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

Monday, October 03, 2005

A movement of lay professionals

The desire to facilitate a movement of lay professionals is not necessarily an effort to indict the church, but rather for disability professionals to lead by example. In contrast to the way that individuals with disability are not represented in churches in a manner which reflects their numbers in the community, Christian special educators, Christian social workers, Christian rehabilitation counselors, are represented in the Church.

It is we who are in the know about persons with disabilities. Arguably, it is we who have dropped the ball, and not lived up to our responsibilities. As the Bible says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). We who have been given much knowledge and significant experience with the disenfranchised in society, hold a special responsibility to recognize their absence in the Church and rectify that situation. We need to be doing the work of inviting them in, introducing them to our congregations, and as appropriate, developing programs for them. In the same manner as we might be critical of a person with financial abilities not coming to the aid of her church should it need financial guidance, we as human service workers should be held accountable. The Church is disobedient, but then it has been disobedient in this area for a long time. There have been pockets of incredible insight and programs that must delight the Heart of the Lord, but there is also incredible ignorance, uncaring and a lack of concern. The Church is disobedient because we have been disobedient.

Church leaders speak of all people being created in the image of God, of all souls being equal, of the value of every human life, but as we look around our congregations, we don’t see the diversity typical of the community represented in our congregations. Where are the nearly 20% of persons nationwide who are disabled? Where are the 10% of persons with “severe” disabilities? Where are the people with mental retardation? “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8) might be a fair characterization of the church in reference to persons with disabilities.

Those of us who are attempting to change the Church face barriers from our pastors, barriers from our denominations, barriers from those who sit next to us in the congregation. But rather than trying to overcome barriers, we dismiss ourselves from our responsibility in the name of church/state separation, or the rules of our organizations relative to clients, or the ignorance of our congregational brothers and sisters or our pastor. Or we say that our training and our work with persons with disabilities is our job and our church life is our church life. Personally, I need to see the chapter and verse on that one. This cannot be something that our Lord would condone. Can we as believers say that we are unwilling to serve in a particular area, especially when that area is our area of strength, the area we are devoting our working life to? Can we as believers say that we are unwilling to serve, when partially due to our lack of service, the Church lives in disobedience?

We hear pastors, or children’s program leaders, or Christian school administrators tell us that programs are too expensive, or too time intensive, or require persons having a lot of training. How do we respond to these excuses for living in disobedience? The last question is the easiest to dispel for the disability professional. Simply say, “I have a lot of training and I will run your program.” However, the types of things that are required to open the Church really don’t take a tremendous amount of training. Are church programs for persons with disabilities too expensive? A survey of pastors of churches running such programs says they aren’t (Sanchez & McNair in preparation). A survey of people who attend Christian churches say they are not (McNair in preparation). As a professional in the field of special education, I would agree with both of these groups and say that such programs are not expensive. Well aren’t programs too time intensive? Well, service is time intensive, but programs for persons with disabilities aren’t any more or less intensive than other programs.

However, the toughest protestation to the initiation of a program for persons with disabilities is that “Its just not a priority right now.” So ala Matthew 25, church leaders indict themselves. That will be my response in the future should I ever hear that excuse again.

We, the experts, need to act like the experts we are. Imagine going to your pastor to correct his interpretation of the Greek on a particular biblical passage. My pastor wouldn’t take too kindly to my attempted correction, and he would be right to not listen to me as I have never studied Greek or Hebrew, or systematic theology. But he has never studied the education of persons with mental retardation, or behavior management or best practices in the delivery of human services. I am the one who needs to take the lead in this discussion. I should know enough about my Bible to tell her/him where to get off should she/he talk about such a ministry not being a priority (I don’t need Greek or Hebrew to do that). But I have to be the one to go forward on these issues.

I had a discussion with a pastor and a couple of his staff members once. At one point in the discussion, one of the people in attendance said, “Nobody stays up at night wondering how to teach people with mental retardation about the Bible.” I responded, “I do,” which was the absolute truth.

Special education professionals live disability, particularly special education classroom teachers. They do, because if they don’t, they will be eaten alive by their students, or the student’s parents, or their administrators among others. But that preoccupation with persons with disabilities and the types of services they require, needs to be carried over to the church setting so as described in Matthew 25, they can be obedient to God’s command there and elsewhere to minister to the least of these.

Pastors, you need to confront disability professionals with their responsibilities in the church. You need to bring people with disability into the Church and support the efforts of those who do the same. As leaders in the Church, you are disobedient yourselves, and are allowing those within your purview to be disobedient as well.

Did Christ see people with disability? Very often these people are also poor. Did Christ have any interest in the poor? We read the stories of the extent to which Jesus went to minister without considering the context or the effort on his part to get with these people. Jesus’ interactions with persons with disabilities are breath-taking, and they were intentional on his part. We trivialize these interactions when we use them simply as illustrations or metaphors of spiritual principles. These were real people confronted by a real God, and these confrontations with real people by a real God are ubiquitous in the New Testament.

So don’t miss the priority Christ gives to these people as an example for you as a church leader in terms of the priority you should give to these same individuals who are living in your midst today. If you say that these people are not a priority, you indict yourself and diminish the service of those who do work with the disenfranchised.

And professionals in disability, don't miss your responsibility to help a disobedient church to become obedient. If you, if we do not facilitate the inclusion of persons with disability into the church, who do we expect will? We are the experts.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can recall seeing people with disabilities in my past churches, but it is true that they were never represented in numbers that realistically reflected their numbers in the community. I cannot personally recall ever seeing any disabled children in my sunday school years, or any in my wednesday night or college age groups. At one time I might have fallen for the excuse that it cost too much money or was too time intensive to be viable, but not now. In today's world the resources available are varied and getting less expensive. The amount of money involved cannot be much, especially compared to the thousands asked for to fix the roof, or to send to missionaries. I am not saying we should stop giving money to such programs, just that we can maybe take a month or two and donate for a new program. Also, any programs involved for the persons with disabilities cannot be much more time intensive than other church run programs, and even if they were, would not time spent doing God's work be worth it? I am not a special education expert or anything, but I think that reaching out to these people has huge biblical precedent. Jesus, during his ministry, went out amongst the people and specifically targeted the blind, lame, etc. for his teaching and healing. He never turned them away and always treated them just as he did everyone else. I agree with you that it is beyond time that churches took up this type of attitude in their dealings with the community. In this day and age, the resources and technology available have to make the process even smoother and more viable, if one were willing to make the change.