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

Friday, November 12, 2004

U.S. Catholic Bishops Statement 1

In the November 9 blog, I listed a statement by the U.S. Catholic Bishops. In future blogs, I would like to go through various aspects of that statement and unpack them a bit. For a complete transcript of the statement I would refer you to Nov 9 and the link to the U.S. Catholic Bishops website.

1. We are a single flock under the care of a single shepherd. There can be no separate Church for persons with disabilities.

Sometimes when someone writes something such as the above, they are either responding to what they have observed, or are firing a preemptive strike. The above seems to be a bit of both. The latter following from the former.

A single flock under the care of a single shepherd implies we are all the same animal, all the same type. We are all sheep, er, I mean people. The single shepherd is Jesus. Now can you as a shepherd imagine hearing one of your sheep saying, "Fluffy is not like the rest of us and so we don't want him in our herd." As a shepherd you would probably say, "Wow, I didn't know sheep could talk." You would then say, "Shut up and get back with the rest of them, and I won't hear anything else about who is or who isn't a part of my herd." Interestingly, when an animal is rejected by its mother, like in the case of a litter of pups, the caretaker suddenly takes a special interest in the one rejected. The pups look at each other and see differences. The caretaker perhaps sees differences in appearances, but sees the pups as basically all the same. They are each a part of the litter.

The latter part of the statement says there can be no separate church for persons with disabilities. If there were a separate church for persons with disabilities, the question would be why would there be one, why would it be needed? I know of separate churches in the United States, and I honestly believe that those in leadership of those churches have a tremendous heart for persons with disability, and want to both meet their needs in a "culturally" relevant manner, and perhaps protect them from those who are not disabled. There are many problems with this perspective, however.

First of all persons with diability, particularly cognitive disability, aren't of a different culture, they are the same culturally as the rest of us. If they have developed any different form of experience, it is an experience of rejection, they are those who have been rejected. It is totally against Christian principles to say to a group of rejected people, "Hey all you rejected people, lets get together and form a church of the rejected people," at least as it relates to disability. Yes there are those who have done such things among groups like the untouchable class in India, however, that is an entirely different matter. Those people have developed to the point of having a distinct culture. You are born into that caste and as a result experience the same culture as your family etc. Now this doesn't dismiss the fact that such discrimination is wrong and should be fought, however, the situation is different.

People with disabilities are born into virtually any culture and experience some degree of rejection from that culture. So they don't really form a separate sub culture, they have experiences similar to others also experiencing disability. They group with these others not through any cultural affinity (perhaps like the deaf who have a different language in common) but because they have been relegated to the same stations in society, the same communities or parts of communities due to their near or actual poverty existence, the same agencies who provide various forms of assistance. These individuals were not necessarily born into these aspects they have come to experience in their lives, they have spiraled or gravitated toward these ends as a result of society and its constructions of disability.

Now if the church were some country club or golf membership, one might expect that there would be clubs for those who can afford them, clubs for those of importance, clubs for those with less money or influence and public clubs for those who for some reason are not able to attain the status of the higher clubs. The starting of separate churches for persons with disability is analogous to the "selective" clubs. If I can't get into the club I want to join, I will have to form my own club. Of if I cannot facilitate the integration of persons with disabilities into regular community churches, I will start a church for them. People of rejected status will generally not argue with a situation where they feel acceptance. Persons with cognitive disability will probably not recognize the philosophical issues of a separate church. But those of us who understand how things should be, who see the discrimination, must advocate for those who don't recognize the problems.

I know of a young man with down syndrome, about 14, who is still in the first grade Sunday school class. Now he is portrayed as being a "helper," however, he is much more like another first grade student. As a newcomer to that church, if I saw that young man in the first grade class, my response would be "What is wrong with him that he isn't with the other fourteen year olds?" My response would not be, "He is a good colorer." He doesn't belong in that class because it is not age appropriate for him. He belongs with his peers.

If I visit a church for persons with disability, my response is not, "Isn't it great that they have their own church!" My response is "Why aren't they with their peers?" If I attended a church local to that church, I would be ashamed that those persons with disability were so rejected, or felt so rejected that they had to start their own church. I would not tacitly accept that they were somehow different from me, of a different flock, ostensibly a different shepherd, such that they needed a different church.

You might respond, "Well what about denominationalism?" I would respond that persons with disability are born within denominations. They, at least by birth, are members of those denominations. If all the retarded people, by example, were Congregationalists, I would still argue that they should not be put in a separate Congregational church for the disabled people. But the fact that they aren't, that they represent all denominations, and that they need to form their own disabled church, indicts all of the denominations. They pat the people with disabilities on the back and say, "See you later" perhaps relieved that they no longer have to address the "problem" of disability.

But because we are one flock with one Shepherd, and should believe that we should all be one church, we need to do the required work to find persons with disability, bring them into our congregations, fight the rejection. Let the discriminators form the "Our Lady of those who Reject disabled People" church and they can deal with the Lord on the final day. Rather than rejecting those with disability, we should root out those who discriminate and reject them, find those who are unable to soften themselves and the environment to persons with disability and reject them.

My students at CBU have been interviewing their pastors about programs for persons with disability within their home churches. It has been interesting. A typical comment is, "We would welcome them if they came. We have elevators and are wheelchair accessible. We have disabled parking!" (Many of these things, by the way, were not there until required by law). But what they don't realize is, why would a group of people who have been rejected in the past suddenly go to a place which has rejected them? It would be like an all White church in the South in the 1960's saying, "We would welcome all the Black people if they came here." Well if you really wanted those people to come, you would need to go out and find them. You would need to try and convince them that they really were wanted there. To sit back and say "We would accept them, but none have come" is truly foolish in an age of discrimination. The fact that there are churches populated by persons with disability almost exclusively is a testimony to our failure.


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