There are people in our lives who radiate the warmth and vitality of the sun when we’re in their presence. They are curious about everyone they meet, and they thrive on spreading their wisdom for the good of the world. When you meet one of these treasures, you feel blessed. And when they become your friend, as they do, you accept this gift with gratitude.
Barbara Newman was someone in my life who was such a gift. We met in 2015 when Barb received the Henri Nouwen Award (renamed in 2021 as the Reimagining Spirituality Leadership Award) given by the Religion and Spirituality Network of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Barb was an icon in Christian inclusive education including curriculum design, individual support and universal design for worship and education. She was a pioneer at the Christian Learning Center, which changed its name to All Belong just a few years ago. Barb was in such demand as a keynote speaker, engaging her audiences within seconds. Barb was profound and passionate as she pursued her life’s calling so that all people with disabilities would feel a sense of belonging in faith community life-like anyone else.
Barb and I struck up an easy friendship and talked about our respective theologies and religious practices supported disability and mental health inclusion. When I wrote my book, “From Longing to Belonging: A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community,” I sought Barb’s guidance and wisdom.
Barb and I were honored to co-present the opening plenary at the 2019 Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. Our session, From Longing to Belonging, meshed our individual themes and approaches for a multi-faith audience. We had fun as we knit our individual styles and philosophies together. You could see the audience members light up as we shared highlights from our keynotes and books. Getting to present with Barb is one of the most memorable highlights of my career.
In this edition, Victoria White, a friend and colleague of Barb Newman, writes about the work that All Belong does in Christian communities, including the foundational scripture that guides the organization’s work. Victoria and I discussed including a video featuring Barb talking about her iconic pink and green puzzle pieces—you’ll have to watch the video to find out why this beloved teaching of Barb’s is such a powerful statement about belonging.
The 2019 Institute on Theology and Disability was the last time Barb and I were together. In September 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Barb died as a result of a brain tumor. She is lovingly remembered. Her work continues, as Victoria writes, and her memory is in every way a blessing.
Our Inclusive Education theme continues. We are honored to welcome our good friend and colleague, Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer. In addition to her role as the Chief Program Officer at Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia, Gabrielle is the author of the wonderfully illustrated children’s book, “In My Kehilla (Community)—a book about friends with disabilities.” Also included in this edition are pieces from two of our wonderful apprentices. Gabriella Helkowski reflects on her experiences with mentorship, as a mentee and mentor. Riccardo Ricciardi discusses learning Hebrew as an adult with ADHD.