“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Monday, August 10, 2015

Ministry to persons with disabilities is not an "organic" ministry

Was chatting with a friend recently who was visiting. She talked about conversations with the pastor of her church about working toward developing a ministry to persons with disabilities at her church. The pastor replied that he doesn't feel the need to reach out to people with disabilities in the community. He feels that ministry should be "organic" meaning that you don't do anything till someone shows up.

I have heard this nonsense many times before. As I have stated elsewhere in the past in the blog, I have students in one of the classes I teach interview their pastor about ministry to persons with disabilities. I have the students ask...

Is ministry to persons with disabilities a priority at our church?
If it is a priority, what is the evidence that people with disabilities are a priority?
If it is not a priority, why isn't it a priority?

A typical response is that we love everyone the same who comes to our church. Now that sounds great, however, you have a group of people who likely have no ability to come to church. If they are intellectually disabled, they don't have driver's licenses. If they have physical disabilities, they also may not be able to get themselves to church without assistance. Even those who live in group homes likely need people to go to the home and talk to those who manage the home to invite them etc.There are also families who have been shunned because of a disabled family member.
But this pastor sees no need to invite people with disabilities to church. 

Luke 14 is a passage that is often cited as important in supporting ministry to persons with disabilities. But the part of Luke 14 which has always impacted me is verse 23. The NIV says, "Then the master told his servant, "Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full."
How do you compel someone to do something? Actually, the first question is probably why would you have to compel people who have been devalued to come to a wedding banquet? Perhaps because you have participated in their devaluation. You see the starting point in disability ministry is to ask those who you have devalued for forgiveness. To compel you to come, I begin by saying, "Please forgive me for how I have treated you in the past. I have not acted as Jesus would call me to act toward you. Please forgive me. If you are able to do that, would you please give me the opportunity to serve you...." and we go on from there. Also note that the passage says, "Go out... and compel." This is not a wait for them to show up. This is a go out and convince them to come in. You have to do something! Not sit and wait.

That we would just wait for those we have hurt in a variety of ways just to show up because we are so wonderful is stupid and foolish.

I once spoke to a group about disability ministry. I shared the idea of beginning ministry by asking for forgiveness. I said, "I really don't have the power to do this, but I want to say to anyone in the room, please forgive us, the Christian church, for the way we have treated you. You did not deserve the treatment you received from us. I humbly ask for your forgiveness and ask if you would give us another chance." A woman in the group immediately began sobbing. Through her tears she said, "I have been waiting for this apology for years!" 

Our starting point is not that we project to the community that we are "God's gift" to them. I honestly believe that the Christian church is a significant part of of God's answer to supporting individuals and families, however, not as it is at the moment. There is much change and growth that needs to occur. There are pockets of beauty where amazing things are happening. But there are also still those in their foolishness who spout the nonsense that contributes to the ongoing exclusion of persons with disabilities.


Monday, July 27, 2015

"Teach me" or "the chance to understand"

In our Light and Power class, we have been going through a harmony of the Gospels. This past week we were looking at Matthew 13:10-17 as well as the corresponding Mark and Luke passages. In teaching this passage, we came to verse 11 which states, "You have been given the chance to understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven." As with the whole Bible, I believe this passage applies to persons with various disabilities, including intellectual disabilities. We ALL have the chance to understand...to the degree we are able. Later in the passage it states, "Everyone with that kind of knowledge will be given more. In fact they will have very much." It reminds me of the James 1:5 passage which states "If any of you need wisdom, ask God for it. He will give it to you. God gives freely to everyone. He doesn't find fault." If you ask God to tell you more about him, he will! God gives freely to EVERYONE. He wants everyone to understand more. 
I tell our class members, "Every day you should pray, “God will you teach me new things about you today.” He will basically answer that prayer by saying “YES!” He wants them to understand more. He wants to tell us all more. So in teaching about prayer, we have expanded the "Help me" prayer to a "Teach me" prayer. "Teach me about you" or simply "Teach me."
I am amazed by what people with intellectual disabilities are able to understand about the things of the Lord. They often rise to the level at which they are taught. If taught as children, they remain children. If taught as adults, they rise to that level with deeper understanding.

As above, remember that God has given all of us "the chance to understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven." What we need to do is ask him to show them to us.
As a ministry leader, you need to teach those under your instruction to ask God to teach them more about him. He wants them to know more about Jesus, so he will answer their prayers by teaching them more about who he is.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Missionaries who prepare nationals to serve persons with disabilities

Kathi and I had a great conversation with Ms. Ashley Hall, a gal who is spearheading the development and offering of an undergraduate program in disability studies/special education at Africa Renewal University outside of Kampala, Uganda. As we chatted, we talked about preparing African nationals to provide services to children and adults with disabilities. It is so exciting to see the work Ashley is facilitating in Uganda.

As I thought about this, I remembered how I probably know of a half dozen missionaries who were serving faithfully somewhere in the world when a child with a disability was born to them. I don't know if it is still the case, but that almost immediately meant that they would have to leave and come back to the US. I know of families with a severely disabled child, another with autism, several with down syndrome and others with other impairments. In each case, neither the mission organization nor the country was prepared to assist in care and education of the children so the family came home.

A while back, Kathi had the idea of involving some of the folks with disabilities at our church in a mission endeavor to Mexico. What happens is that small houses are pre-built in the US and then taken down to Mexico where they are assembled for a family. Her idea was to include some folks with disabilities in the activity. It was interesting to see those without impairments in the group work to facilitate those with disabilities being able to share their gifting in providing the homes. But was even more interesting, was that when we got to the location of where the house was to be built, those who we were helping saw that members of our group were disabled and assisted those folks to help them. The Mexican nationals assisted the American team members with disabilities so that the American team could provide the house.

This is a brilliant idea! What if in our missions activities, we were assisting those we were in mission to. to love and support children and adults with disabilities. What if we taught them a Biblical perspective on disability, assisted them to develop ministries and human supports for persons with disabilities. Then, when a child with a disability was born to a mission family, they would not necessarily have to leave because a part of the mission's activities and purpose resulted in making a place for those with disabilities. As above were the Mexican nationals helped the American team members with disabilities so that they could serve the nationals, the community around the missionaries would step up to support the individual with disabilities and their family so that they could stay and continue their mission work.

We need to think ahead in preparing for these kinds of situations. Not only for those we are in mission to, but for our own needs. That families have to come home, reflects on missing pieces in our mission focus.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Christian School Special Education

I was recently asked to help develop programs for a Christian school. Not an unusual request. However, as is sometimes the case, their starting point was something I just couldn't support. Their model was an entirely segregated, Christian school for children with disabilities. Although there are many private schools (mostly secular) who continue to provide segregated services, that is not a model we would want to embrace. My goodness, that has not been considered best practice since the 1970's!  I have visited many of these segregated schools, and overall they are really not very good. In part it is because they are for profit organizations. As I have discussed other times in this weblog, their priorities are different than what we might want for such schools. So for example, if you are a student placed there, my motivation for your improvement might be questioned as if you get better, you will go back to your public school and I lose a student. Additionally, when I provide services, your progress is not really critical to me as I am more interested in just billing for services. So it is not a question of, "Did Johnny improve as a result of services?" It is a question of, "Did I document spending an hour with Johnny, providing whatever the service was, for billing purposes?"

But I want to get back to Christian schools. If we are going to do something within the Christian school setting for students with disabilities, it should minimally reflect what have become known as best practices.  Let me provide just a sampling of what those practices should be.

1. Is the program integrated as much as is possible? Do students with and without disabilities have the opportunity to be socially integrated together? Public schools will sometimes try to use the academic classroom as the point of integration which may or may not be the best idea, depending on the needs of the students with disabilities academically. But even if the curricula needs to be different there are many ways outside of the curricula that students could be integrated together. However, if I create a segregated school, those opportunities become difficult or impossible. Our goal is for students to develop relationships and friendships together. But if they are not physically together, there is little chance that social interactions can occur. The benefits of these relationships go both ways, by the way. We all need each other and the blessings/benefits that grow out of being with each other.

2. Is the program set up to monitor progress by students with disabilities. As in the comments above about private schools, the question is not "Did I spend an hour with Johnny doing some activity?" The question should be, "Did Johnny get better as a result of the hour I spent with him (or hours I spend with him over time and what is the documentation of that progress)?" Special education has as a significant characteristic that if what I am doing is not working, I need to keep changing it until it does work. So that implies I need to be closely monitoring student performance, and that I need to employ a variety of educational strategies to facilitate the improvement I am hoping for. In the public schools, particularly among classes for students with more severe disabilities, educational programs become babysitting. That is not what they should be. Students should have their abilities maximized just as any student should.

3. Do you have a Biblical understanding of what disability is? Very few pastors take on this issue. However, there has been much written over the last 10 years which really fleshes out many of the answers to this question. If you as a teacher, director, founder do not have a Biblical understanding of disability, then you have homework to do before you begin your program. Some things you should research in gaining this understanding relate to understanding God's sovereignty and rejecting a secular view of disability. This understanding will change your perspective on what disability is and impact the development of the values underlying your programs. Too many Christian school special education programs do not reflect a clear understanding of a Christian perspective on people with disabilities.

4. Are you outcome focused? What do the graduates of your program do once they leave school? You should begin by asking what graduates of the public school system do when they leave school. I suspect many local school districts will not know. A good place to start would be to survey adults with they types of disabilities that your students will have, about their lives. There are some skills that they would identify as making their lives better and others that are not as important. Every community has certain types of jobs available. Do special education graduates have access to those types of jobs? Have they been prepared specifically for they types of jobs that are available in a particular community? Too often we don't even ask those questions. So when a students graduates they have no where to go because the school did not have the foresight to ask that obvious question.

I will provide just one more area although others could be imagined.

5. The most important thing in life is people, is friendships and personal relationships. Does your program facilitate the development of relationships between people with and without disabilities in the community? Churches may not be good at this, but schools that should know better can be oblivious to facilitating friendships. The more you understand what disability is, the more you recognize that what is needed relative to people with impairments is a change in the social environment such that it will stop being discriminatory. There is the potential that both relationships can be facilitated and discrimination can be diminished. These should be major outcomes for any school, particularly a Christian school that endeavors to include and serve students with disabilities.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Final Authority

People's behavior is governed by something. It may be that they do "whatever seems right in their own eyes" as the book of Judges warns us about. When people act on that basis it is dangerous. It is also sometimes referred to as value relativism. That is, I do what I want to do and you do what you want to do. I need to be tolerant of you and you need to be tolerant of me. But you don't need to be tolerant of me if I do hold to a position that says there are clear values. There are clearly things which are right and things that are wrong. If I hold that position, then you no longer have to be tolerant of me. But there is such a thing as evil. Our society has abandoned this notion.

However, it is interesting that when a society that embraces people doing "whatever seems right in their own eyes" bumps up against a group of people who have a final authority, those people strike them as capricious or limiting of their freedom to do what they want. In America today, those people are called Christians. Christians cannot do whatever they want to do. They are responsible to follow the commands of God as laid out in the Bible. So, why don't I steal? Not because today I think it is wrong to steal and tomorrow truth for me might change and so I might steal tomorrow. No,I don't steal because the teaching of Bible tells me it is wrong to steal. It really doesn't matter on some level what I think about stealing. I shouldn't do it because I am told, by my final authority, that it is wrong. That goes for other things in my life linked to my behavior. Why should I love other people? Trust me it is not because I always want to, but it is because I am told that the greatest commandment after loving God is loving my neighbor as much as I love myself. I do my best to love you because I am commanded by final authority to do so. Clearly I and other Christians fail all the time. We might fail more than we get it right. But that doesn't diminish the authority of the commands or teachings of my final authority.

When people have no final authority, morality is somewhat by consensus. Your moral code becomes the laws of a country. If the law prohibits me from doing something, I must not do that thing or I will suffer the consequences of breaking the law. Otherwise, everything is up to me.

If you are following the news, you are aware that Planned Parenthood, that horrific organization responsible for the deaths of probably millions of unborn children, has been caught selling infant body parts. The story is here. People too often compare evils they see with Nazi Germany, but this is truly one that bears such a comparison. The cavalier manner in which the medical director discusses the practices to a supposed buyer, over a glass of wine is chilling. It is as if the buyer went into a meat market and wanted a pound of ground beef, or liver or something. She literally spoke of knowing what was desired by a buyer in the morning, and then carrying out abortions in such a manner that she could get the body parts that were required by the buyer.

When asked about whether this would be legal, her response was to say it probably could not get past "the present" supreme court. She is right that it possibly could be permitted by a future court. What is the moral authority for killing unborn children and literally butchering them and selling their body parts? Whatever a court would determine. You see, if we have no final authority, we are libel to do anything. I made the comparison above with Nazi Germany. What the Nazi government was doing by killing millions of people, was not illegal by the government's own standard. It was it's own final authority. So using that argument, the same used by Planned Parenthood, it was not wrong. That is the exact same standard people are using to justify doing things which are completely evil.

So understand two things. I as a Christian, flawed as I am, am trying to hold to a moral standard laid out in the Bible. When I look to judge whether something is right or wrong, it is nearly always not based on my opinions. It is based upon what the Bible, my moral authority tells me is right or wrong. If I go against that moral authority, I am doing something called sinning. You might think me capricious, or uncaring, or however else you might characterize me. But because I trust in Jesus, I trust the moral authority he, through the Bible, lays out for me. It is unchangeable and consistent. I may not be consistent because I am a flawed human being, however, the standard, provided by God himself, is consistent. If we as human beings follow his authority, our lives will be blessed because we are being obedient. If we do not follow that authority, we will suffer from our disobedience. But it is also important to recognize that as we move down the path of disobedience, we become more and more unable to know right from wrong. If someone were to have approached the head doctor for Planned Parenthood when she was about to enter medical school and said, "Hey I have this great idea. Lets kill babies and sell their body parts for money." She hopefully would have said, "I would never do that! That is wrong and a horrible thing to do." But then she went to work for Planned Parenthood, and the evil that regularly goes on there put her on a path that led to her chatting about selling baby's body parts over dinner and a glass of wine.

If this is not the future we want, we need to return to our nation's founding moral authority, the Bible.