BY JO MITCHELL, FREELANCE WRITER
Pat Blanchard leads the Shalom rehabilitation centre in Lima, Peru, and the church that has grown from it, which is comprised of people with and without disabilities. In a city in which people with disabilities face challenges such as stigma and shame, the centre is an oasis of creativity and inclusion where all are made welcome.
Can you tell us a little about your life before you moved to Peru? What took you there?
I come from Bournemouth. From the age of six I’ve known God’s presence in my life. Initially, I trained as a teacher and specialised in crafts and textiles, which helped lay a foundation for practical mission opportunities as a craft consultant in Latin America.
Living in multicultural west London and visiting India further opened my world to mission and three years of studying at the London School of Theology added substance to my faith. My background is in development and I followed the call to Peru in 2000 to help improve the sustainability of local projects, develop their fundraising and encourage church community action within the parishes of Lima and Arequipa.
I felt there was something big to do and when I first went out, I knew it was going to be for the long term.
Audiomission: hear Pat talking about her work in Peru
Pat is our final interviewee in the September 2017 edition of our Audiomission podcast.
What were your plans when you first went to Lima – and what happened?
I spent six years working with social projects in the diocese, administrating schools, medical work and other community initiatives.
But a 14-year-old boy called Austin changed everything. Beatriz Magowan, a retired health visitor friend, came to stay and went visiting in my parish with Rev David Gonzales. They met Austin, who had cerebral palsy, and was sat out on the street tied to a wooden chair. When they spoke with his parents they learned that he had no wheelchair and could no longer be carried as he was too big. We started investigating and found Corazones Unidos (United Hearts), an organisation linked with Joni Eareckson Tada, which brings reconditioned wheelchairs into Lima and distributes them. Austin got his first wheelchair and that‘s how Shalom began.
I started meeting informally with children with disabilities and their families who gathered for prayer and support initially at Jesus El Nazareno church, where I was based. We added physical therapy sessions in a garage lent by a group member and then occupational and language therapy, plus practical workshops and an early-stimulation class. A new church family grew naturally out of these gatherings.
Now Shalom is a specialist rehabilitation centre for 100 people – mainly children – and their families. Peruvian staff provide physical, speech, occupational and art therapy, physiotherapy and psychological support. Links with other agencies enable therapy to happen in the community with people who aren’t mobile enough to make it to the centre. This was really not something I planned, and everything I know I’ve learned on the job. Working with people with disabilities was not something I came to Lima to do, but God has made it something I love.
What is life like for people with disabilities in Peru?
Disability rates are high because of poor care before, during or after birth. Many children are left with brain damage after developing high fevers and receiving inadequate medical attention.
People with disabilities face many challenges, not least exclusion and shame. You tend not to see people with disabilities out – they’re hidden away. Many people seem to believe that a person’s disability is the consequence of something they or their family have done wrong.
Even when they do try to get out, life is very difficult. There’s a shortage of wheelchairs and mobility aids, little concept of access and few proper pavements. I learned this for myself when I broke my foot a couple of years ago and badly sprained the other. I had firsthand experience of how soul-destroying it is to be sitting in a wheelchair with people trying to carry you over potholes or up inaccessible stairs.
Lack of information or support is another real challenge. Many children don’t get properly diagnosed and, when they do, their families rarely receive much explanation or advice on living with the disability. Medical professionals can often be dismissive of children with disabilities, assuming they have little future to speak of.
What difference does Shalom make?
By God’s grace, Shalom helps meet people’s needs on so many levels, from physical therapy that relaxes their tight muscles and relieves discomfort to muchneeded conversation with someone who cares. Children have opportunities to play, learn, paint, dance and sing; otherwise isolated parents receive love, support and vital information about their child’s disability. People come together to learn about the all-embracing love of God, to study the Bible and worship together, whatever their level of ability or disability.
We help those without a diagnosis to access medical tests to secure the certification needed to obtain appropriate medical care. I also work closely with disability networks and the local government to help young people access workshops and employment possibilities.
Shalom represents a great challenge: that we love our neighbour as ourselves – with sincere love and without prejudice or shame – and that we accept our differences. We need to remember that we are all children of God, and how important it is to love each other so that all society learns this quality of respect and acceptance.
Which came first, the project or the church?
It’s been unusual but organic. The church has grown from the community we built, meeting together, advocating for each other, being as deliberately and lovingly inclusive as we can.
Members of the church family invite their neighbours, friends and people from the street, assisting with transport when necessary. Our young people’s group, which includes those with and without disabilities, takes part in diocesan-level events with other youth groups, showing what inclusion looks like to the wider community. We aim to be as creative and accessible as we can and have a focus on using signing, movement and audio and visual aids in our worship and liturgy.
We love to throw parties. There’s real joy in joining celebrations that relate to both the project and church together. There is often lots of cake, laughter and singing. I’m also keen that we’re outward-focused: we seek to be a blessing to our neighbours by, for example, cleaning the streets.
What challenges do you face?
Many. Our new building is over three storeys high, but it has taken so much effort to get a functioning lift. The first builder we contracted abandoned the work and took the money, and the lawyer who was supposed to recover it disappeared.
We finally have a working lift and don’t need to carry people up flights of stairs for therapy any more. We made good use of it recently when we gathered on the rooftop terrace to dedicate the newly-adapted building.
Life can also be so fragile here. Poverty is rife, medical care is often poor and people are vulnerable. A local man called Rigolberto had an accident a few years ago that meant he was no longer able to walk. He was forced to spend most of his time alone. We got to know him and used to collect him in his wheelchair, bring him to events at church and give him physical therapy at home, but he died recently from a heart attack in hospital, while being treated for infected bed sores. When I saw so many people turn out for his funeral, I felt so sad that they hadn’t been there for him while he was alive.
Life is difficult. My response is to celebrate, to do the fun things now and not put off until tomorrow what we can do today. Let’s paint, let’s dance, let’s go out, let’s do something together because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
What gives you joy in your work?
Seeing people happy. Seeing people find a way through the barriers and obstacles with God‘s love and acceptance of each other. I want people to have fun and to know that God loves them. I wish God would come and heal them all. But Joni Eareckson Tada said that she’d rather be in her wheelchair knowing God than on her feet without him, and one mum once told me, "I know God has not healed my child but I don‘t think I would have known faith without that challenge in my life.” I think that‘s it. We are physical beings but we're also spiritual beings. Life comes and life goes and if you can share life in Christ with people when they're alive, then you know that one day they‘re going to be free and able to do all the things they can’t now.
Can you introduce us to some of the people at Shalom?
Josselyn is part of the Shalom family; she has cerebral palsy. She indicated with a smile and her large expressive eyes that she would like to be baptised, and so we celebrated both her 12th birthday and her baptism with cake, balloons and her first holy communion. Her excitement radiates from the photos we took of her that day.
Felicita is a highly committed and active member of the community. She uses a wheelchair, due to polio she contracted in childhood. Most of the people who come to church at Shalom were initially invited along by Felicita. She comes to the centre most afternoons to share and chat with people waiting in the reception area and she visits people in their homes, pushed by her brother, who himself has learning difficulties.
Ricardo recently celebrated receiving his official disability registration, which means he can now apply for work. He was part of the team that just rebuilt the home of Lourdes, a widow at Shalom and we had the joy of baptising him at the end of April.
Here’s a big question to close with: what, in your view, is mission?
What isn’t mission? It’s how we live our lives – it must come out through what we do wherever we are. There‘s a world out there, there are people who need to know how much God loves them.
The Call in Action: Pray
- Pray for the appointment of a person with specialist knowledge to lead the technical side of Shalom’s work and for more administrative support.
- Pray for recovery for people affected by recent flooding and heavy rains which killed over 100 people and made 700,000 homeless in Peru.