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

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Church or state leadership

Another quote from Susan Dolan-Henderson:
"It is theologically and ethically appropriate to see God as having a preferential option for the disabled and ill, and thus for the church integrally to mirror this preference and work for justice concerning their well being. Throughout the New Testament, the church is called to be a community of interdependence."

I have been thinking a lot lately about the differences between the way the "secular world" interacts, works with, supports persons with disabilities, and the way the "Christian world" does the same. Clearly, the secular is filled with Christians in various positions. I, for example, am a professor at a secular state university. Therefore, arguably the face of that university towards the public, in particular as it relates to the little department of which I am a part, may be impacted positively or negatively by what I do, what I fight for or advocate for. Hopefully we Christians are being "salt." So to separate the two worlds may be somewhat artificial.

I think, however, that it is still useful to look for distinctions between what the state is doing and what the church is doing. Historically, it is important to understand the impact, the effect the church has had on the state. Arguably the church was pivotal in the development of social services both in Europe and in America. Early human service programs of the 1800's were largely facilitated by religious groups. Particularly with the turn of the century and the increased urbanization, churches were being overwhelmed with the problem, and sought help from the state. Social work and human services can trace their roots to church advocacy. Churches were also instrumental in ending sterilization practices in the United States. These groups were very vocal in calling for an end to these abusive and actually futile practices; people with mental retardation in particular were not reproducing.

Obviously other groups and individuals have worked for societal change in recent years, but it seems to this observer that the secular world is currently leading the way. A couple of examples might suffice.

The Americans with Disabilities act focused the nation's attention on architectural barriers to persons with disabilities. I can remember as a young man attending a Baptist church in New Jersey, where the entrance to the church had beautiful granite steps which rose up perhaps 12 feet to the entrance. A wonderful Christian saint and gifted science teacher at our church, who had used a wheelchair most of her life had to be lifted by four men every week up those stairs and into the church. I'm sure Ms. Barto enjoyed getting to know the young men of the church as they did her (she used to wonder why our national anthem ended with a question). But in all the years I went to that church, it never occurrred to anyone that some means of allowing Ms. Barto to enter the church independently might be constructed. I still don't know whether the church is accessible today. National leaders, however, recognized that lack of access is a form of discrimination. Public buildings must be accessible to persons who use a wheelchair. Even the curbs of our cities must allow for easy access.

I was excited recently to see a church in my town installing a elevator. I was excited because I met with them a few years back to assist in thinking through the development of ministries which would include persons with disabilities. They indicated that there was at least one boy who wasn't able to attend the junior high group, which met on the second floor, because he used a wheelchair and there was no elevator. They recognized that something had to be done to either move the junior highers to the first floor, or provide access to the second floor. I haven't been involved with them for several years, but apparently they arrived at a solution.

But I come back to my question of who is leading the way? Who is the example to the other? At the moment I would have to say the state is the leader.

For the past ten years I have traveled around the country doing presentations, mostly to secular professionals about the potential of the church as an agent of supports for adults with disabilities (my focus). You see, the state is constantly on the look out for ways in which adults with disabilities can be supported naturally in the community (I will give you more information about this in the future). I tell them about churches and the potential they hold. Often they are surprised and amazed. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, "How come I have never heard about this before?" Well the reason they have never heard about it is that the secular trainers, universities, agencies, etc. don't talk about it (church/state separation, you know) and partially because there wasn't enough to talk about. Notice I keep using the word "potential." But my thought was that if I talked to enough secular professionals who really do want what is best for their clients, perhaps they will encourage churches to do what they should have been doing all along. Ironic isn't it? State agents contacting churches to, in Dolan-Henderson's words
"see God as having a preferential option for the disabled and ill, and thus for the church integrally to mirror this preference and work for justice concerning their well being."

I don't know if I have had my desired impact on state agents or churches. I do think that the church as "salt" in this area, is somewhere between a flavorful spice and tossed on the ground to be trodden under foot.


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