Care for the Disabled in the Dominican Republic

Lutherans in the Dominican Republic are changing attitudes toward people with developmental disabilities.

Since 2005, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) has had a presence in the Dominican Republic (DR), planting congregations and caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in a culture where they are often forgotten.

The Hogares Luteranos el Buen Pastor (HLBP, “Good Shepherd Lutheran Homes” in English) is a group home that was formed in 2009 to house children with IDD. For a couple of years before its formation, members of LCMS mission churches had been visiting children in local state-run orphanages. The conditions were often spartan, and the children received minimal care. Members visited weekly to hold and play with the children and share God’s Word with them. The orphanage agreed to let several children move into a group home run by the Lutherans.

In 2011, four boys and two girls moved into the group home. They were baptized; received care, education and love; and were incorporated into the life of the Lutheran mission and school next door. Since then, they have been welcomed not only into the congregation but also into the wider community of Palmar Arriba.

An LCMS mercy grant of $72,500 went to support this work last year. Today, the residents are no longer children. Though some of their exact ages are unknown (until 2008, disabled children did not receive birth certificates), they now range from around 19 years old to their mid-30s.

Public assistance for disabled adults is greatly lacking in the DR (although more assistance has become available for disabled children, in part through the training and example of HLBP). The group home is continuing to provide the care that these adult residents need, including education, vocational activities, physical and cognitive therapy, and more.

HLBP also continues its mission of setting an example of good care for people with IDD, influencing the local culture and affecting change in government institutions. HLBP staff members have provided training for staff at a number of surrounding care facilities. In 2015, they provided training to the staff at a psychiatric hospital that had poor conditions for its residents. A year after this training, conditions had improved so much in the psychiatric hospital that HLBP’s director was hired part time to direct and improve conditions at an affiliated hospital for mental health rehabilitation.

The impact of HLBP is extending even beyond the borders of the DR. Seminarians and deaconess students at Concordia the Reformer Seminary (also located in Palmar Arriba) interact extensively with the residents, as well as participating in HLBP’s outreach to disabled people in the community. This gives them experience ministering to people with disabilities that they can take with them as they return to their home countries to serve.

“Ministering to people with disabilities is an exercise in really putting your faith in God’s Word and that He would bring about the fruits of faith. It’s not a matter of their intellectual capacities; it depends on the work of the Spirit as, through Baptism, people with developmental disabilities receive faith in their Savior,” said Deaconess Danelle Putnam Schumann, an LCMS career missionary who works at the group home and has been involved with Lutheran outreach to the disabled in the DR from its beginnings in 2005.

These fruits of faith can be seen in the residents of the group home, even though only two of them are verbal. Resident Estefani has been confirmed and can recount many Bible stories. Randy, who has autism and is easily overstimulated, stands just outside the doors of the church during worship — where he can be heard repeating the words of the sermon and singing along with the hymns. Moises, who has cerebral palsy, will fold his hands and pray before every meal. Though they cannot understand what he is saying, they hear him finish with an “Amen.” Ramona often makes the sign for “Jesus” and points to the church. Francis, who is deaf, raises his hand before the prayers every week in church and asks that they pray for “mom” (meaning the director of the group home).

There are many ways in which HLBP is working to shift the culture and practices around disabled people in the Dominican Republic. But Putnam says that one thing is most crucial: “People with disabilities are sinners who need to be saved. They need God’s Word, they need to be baptized and they need to hear God’s Word regularly. They have spiritual needs just like everyone else.”

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