith and culture in people’s lives. When you’re talking about development services, it’s not like a temporary stay in a hospital. When you talk about providing lifelong support for somebody so that they can have a great life, faith and culture need to be addressed.

One of the things we do when folks come in, and we’ve worked with this faith and culture inclusion network to figure out how we do this, is ensure that faith is something that’s really considered. Diagnosis is important. Level of care is important. Where someone works. Whether they were able to get education or post-secondary education. All those things are important, but so is faith.

There’s an industry group called Oasis that most of those 300-plus organizations belong to it. It brings together best-practice speakers, networks and opportunity, new thinking and government participants. Every year, that conference is hosted in a different geographical location. Last year it was hosted by Faith and Culture Inclusion Network, and I draw your attention to that because the concept of community of faith, community not just being the geography but that community of faith, was recognized by all of the people that work in the sector, not necessarily that everyone agrees this is the way they would like to be served or serve, but that it’s a critical part of the work.

If we see everybody as equal and everybody having value both in who they are and in what they can give to communities, it kind of starts you on a different spot of understanding. I don’t by any means pretend that Christian Horizons has answers to all the complicated questions in Canada.

C: Only journalists and politicians during an election have that. And people on Facebook. Facebook is the space for all the answers, even if they’re to a different question.

JN: The picture of the [intellectually disabled] young man you showed me earlier, thinking about your interaction with him and what delight it still brings for you years later….We want to create those places where we’re all together, so that people can experience that. Sometimes, even thinking about the church community, how well intentioned people are, but how there are so few churches that we’ve seen—I’d to see more where people with mental or intellectual disabilities fully belong in that church. Lots of great churches have programs for outreach or a specialized program on a Thursday night, but often we hear about a special needs ministry. We’d like to say, well, why can’t people who have exceptional needs, people who have intellectual disabilities, be involved in all your ministries, because they’re people. So, if it were a young man, maybe they’d be involved in the young men’s ministry or a youth group or whatever.

Some of the work that we’re doing is to help the Christian community think about how it can be a lighthouse, a place where people with developmental disabilities see a starting place in a community.

We hear from lot of families that they have really difficult lives. When you have a child or a couple of children who have significant needs, their lives are pretty small and difficult. A couple of years ago, we put together a family retreat where we bring families of children with disabilities together for a week’s vacation. They bring their siblings and other people that they love. They just get to be a family that week. One of the things that we do is take the parents out for dinner and leave all the kids, with and without disabilities, at the camp with staff. I remember one time I had the opportunity to be with them and heard someone say, “You know, this is the first time we’ve actually been out for dinner in seven years.”

C: Think of that.

JN: I think that there’s a role for churches that can welcome families like that and then be of value to them and walk alongside them so that we can really support families and give them opportunities to live rather than to be concerned about dealing with issues at school or health issues or accessibility issues or physical issues at home.

C: The tag line for Convivium is faith in our common life, and what we mean is that its critical there be a place for religious faith in the common life of Canadians but also faith that we have a common life together. We have a life to share. Whatever our differences might be, our life is common.

JN: It’s good that you have faith in common life.

C: But people do express genuine concerns. The horizon for Christianity is not that bright. We see it constantly. We saw it this fall when a public square in Toronto banned a Christian concert. The public square was literally closed to Christians. We hear quite often people saying okay, great, let’s open up. Let’s create a place of belonging, but then how do we avoid syncretism? How do we avoid becoming this mushy amorphous nothing? Don’t there have to be, in Charles Taylor’s phrase, horizons of significance? How do you balance those competing demands to be welcoming and creating a space of belonging against the risk of losing yourself by becoming other than was intended?

JN: It’s certainly been a question that we’ve talked about over the years and even just what reason do we have to be? Why is it that government needs to fund a Christian organization to do the work that we do? It’s a big question. It’s a question that I think of often when I wake up in the middle of the night. Really, truly, because I want to have a valid answer. I want it to be authentic. We can’t exist because the law say we’re allowed to exist.

So, for Christian Horizons, we don’t have all the answers. But we have a unique history that said a group of families who had a common faith believed that there was more opportunity. It was because of that faith that they established this organization, and they spent their blood, sweat and tears to build it and to give up their lives to make it real. Still, to this day, our founders stand with us, and they speak to churches, to governments; they participate as volunteers, as supporters to say this is something that’s important for you to know about.

Think of the reality of government being solely responsible for all things its citizens need. First of all, it’s unaffordable. Second of all, we’d never achieve the outcomes of creating belonging, of creating communities. There are certain things we look to government and the powers that be to provide for us from a safety and security and educational standpoint. But my life isn’t whole because of those government entities. My life is whole because of what I’ve chosen in common life to make my life what I want it to be. A person with an intellectual disability is no different.

I think in our sector we have a unique opportunity because I would believe many people recognize that quality of life isn’t turning to government for services and programs. There’s more and... We don’t ever want to be the only voice around someone’s life. We want to be a part of that voice that engages others, and community is stronger because people of faith are participating and recognizing and seeing that as a value.

We need to be a positive voice in doing difficult things because of what we believe and our reason for existing. I think by doing that we maybe introduce people that may have been intolerant of people of faith or worried or hesitant or maybe worse about people of faith. Maybe we introduce a different face and we can welcome people into that conversation in safe places and—

C: There’s an onus on us to speak the languages of all men, to make people comfortable with who and what we are.

JN: As an organization, as we’ve grown and matured, we’ve had to have those conversations: how is it that we’re an organization of faith, yet we welcome other people who don’t necessarily share that faith to participate with us? Some of the things that we spend a lot of time on are: What’s our theological perspective and why do we exist as an organization? What are our values? What are our core principles in how we provide service, how families experience an interaction with Christian Horizons, how our employees experience an interaction with us, what we represent at community tables with government and policy discussions? So, really being intentional and intentionally adding value in all of those places.

C: With our Faith in Canada 150 initiative, we’ve had a very invigorating conversation about how we navigate our commitment to pluralism and what pluralism actually means and what faith actually means. There’s the content of faith and there’s the act of faith. What joins us with people of other faith traditions is the act of faith: faith that there’s transcendent reality to which we point our vision, to which we point our hearts.

JN: A hope for tomorrow.

C: Yes. It’s the foundational act of belief that precedes the content of what we believe in. But you’ve given me another dimension to think about. And that’s the conduct of faith. How well do we conduct ourselves in expressing and living out both the act of faith and the content of our faith? And that’s what the Reese family showed us in 1965, isn’t it?

JN: They didn’t just sit with what they believed or even how they lived that, but how they showed it to other people. If there’s one thing that I think over the last couple of years I’ve personally recognized, it’s the number of organizations, whether it’s serving people with intellectual disabilities or homelessness initiatives or nursing homes or wherever services are needed for people who are often left out of communities. The existence of that service is to bring back people into communities, the number of organizations that are based on a foundation of faith I think is staggering. There’s so many things that we accept as just a given that people don’t recognize as actually being provided through the community of faith. Whatever faith it is, there is a lot happening. There’s a really important story to be told.

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