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

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Fear of Dissidents

One of my favorite books by Jean Vanier is Becoming Human. It is great book for anyone to read, not just those interested in disability or disability ministry. It is just as the title implies. It is a book about what it means to be human. When discussing the movement from exclusion to inclusion, Vanier has a section called "Fear of Dissidents." Let me provide a few quotes from this section.
There has always been a fear of the dissident, that is to say, of the one who seems to threaten the existing order. Those who fear the dissident are those who have a vested interest in the maintenance of that order; frequently, money and power, or the need to control others and to feel superior to them, are at the root of such interests (p 74).
The dissident can also challenge comfort and tradition. These are also power bases of a different sort which can be extremely difficult to change.
It is the nature of power to resist change... (p 74)
Change is clearly what we are after. Cultural change within the church. As I have mentioned in the past in this blog, Foucault, the philosopher, has stated that when you experience resistance, it implies that power is being expressed. Power can be expressed from bottom to top and from top to bottom. The resistance we sometimes feel in church leadership is clearly evidence of power attempting to be expressed from the bottom (see The Power of Those Who Seem Weaker article).
There is a deeper issue here, beyond the self-aggrandizement of the powerful. Leaders consider themselves as generally in the right. It is part of the paradigm we have  created: if you have succeeded in making your way to the top, then, by definition, by the law of natural selection, the values for which you stand have been authenticated (p 74).
The path to this leadership also did not include information that those with disabilities would desire to be present in the place the leader would be occupying, the local church. Because there was little to no training in this area, they are even more confident that they are right!
The only point to be made about all this is that it is important for leaders to listen to dissent and try to understand where it is coming from and what is true in it. If history teaches us nothing else, it is that power is borrowed...The principle at issue is the temporary nature of power, and the necessity of service and humility, the necessity of seeing what truth is being cried out in an act of protest ( p 75).
Oh that the Lord would give our leaders the wisdom to consider the dissident within their church. This is a bold statement, but I am positive that the desire we dissent from the church about, our desire to see devalued individuals included and valued is clearly the heart of God on this issue. We will not someday change from our dissenting position to a position of exclusion. But we should expect those in leadership to one day be among the dissenters.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Follow up on "How disability ministry could cause a change in human services."

I was thinking some more about the previous post on the impact disability ministry could have on human services.

The more that the church gets into the lives of people with disabilities, particularly those with more severe disabilities who live in residential settings, a variety of things could happen. The first thing is that churches could bump up against the perceived regulations covering these facilities, get frustrated with their lack of access and then give up. From my experience, that is something that could happen. Community members who endeavor to form relationships with people under the care of the state are not always welcomed with open arms. If one is allowed access, there is a feeling that you are up to something no good. There is also a worry about what you might see and to whom you might reveal what you have seen.
We had a situation once where there was something a bit disconcerting which occurred at a home. We didn't say anything to anyone, but somehow word got out about it and the agency which regulated the group home confronted them about what had happened. The owner of the group home accused us of telling the regulating agency about them and for the next almost year, residents were not permitted to go to church. As I relate in the Sherlock Holmes post the folks who lived in the home, once again they were people with quite severe intellectual disabilities were taught the phrase, "We are taking a break from church." So, you bump up against human services and they restrict church attendance of their residents.

So the second lesson is that we need to be serious about our desire to include people in relationships and then be persistent in attempting to facilitate the changes needed for residents to experience community integration. We are moving from being complicit in large scale social isolation to wanting to facilitate true community integration. No wonder our motives might be questioned. We have not been interested in those folks for a very long time and our change in interest can be misunderstood. So we need to be at homes, regularly, so that we can become known. As prove we are trustworthy, we can then move toward social integration via relationships with real, unpaid, community members.

Perhaps a third lesson if we are unsuccessful in our efforts is to work in some areas of human services ourselves. That is, perhaps we can develop homes people can live in. I know Christian parents who are desperately looking for Christian alternatives where there is the freedom to attend church. Perhaps we can facilitate vocational training and placement with businesses represented by the people who attend church. Perhaps we can facilitate opportunities for service for persons who are friendly and would make great companions but end up either at home all day or in adult day care settings where their lives might be wasted. In a future posting I will describe efforts I am pursuing to develop a certificate in Christian service for adults with disabilities. But rather than relying exclusively on government programs, perhaps we might develop better programs to both serve our community and reflect a Christian perspective.

There are more avenues which might be pursued. Let's keep thinking. Things as they are are not great. There is much room for innovative thinking and the offering of alternatives which could be significantly better for all.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How could disability ministry cause a change in human services?

As I have often mentioned in this blog, the current system of human services in America are based upon the wrong model of what disability is. Services are exclusively based on a medical model which basically sees disability as housed in an individual and interventions are geared to fix the person. Although this is quite a generalization, I would argue that it is basically true. What we need are also interventions by human services that work toward social environment change through an understanding which has become known as the social model of disability. In reality we need both and an emphasis on one or the other of these models takes us in a wrong direction.

The entrenched nature of human services causes one to feel it is virtually impossible to facilitate change. We appear (even professionals in human services) to be satisfied with the way services are designed, planned and delivered. I can tell you that parents are very often unsatisfied as are individuals who receive the services. But those of us in human services go on our merry way believing we are "God's gift" to those we serve. To not only change that mindset, let alone the services themselves, is once again virtually impossible. Human services' resistance to change is tantamount to moving a mountain. Might there be another way to facilitate changes?

But we could change the church.

Imagine the church got serious about its call to be the Body of Christ. What if we embraced social environment change in a social model kind of way? What if we developed relationships with devalued people rather than always relegating them to various programs? I truly wonder what the effect would be. State delivered services would become redundant at times because they were occurring naturally via relationships. As churches developed places where people could live, used the church network to facilitate employment, worked to maximize people's gifts so the didn't spend their days in adult day care or sheltered workshops, would this cause a change in the way human services are delivered?

I once went to Sacramento Ca. to lobby for a change in the regulations governing the way services to persons with developmental disabilities were provided and funded. In my 30 seconds of fame before the committee, I spoke of how the state should encourage faith groups to get into the lives of persons with disabilities. Not only would the supports be more reflective of a person's needs rather than a menu of services, they could be provided at a fraction of the cost. Now don't hear me wrong. I AM NOT SAYING THAT THE CHURCH SHOULD TAKE OVER ALL HUMAN SERVICES FOR PERSONS AFFECTED BY DISABILITY. However what I am saying, is that human services could be much more "surgical" in the ways they are delivered, just meeting needs in specific areas. If churches were encouraged by the state to be involved in the lives of devalued persons rather than being treated like a pariah because of draconian notions of church state separation, all would benefit. Persons with disabilities would develop relationships and feel caring. States could spend money on network development and addressing discrimination rather than segregating people from the community for the purpose of medical model fixing schemes, protecting them from community members, or simply doing things which are not in the interest of those they are serving but rather based upon what is administratively convenient.

The possibility of changing human services via some kind of full frontal attack of the models on which they are based is worthy of effort. However, perhaps a better way is to demonstrate a model of supporting people, based on scripture, that doesn't entirely rely on government programs but rather on relationships with people.


Friday, August 12, 2016

Favoring others over persons with disabilities

I grabbed my Bible yesterday morning just to do some reading and opened it up to James 2. It is a very powerful passage that I have blogged about in the past (see Favoritism Forbidden). I have been using the New Living Translation in my reading recently. Well the translation of verse 1 kinda slapped me in the face! It says,
"My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?"

I knew the passage addressed favoritism, in particular related to people in wealth or poverty, but the lessons are generally the same for favoring one group of people with a perceived positive characteristic over another with a characteristic thought to be less desirable. James goes on to indicate how this way of treating people is both wrong and actually somewhat foolish when it is unpacked. But I was struck by the power of the translation. You can't have faith in Jesus if you favor some people over others.

I am unsure of what this means for the faith of the Christian church generally because we do this all the time in reference to persons with disabilities. It goes back to a recent posting on this blog related to structural injustice. There is structural injustice and institutional favoritism of some people over others.

I received an email from a disability ministry leader whose name readers would know. She told me of how the criteria for being a deacon in a particular denomination basically would exclude people from that type of service because they couldn't meet the academic nature of the criteria. People who are excellent at service in myriad ways would be excluded from this leadership role because of structures established by the church. Now I can't say that the reason for these criteria was to exclude persons with intellectual disabilities, for example, however that is the result nonetheless. These structures actually teach exclusion, teach favoritism as the acceptable position of the church. Now I get it. I should not be your worship leader because I do not play the guitar very well. I get it. However, poor guitar playing should not keep me from being a deacon, a role that revolves around service. In the same way, theological expertise should also not keep me from being a leader in serving others.

I have told this story in this blog before, but I once attended a church where a man with intellectual disabilities had for many years been one of the people on the rotation to serve communion. When his week/month came up he joined the group who passed the juice cups and crackers to the congregation. However, when there was a change over in the elders of the church, one who was a psychologist said it was inappropriate for the man (who had been successfully serving communion without incident) to participate in this form of service because of what the psychologist described as his "mental age." As an aside, please don't talk about someone's mental age around me as I will confront you about what exactly that means. It is little more than an insult to speak of someone's mental age. So from that point forward that man was excluded from serving communion.

These are the types of things leaders teach congregations. If leaders don't understand they should not show favoritism then we need to teach them that they shouldn't show favoritism. You can cite the James 2:1 verse above. Also ask them about 1 Corinthians 12:21, The eye can never say to the hand, "I don't need you"  The head can't say to the feet, "I don't need you.". You can also look at verses 22-23 of that same passage. Or even 1 John 4:20 which says, for if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?

In the notes in the NLT regarding this chapter, it says the following (p 2771).
Showing favoritism. Why is it wrong to show favoritism to the wealthy?
1. It is inconsistent with Christ's teachings.
2. It results from evil thoughts.
3. It insults people made in God's image.
4. It is a by-product of selfish motives.
5. It goes against the biblical definition of love.
6. It shows a lack of mercy to those less fortunate.
7. It is hypocritical.
8. It is sin.

So be bold in pointing out favoritism when it excludes people for irrelevant characteristics. Although it won't make you popular, you will be representing the Heart of God.


Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Structural injustice

As a college student, one of my roommates happened to be an African-American guy. I remember once asking him,

"People talk about institutional racism, but being a white guy who is involved in athletics, I don't see it. Do you experience it?"
He looked at me patiently and said, "Absolutely!"
"Will you help me to see it?" I asked in all sincerity.

Those semesters that we lived together were truly eye opening as he relayed daily experiences that I was totally unaware of. I began to see things that I had never seen before. Many of the things were stupid things that could have been easily stopped. But they persisted nonetheless. Although I didn't understand the term at that time, what I learned from my friend was what might be called structural injustice. Sure there are people who can be purposely discriminatory towards someone else. But what he helped me to see was something else. Some thing that was present but sometimes, not always, hidden in the structures.

In the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden talks about the combine. It is everywhere, in the walls and it controls everything, particularly in the ward where he lived. It was the negativity the control that he felt. He called the ward where he lived the factory of the combine. The point is that it was pervasive, institutionalized, within the structures which surrounded Bromden both physically and socially.

What are the structural injustices which live within the church as it relates to persons with disabilities? One must first ask if there are structural injustices? Although others might disagree, I have to say that I believe there is such structural injustice. Once again, they aren't always a deliberate act on someone's part to be an agent of injustice. But injustice is experienced nonetheless. I have often used this quote from Wolfensberger in this blog but I will cite him once more. He says, "Thus for many people to all work toward a bad thing requires no deliberate or conscious conspiracy...most citizens are not aware of how they themselves can be totally unconsciously acting out undeclared, large-scale, societal policies in their own daily lives (from "A leadership-oriented introductory social role valorization (SRV) workshop, February 27, 2007). We can find ourselves in an unreflective pattern of living that we have been taught or socialized into. To break out of that pattern requires something remarkable to happen in us; we need to see how we unconsciously "all work toward a bad thing."

In regards to persons with disabilities in the church, we can say that we just didn't know about the structural injustice which might actually be true. If we are brave, we can ask those with disabilities about whether and how they experience structural injustice. And, just as my roommate helped me to see, we can help others and be helped to see things which are actually somewhat obvious once we are made aware. A good starting point would be for me to take my life experience and just compare it to the life experience of someone else. Say for example, a person with intellectual disability or someone who uses a wheelchair. What can I do, what opportunities do I have that he can't do or doesn't have? Why is it that there are those differences? Are they in any way justifiable? If not, why do we allow them to continue? Are there actual structures socially and otherwise which should not be present?

The church should NOT be the agent of structural injustice. Lets look for it reflectively and root it out.