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

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"We'll take you and not you"

I was hit today with something quite obvious, but I hadn't thought about it in this way before. It struck me that churches/pastors will at times say that ministry to persons experiencing disabilities is not a particular priority. We have probably all heard that at one time or another in the past. But the obvious thing that hit me again today was that I (as a church, pastor, etc.) will look at your family, a family that includes a person experiencing disability and say, "Ministry to you, the person over there experiencing disability, is not a priority for our church." It is not like we are saying ministry to white or black or brown or other entire groups of people is not a priority. We are looking within families and saying that these individuals in your family are a priority for ministry and those others are not a priority for ministry. I first observed this with Christian schools who can be notorious for not serving students who would benefit from special education. But it is even broader than that, actually separating families by prioritizing some members of the family over others.

It also struck me that the ones we don't choose to serve are potentially the more difficult ones to serve because they don't fit the way in which we have designed services, designed ministry. The classic example for me which illustrates this point is the church who wouldn't allow a high school student who used a wheel chair to be a member of the youth group because the youth group met on the second floor of a building with no elevator. So rather than design services which meet on the first floor, or develop access to the second floor, we choose not to include those who do not fit our designed ministries.

It is interesting that the Department of Rehabilitation used to have a criteria, I guess still does, for receiving services. The criteria was that you had to be able to "benefit from services." So if you needed services for an extended period of time or forever for that matter, you were deemed ineligible because you couldn't benefit from services. You could potentially benefit from services, just not those provided. Ultimately through the novel thinking of Madelline Will, the past Assistant Secretary of Special Education for the federal government, the definition of services to include ongoing services opened up the Department of Rehabilitation to those who could benefit from services over the long term. The people didn't change, the criteria for delivery of services and the types of services provided were changed.

This is a change that needs to find its way into the church. There are those who would argue that people experiencing disability cannot be integrated in to existing church programs. This excuse is used as a reason for exclusion. In my mind, the answer is not exclusion, it is the redesign of services such that those who might be able to benefit would indeed benefit. Don't tell me that you will not serve people because they don't fit your structures, change your freakin structures. A discriminatory church which has been in a discriminatory rut for perhaps over a century will not change easily, but it is not the people who have the problem, it is the discriminatory church that needs to change.

This is hard coming because it requires a great deal of courage on the part of the leadership, and that courage is not as prevalent as I wish it would be. Ministry is hard and it is about time that the rank and file church attender learned that. Rather than dodging the difficult issues of ministry for fear of making attenders uncomfortable, we should be saying "We choose to include people experiencing disability, and it will make us change the comfortable ways we have been doing things to date." I wonder how many rank and file church members think ministry is easy, because they haven't been challenged to do it. I wonder how many would embrace the changes that would be required to truly include all of the people who would desire to attend church and participate in the programs of the church.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Jeremiah 29:11

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Those were the words of God to the exiles. People who felt abandoned and displaced, by and large by no fault of their own. I believe the Lord wanted to encourage those people by promising them a future. He also had plans "not to harm you" which was something perhaps that they were unsure of because of their life experience to date. He wants to give us hope (which is given through Jesus) and a future. I see people with disabilities in this verse. It seems a word of reassurance to those who might not be entirely sure of what God is up to on the basis of their experience.

As is typical, in His kindness God knows of our wavering trust and gives us a shot of confidence and hope. How could one be more encouraging than to say, "you have a future" and "I have plans for you" and "I have plans to prosper you."

This verse has been an encouragement to me and I don't face the issues of disability, personally, that many face. I hope those who are feeling overwhelmed by their disability or the discriminatory effects of their disability will find a "hope and a future" in this passage.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause"

I was recently talking with some colleagues about how there are many apocryphal stories floating around, and have been for years, which embrace an unjustifiable spirituality about who people with disabilties are or are not. By unjustifiable, I mean from a Christian perspective based upon the Biblical narrative. I focus my comments on Christians, who claim to believe the message and narrative of Christianity, and then cling to unjustifiable spiritual claims. In being critical of these stories, a friend disagreed saying that the stories were comforting and encouraging to he and his family at the birth of their family member with disability.

No doubt, that those who create such stories are probably motivated by the thought of being encouraging to the parents and families of persons with disabilities, but I would rather hear the truth. Please don't tell me that there is an Easter Bunny no matter how good it makes me feel, if there really isn't one (there isn't is there?). Also, don't tell someone that their child with down syndrome is an angel, because I know that he is just a person like me. Don't tell me that he has something special to do, unless you are telling all the other children the same thing, because we all are unique and all therefore have special things that we alone can do. But those with disability are not any more special than anyone else. They are just people. They are not heroes, or angels, or devils, or object lessons for the nondisabled. They are not demons, or sub-human animals, or to be considered objects of dread or pity, or holy innocents (see Normalization by Wolfensberger), or any other notion you might come up with other than that they are people.

Now, some may do heroic things or angelic kinds of things or even evil kinds of things, but that is because they are people like you and me and we sometimes do heroic things and angelic things and evil things.

So it may make you feel nice to think that there is a Santa Clause, but there is no Santa Clause. We jokingly tell our children that they will get nothing from Santa Clause this year, nor have they gotten anything from Santa Clause ever. To say otherwise, particularly to a child, is an untruth...an untruth perhaps shared out of kindness, but an untruth nonetheless.

But we are not dealing with children when we are attempting to answer the questions of parents, adults, who have had a child with disability born into their family. Yet we must also clearly understand what the truth is so we can share it accurately. That is where church leaders need to step up to the plate so that Christians are not misinformed. But then, I wonder what percentage of church leaders know the truth in this area? I wonder how many churches will advertise that next week's sermon topic is, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause?"


Monday, February 06, 2006

A "replacement narrative"

A friend and colleague of mine, Arthur Seale and I have been in discussion about the notion of a replacement narrative. That is, a story, a narrative to replace the one which guides people socially in their day to day lives. For the Christian, the replacement narrative is what she/he learns from the Bible. The teachings of the Bible are prescriptive social constructions which in many ways replace the social constructions we were raised to believe by our society. For example, we might have been taught as a child that if someone hits you you hit him back. The biblical replacement narrative would perhaps say you should turn the other cheek.

This notion of a replacement narrative really came home to me this past weekend as our pastor discussed Romans 12. The passage says,
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2)

I wondered about this in terms of the narrative the church is currently working under relative to persons with disabilities. I hate to say it, but in many ways, the society reflects more of a biblical construction of disability than the church does. However, generally we do have a lot to offer the world, and we must not conform to the patterns of this world but renew our minds.

To what extent does the church reflect or contribute to negative social constructions of persons with disabilities, and, I would argue move away from a truly biblical narrative about who people with disabilities are and Christians and the Christian church's responsibility towards them? I even wonder at times whether the church knows what the biblical replacement narrative about disability is.

Anyway, that is what Arthur and I are chewing on. Your input is invited.


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Rev. Dennis Kingsland

A co-laborer with us in working to open churches to persons with disability died this past week. I only knew Rev. Dennis Kingsland for a few years, and unfortunatley, only in contexts of working toward changing the church in areas of disability ministry. Dennis headed up the Inland Empire (Southern California) advisory board for Joni and Friends of which I am a part. He was passionate about people with disabilities and passionate about seeing people gain faith and understanding of the Lord.

The image which was repeated at his memorial service yesterday, was that Dennis was like the horse in the starting gate, struggling to get moving, desparate to go forward. As the disease which ultimately took his life progressed, he was debilitated, but was always saying that "I wish I could do more." He would even apologize for his health condition to those around him, because he wished, like the horse in the starting gate, he could bust out and really push ahead.

I will never forget a conversation I once had with him on the campus of Cal Baptist University. We were talking about some of the impediments to churches moving forward. Dennis as a pastor himself, founder of a church, leader in his denomination, and pastor emeritas told me that pastors are often the bottleneck in opening churches to persons with disabilities. Although I guess I already knew that, to hear it from a pastor of his stature was a revelation to me. Based on that conversation, I came away realizing that at least in the short term, changes in the church are probably not going to come from the leadership of the church. We needed a movement of lay professionals to come in and challenge the discrimination which occurs in the church. We particularly needed people in special education who are also Christians. Based on that conversation, I began to ruminate about what I could do to facilitate the development that movement of lay professionals. Ultimately myself and others came up with the professional organization we started called the National Association of Christians in Special Education. When this organization was birthed a little over a year ago, I remember Dennis being enthused about the idea. It was a way to potentially break open the bottle neck and move the church on a path which should have been a 4 lane highway by this point in time.

On a personal note, Dennis was always very encouraging to me personally. Have you ever met someone where you felt you had their favor? Dennis never did anything specific for me other than stimulate my thinking, and listen to me, but I felt as I was one of his favorite people (I suspect there are hundreds of people whom he made to feel that way). That is another thing that I will always remember about him. That is also something I hope I can emulate about his life as well. To be with someone and to feel like you are loved by him or her, that you have their favor must have been what it was like to be with Jesus himself, which, by the way is where Dennis is today.


Friday, February 03, 2006

Why healing?

When you think about why there might be persons who experience disability in the world, typically you come up with two types of responses. The one states that people are disabled by design. That is, God made them that way. It is the "who made man's mouth" argument that God gives to Moses when he doesn't want to lead because of his apparent poor speaking ability. The other side is the perspective that along with disease and death, disability entered the world at the time of the Fall of man. Prior to that time, there would be no disabilty, by design or otherwise. One wonders about the range of creativity God might have used at that point in areas like memory and other aspects of cognitive functioning to the point of a level of functioning being what one might call a disability.

Anyway, the question which I have been considering lately, is that if God created people with disabilities by His design, that is He made them that way, why would Jesus go to the trouble of healing many of those who came into His life? If they were disabled by design, and that was just another creative aspect of the creation, he might as well as changed the hair color of the Middle Eastern people from black to blonde, or their ethnicity from Middle Eastern to Caucasian.. If disability is a natural part of God's creation by design, why heal? God didn't heal Moses' mouth.

Somebody smarter than me needs to wrestle with these issues to provide a greater understanding of disability.

Anyway, something to think about.