“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.



Impossibleape said...

Our church administrator told me today that if the holy spirit directs them to serve the disabled they will but apparently the Holy Spirit has no more interest in my children than the board members do.

Your passion for justice for the disabled and your heartsickness over the discrimination and exclusion they face in churches is
a great comfort to me.

Knowing that someone feels for this class of people is very encouraging.

Thank you for today's message.

Impossibleape said...

Jeff you are a deeply valued odd duck in the evangelical world.
You are very different from most people claiming an imtimate personal relationship with the Lord.
Perhaps you can help answer a question that plagues me.

Why are the evangelical churches so far behind the secular world (and liberal churches?)in valuing and including the disabled?
Have they made a cost benefit analysis and decided the upside is dubious (in their minds) and the downside is all too obvious. This may be worldly wisdom but it smells like spiritual and moral bankruptcy to me.

Why have the churches, who proclaim that nothing is too hard for God and all we have to do is believe and the mountains will move for us, been such abject failures, while secular agencies and businesses are making real strides to include and value the disabled in their commuities

The most we can expect in many evangelical churches is a pat on the head in a healing line and then we are sent on our way to pretend we are warmed and filled?

The church that claims it believes we are made in the image of God and that each life is valued to the extent that the very Son of God would die for each will barely acknowledged the existence of the disabled.

Is it any wonder that society desn't take us very seriously?
If we have lost the culture war it may be because of the disconnect between proclaiming pro-life while walking on the other side of the road when confronted with the imperfect unaborted amongst us.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I think it is completely inappropriate to generalize the collective church the way you do. My church has two families with children with disabilities and they are totally included in everything, with every accommodation needed to make their learning about Christ as easy as possible. In interviewing my pastor I learned that she does have a burden for all people but doesn’t have the man power. All of our leaders are volunteers, and most of the regular members hold 2 or 3 positions as teachers, worship leaders, bible study teachers, deacons and so on. The only paid staff in our small church is the pastor, our secretary, our nursery attendants, and our cleaning crew. We have an 8 year old with Downs Syndrome who is fully included in all things all the other 8 year olds do, and she has an aid (that is a volunteer from within the church) who helps her every time she is there.
Secondly I think that it is completely appalling that someone would turn a person with disabilities away from their church. I know that we are supposed to leave the judging to God himself, but I would have to question the reality of anyone’s salvation that would do something like that. I have told some of your stories to my pastor and she was really saddened by them. Our church has about 75 members and about 150 regular attendees. We would love to have a disabilities ministry, a homeless ministry, a senior citizen ministry, and many others reaching out to the less fortunate. But, at the time we just don’t have the man power or the resources. I am certain that as we continue to grow we will start to see the planting of those ministries in our church.
Finally I think you need to think about the good that we are doing as a “collective church”. You can’t assume that all people are bad and that all people are evil just because we don’t have a specific ministry for disabled persons. I think the judgment you pass is as unfair as if I questioned you about what you are doing for the Lord and the expansion of his kingdom. Do you go minister to the elderly in convalescent homes? Do you minister to the homeless on the street? Do you stand outside of Planned Parenthood once a week and offer to adopt potentially aborted babies (disabled or not)? Is it fair to call you evil if you don’t do all things? I guess the answer to that question is different for everyone.
I know for a fact that my church would not, nor have they ever turned a person away who was different, disabled, needy, or other. I am genuinely going to make an effort to minister to the disabled. .

Impossibleape said...

Hi Sabrina
You are right that I may be over generalizing my own experience. I can understand that churches are overloaded and understaffed.

What I think could heal some wounds (my wounds) more than offering a segragated Sunday School class for adults with intellectual disabilties and calling it a friendship club, would be some real teaching from our pulpits about what it means to be a human being. Some of us are trying so hard to be God like that we forget that Jesus was one of us.
If we thought a little more about it we might be quicker to see the value that each one of us represents in God's eyes even in our frail humanity.

In your church you may not have a problem with discrimination against people with disabilities but unless congregations are given ways to understand who the disabled are in God's plan there will likely be a tendency fall back into condescending benevolence or simple disinterest or outright rejection towards the disabled.

I think if we are to have a revival of Christian faith it may be when the evangelical church becomes more like the mainline churches in their concern for the disadvantaged and the mainline churches become warmed by the genuine spirit-filled worship and personal experience that we emphasize in our churches.

But without evangelicals finding a way to love and serve the outcasts we won't likely get the revival we pray for.

Sadly teachings about our social reponsibilites gets moved far to the back of the bus in most evangelical churches. I hope I am not overgeneralizing again.

Anonymous said...

I agree that we need to be taught, and teach others, the true meaning of love, and the true value of all human beings, especially in Christ’s eyes. I was just making the point that in the world of generalizing and discrimination it is so important to acknowledge that they are not absolutes.

After I posted my comment I went and talked to some of the youth members in our church, and I asked them what they thought about Ethan, a boy we have who has CP and an IQ of about 60. The pastor’s son told me that youth would not be the same without him. As I continued to question the youth I was amazed at the love and compassion the teenagers have in our church. I then went and discussed the issue with the nursery moms (I have a 2 and 3 year old) and they were appalled that anyone would be turned away from the house of God.

Maybe I am living the happy bubble of my own church, so it hard for me to understand the passion you and McNair feel. I am certain that in a couple of years we will have more disabled people attending our church and they will be accepted and loved like anyone would.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I want to thank you foropening my eyes up to something that "Was not on my radar Screen" as you would say. I never wondered, where are all the people with diabilities in our community and especially where are they in our churches. If i think back on all the time i have spent in different churches, i cannot remember seeing people with disabilities on a regular bases. God loves all of his children the same. Therefore, all of Gods people should be excepted and fully integrated in every aspect in the church. I think it would be wonderful to see people with disabilities in the church participating in various ministries, groups, and outreaches. They are wonderful people who often have more to teach us than people without disabiliites. I learned so much about life by meeeting Mark Miller and the others in class. They enjoy life and have so much personality! It is the church leaders and congregations responsibility to place everyone as equal priority in the church. Churches need to step up and change the way they think. If people are uncomfortable around those with disabiliites than they are not being good Christians. God teaches us to have love and compassion for all. It is important for churches to rearrange their meetings and services to accomidate everyone!