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

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Jean Vanier quote

The following is from the RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY regarding an interview to be on a future PBS program about Jean Vanier. Pay particular attention to the quote at the end.

Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, an international organization that creates communities for people with developmental disabilities -- people who were in institutions, on the streets, or in families who couldn't care for them or didn't want them. The son of a French-Canadian diplomat, Vanier served in the British Royal Navy during World War II, then he taught philosophy in France.

While never marrying, he considered the priesthood. But in 1964, he found his calling, opening the first L'Arche home in a small village south of Paris. Judy Valente visits L'Arche in Chicago and talks with Vanier about how the members of this establishment have transformed Vanier by allowing him into their world and watching their self-esteem grow as they give back
the love that they have received.

Vanier says, "My life is to live with them -- to be with those who are fragile, vulnerable and weak. I'm not sure that we can really understand the message of Jesus if we haven't listened to the weak...we can love people who have been pushed aside, humiliated, seen as having no value. And then we see that they are changed. And at the same time, we discover that we too are broken, that we have our handicaps. And our handicaps are around about elitism, about power, around feeling that value is just to have power."

To truly be able to take the perspective that Vanier describes, I must work on developing a Romans 12:2 kind of perspective. How could I learn to live the message of Jesus unless I seek to, "be not conformed to this age but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, in order to prove by you what is the good and pleasing and perfect will of God."

We cannot really understand the message of Jesus if we haven't listened to the weak, those who are seen as having no value. Useless eaters as the Nazi's called them. but I am steeped in elitism and power and the feeling that value is to have power. I am entangled and ensnared in those values that I have been socialized into believing. I, we need to ask God for the transforming of our minds in order to reflect Vainer's vision of being like Jesus.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Inclusion vs. nonexclusion

I had the pleasure of having lunch with a friend of mine, Arthur Seale. In the midst of our discussion, Arthur made the comment something to the effect that rather than working on inclusion, we should be working on preventing exclusion. He and I then went off on a variety of ideas about how in a variety of places (the church in particular in our discussion) develops places of inclusion instead of preventing exclusion. So for example, we say, "Disabled person, you can be participate by being involved in this program created for you, or you can participate in this program where the people will not exclude you." Such statements are a far cry from inviting someone to full participation in the church. Imagine if you were joining a church and the places in which you might participate were described in such a circumscribed manner.

"You can be a member of this group because it was designed for people with your personal characteristics. This is the place for disabled people. However, you cannot be involved in this other group because the people either
1) will not accept you because of their prejudiced notion of who you are,
2) are not willing to alter the way they do things, their structures, in order to accept you,
3) are not willing to do anything extra to facilitate your participation,
4) are uncomfortable with your personal hygiene, your appearance, your manner of dress, etc."

Now obviously we wouldn't expect men to be members of the women's group or vice versa. Nor would we expect children to attend the high school group.

Our efforts should be at carefully looking at the structures of our church and remove those things which would exclude people who should be a part of whatever group they would typically be a part of. So I would expect all of the men with cognitive disabilities to be a part of the church's men's group. There is no reason for them not to be involved. And if we truly do believe that we are all equal in God's sight, we should be making the same efforts to involve them that we would for men who are not experiencing disability. It is not like they are damaged goods or something, so we should not treat them as if they are...and we do treat them like they are.

I was reading the John account of the last supper. In the midst of arguing over who was the greatest (something that I have never heard adults with cognitive disabilities do, but have heard from state university professors) Jesus strips to his underwear and washes his disciples feet. Upon finishing, he says that if your Master would do that for you, what should you do for each other? That is the interesting thing about true service, it is fully inclusive and not at all exclusive. I don't need to set up a separate room for washing the feet of the disabled people because their presence bothers those currently not experiencing disability. If we are all trying to be modeling the behavior of our master, we would be vigilant to look for ways in which those who might be served are getting access to being served, and/or serving them ourselves. The last thing we would do would be to construct obstacles to people finding their way to the Lord, and our having the opportunity to serve. I think we have gotten to the point that we think service is about being served, not about serving. If the capital C church truly believed in service, there would be more people needing service there. The presence of persons with disabilities would be one great evidence that that particular church was one that fought exclusion and worked at serving.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Montreal summit 2006

I was very excited to attend the recent Montreal summit, and continue to reflect on my first experience at a truly international conference. It was delightful in very many ways.

I recognize that I see the world through glasses colored by my perception of what the church might be in supporting people who are disenfranchised in various ways, particularly persons with disabilities, however, I came away from the conference amazed at the various presentations about community integration and inclusiveness which were friendly toward the role of religious groups. Several presentations specifically mentioned the benefits of religious group involvement (including my own). Others spoke about linking persons with disabilties to existing community networks as means toward community integration. Oftentimes I felt as if the next words out of a presenter's mouth would be "you should introduce your friends with disabilities to the benefits of church membership."

In my own presentation, I spoke of how supported employment has become the obvious answer to the question of how to facilitate employment for persons with cognitive and other disabilities. I then went on to say that I believe that church involvement will ultimately be just as obvious a solution to community integration of persons with cognitive and other disabilities. I honestly do believe that. And it will be a great boon for the church! The community will see the church working the works and will be drawn to it. It is tough to argue with people who are reaching out to those that society has overlooked. People who would typically never set foot in a church will come because they will see the church as a place where their child with disabiltiy is wanted, is accepted and integrated. The witness of a church which goes into the community to serve those who have been ignored in the past would be appealing and irrestible. But not just to serve them, but to enter into a relationship with them. Who desires to be with them. Who wants to be in their presence and wants them to be a part of the group: membership, not just service or charity. Funny how obedience does that. The community is ready, persons experiencing disabilities are ready ...


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The why of disability

In the last week, I have had 2 separate discussions with friends about the question of why people have disabilities (particularly congenital disabilities). The one setting was at an international conference in Montreal. There were professors from Belgium, Netherlands, and several important people from the disability world in the United States in that group. The second group was with some close friends of mine with whom I meet regularly, one a psychiatrist, the other a professor and philosopher.

In the first setting I asked whether they felt disability was the result of the Fall, or was just a part of the natural range of human diversity, or something other that hadn't occurred to me. I was chided for even asking the question in the first place. "Who are we to questions God" was the response from one member of the group. I feel like I can ask questions of God about anything. Particularly because my question is one of trying to find understanding, not trying to question God's wisdom (although I would ask those questions as well if I had them). God is big enough to take our questions and either answer them or guide us through the process of further trust in him without a specific response. I left that discussion thinking that surely these people had thought about this question even though the weren't very interested in discussing the possibilties.

In the second group, the answer given to me was more of a "what difference does it make" kind of response. Now as far as I am concerned, it makes no difference in my day to day interactions with people with disabilities. However, there are many spurious notions of the why of disability floating around out there and there are people who ask the question for a wide variety of reasons. If I say that disability is not the result of the parent's or the person with disabilities' sin (see John 9) to use a reason sometimes provided in Christian circles then I must look to other reasons. Is the reason the syrupy sentimentality about specialness? Are people with disabilities actually angels who are unaware? Are they there to teach us something, i.e. living object lessons? If I am going to refute these ideas, do I simply say "I don't know what the reason is but it not what you say it is?" I can test some ideas against the truth of scripture (eg. the result of sin notion) which can support or refute an idea.

One of my friends in the second group said that it is not the event in itself that is important but the fact that God is with us through the event. He cited stories about the twin towers incident on 9-11 and how God's presence was made real to the fire fighters through prayer and encouragement when they took brief breaks from their heroic efforts. I heartily agree that God is with us through all the circumstances of our lives. That is not an issue for me.

I guess the reason why this question is important to me is that if I am to say that your reason for the why of disability is not biblically sound, I need to also say this is what the biblically sound reason is. I also do recognize that we are to trust in the Lord and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). If we do that, God will indeed be with us and as the verse says will make our paths straight.

So this is not a point of faith for me; my faith is not tied up in whether I get an answer to this question. But it is a point of understanding. An understanding largely of who God is through the work of his creation.