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

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The disability corrective

As I commented on my last entry, I was visiting a church in Seattle. As I was waiting for the gals in our group to use the ladies room I approached the information desk of the church. "Do you have any programs or make any efforts to include people with disabilities here?" I asked the man behind the counter. "Not really" he replied. "If you call us a week ahead of time, we will have an interpreter for you." That seemed reasonable to me, at least the interpreter part although I was once again struck by the ignorance about disability in such a growing church, that that could even be the case in such a church.

I then went into the actual service, which was great. It struck me though that as the pastor was parsing out the 14 different kinds of grace, that there was a disconnect between what he was saying and what the church was practicing. We can talk about God's grace all day long, and the multitudinous ways in which we are shown grace by God, but at some point wouldn't you think that we should show grace to other people? It struck me that if you don't do what you say you should be doing, or imply you are doing,
from your pulpit,
in your church's documents, and
in the scriptures you claim are the guiding principle of your very life,
then why should I trust you? You have indicated to me that you are two faced at worst and blind to the ramifications of what you are saying at best. You are saying one thing and doing another.

I recognize that I as an individual am a sinner so you can count on me to be a liar, inconsistent in doing what I believe and so forth. When people notice those things in my they will comment to me as a way of helping me. You know, I do the things I don't want to do... (see Romans 7). I suppose the church is the same way because it is made up of a bunch of sinners. But it just strikes me that we have not gotten fed up with our own (as the church) duplicity in saying one thing and doing another. Where are the exhorters?

It occurs to me that the presence of persons with disabilities (once again my experience is with persons with intellectual disabilities) would be a corrective to a whole variety of inconsistencies and double speak that goes on in the church. The pastor could say "God loves us all the same," and then we could see our neighbor with severe mental retardation, or mental illness sitting next to us at church and conclude "I guess He does and this church does too." We don't see them because these people are nowhere in our lives. Even as Christians they tend to be nowhere in our lives unless they are members of our families. People become advocates when someone wiht a disability is born to them. Where was their advocacy prior to that person entering their family? We tolerate the pablum that comes from the pulpit about love thinking it is enlightened. However, we learn love when our actions as individuals and as church are consistent with the words that come from the pulpit.

How exactly would that look? I'm not sure. I know the principles I would like to see inform what that would look like. I do have ideas of how that would look, and have attempted to facilitate how that would look in settings in which I am in charge. It is my hope, however, that those trained in pastoral ministry would grapple with this and develop programs and structures for the church that could be employed. I am happy to be a part of that discussion, and I will offer my ideas to any church leader who wants to grapple with me on those issues. I have received a few calls over the years. The bottom line, however, is that it demands programmatic change. It will take courage on the part of leadership to do things that are truly different. But then, our rhetoric, our claims about God and grace, our speech about love and acceptance will not be in disagreement with our actions as it currently is in our churches.

May God lead us to a place where our words and actions are consistent.

McNair (fcbu)

Monday, January 28, 2008

"Don't taze me bro!"

This past weekend I was up in Seattle, and while I was there, I visited a very large and growing church. The music was great and the preaching was as well. But there was something very different from any other church I had ever attended before, and that was the presence of security. Everything from young men with shirts that said "Security" on them to a armed police officer who sat just to the right of me. As the preacher spoke, there were even two security guards who sat in the front on either side of the stage watching the audience the whole service. Afterwards, I approached a group of them and asked, "I am from Southern Cal, and couldn't help but notice the presence of security here at this church. What specifically are you looking for?" The kind response was that there are often protesters outside of the church, at times there are people who are drunk, or on drugs who would come into the church, and the security guards are there to watch for that. In speaking to my daughter, she indicated that the pastor is very controversial, ie. a conservative Christian (that is controversial I guess, for a city like Seattle, which apparently has the country's largest statue of Lenin in it which gives you an indication of some of the thinking there).

But it struck me again, What could call the security guards into action within a church sevice?

Could screaming or loud noise? How about behavior typical of someone with intellectual disabilities milling around and refusing to take his seat? Could we hear, "Don't taze me bro!" coming from a disabled person at a church with such a security presence? If they were not compliant, would they be dragged from the room? What does that tell the community abou who we are? As Christians do we want to have the face to the community that we are tough on those who would disrupt our meetings? Of course we are permitted to have security guards at church, as well as uniformed off duty policemen. I just wonder what this communicates. A part of it strikes me as legalism on steroids, or the preservation of tradition (quiet worship services) on steroids. You see my question is, if there are drunk people around the church, does that change the way we do church or do we just beef up security so we can continue doing church in the same manner? I wonder the same thing about people with say, mental illness. If there are people with aberrant behaviors around the church, do we beef up security or change the way we do church? The increased presence of security in that church is one way of changing the way to do church. But is that the direction in which we want to change if we are indeed going to change? People with various disabilities could no doubt be the focus of the security guard's attention at a worship service, in particular if they were unknown to them. What would be role of security in such a setting?


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Conversation with a man with glasses

"Can you see me alright?"
"You know I wasn't sure because you are wearing glasses."
"I know I wear glasses."
"Well because you wear glasses, I wasn't sure that you could see me but if you say you can, I guess you would know."
No comment
"You know it must be tough being a man who wears glasses, not being able to see and all if you don't have them. I don't know what I would do if I had to wear glasses."
"You would be fine."
"Well, I would hope so. But what happens if you don't wear your glasses, you probably can't see very well. That must be terrible. I am not sure I would want to live if I had to wear glasses."
"No, actually its not that bad. You get used to it. Actually, I have spent most of my life wearing glasses so I don't really know what it would be like to see clearly without them."
"Well, God bless you for your courage. You are an example to me of succeeding in the face of terrible challenges."
"Sure there are some challenges, but you just live your life."
"Well there but for the grace of God go I, is what I always say.." hesitates, "Oh I didn't mean anything by that."
"No problem."
"I just never know what to say when I am around people who, you know, people who wear glasses."
"We are just people."
"Well, yeah, I guess so, but I just get uncomfortable. You know I have never had any training in how to work with people who wear glasses."
"Work with people who wear glasses?"
"Yeah, you know. Like glasses people education and all. But at my church we have a class for people who wear glasses!"
"That's great" disgustedly.
"Oh, I know! I understand that it is pretty innovative. But our church wants to make a place for everybody, even if they do wear glasses."
"We feel like people with glasses should be treated like a regular member!"
"Like a regular member? You mean they aren't regular members, just like regular members?" (thx mh)
"Yeah, we believe God created all people to be loved and treated the same. That's why we have our special class for people who wear glasses."
"Why can't the people who wear glasses be in with everyone else? You are all pretty much working on the same kinds of things, believe in the same kinds of things, don't you?"
"Huh? What an interesting idea." Pauses. "Yeah, but if we did that, then we would have to make the text on the powerpoints bigger, and would probably have to improve the lighting in the classroom, and what if a glasses person forgot his glasses? Then what do you do?"
"You could help him, support him."
"Yeah, but then the person helping him would not be able to pay attention to the lesson and would miss out on the teaching and all. It would also be distracting for the teacher. I think it is just too much to ask of a church group to sacrifice the teaching so that some glasses guy can be a part of the lesson if he is too irresponsible to remember to bring his glasses. No insult intended."
"But maybe if you made the type bigger, and the lights better, and people needed to help one another it would be better for everyone?"
Hesitates, then laughs. "You're kidding, right?"


Saturday, January 19, 2008

"I used to have down's syndrome"

I frequently teach a class called "The Exceptional Child" class at CBU. The class is also referred to as the intro to special ed class.

In the early stages of the course, I like to bring friends of mine with intellectual disabilities to class to be both interviewed by me and also interviewed by the students. For example, this past week I brought four folks, divided the class into four groups, and cycled the class through a time of spending a half hour with each person. Typically students tell me they really enjoy the activity and also learn a lot.

In the couse of my intereviews of my friends, I always ask the question, "Do you have a disability?" Their response is often "No" or "I don't think so." Which is instructive to students demonstrating to them that disability is not necessarily the defining characteristic of a person's life. This past week, I received a very interesting response to that question from one of the women I brought.
I asked a woman who has down's syndrome, "Do you have a disability?"
"My friend has a disability" she replied. "My friend has down's
"Really" I answered. "I was wondering if you have a
She paused.
"I used to have down's syndrome" she replied.
"What was that like?"
"Well I don't remember too well."

I have known this woman for many years and she often says things that are very profound. I don't think she was trying to make some kind of a point but as I thought about her response it seemed very powerful to me. I can be treated like I am a particular way or I cannot be treated like I am a particular way. If I don't know someone with down's syndrome, I can treat them like they are strange, or different, or other. To them that might come to mean that they have down's syndrome. That is, if I have down's syndrome, people treat me like I am strange or different or other. However, if I am just a friend, I am treated as a known friend, and the same as everyone else. In that way it is kind of like I don't have down's syndrome anymore.

I am not saying that we pretend that people do not face challenges from their disabilities, or that they sometimes need some deferential treatment. This is not about denying a person has a disability. It is about treating a person like a person in the 95% of areas of life in which the disability is largely irrelevant. My woman friend with down's syndrome likes conversation and coffee, and working and going to church and dogs, and is concerned about her aged father and so on and so on. And she also has down's syndrome. This is not the greatest comparison, but I have bad knees. However, I can be in situations where my bad knees are always front and center or my bad knees are pretty much forgotten. In most of my daily life, you needn't remind me of them because they are irrelevant. There are aspects of disability that are like that, things about down's syndrome that are like that. I don't have to bring someone's down's syndrome front and center all the time. There are times when I might, but not very frequently in most of my interactions with people.

So my friends words were very encouaging to me. Perhaps her down's syndrome is not the focus of her life that it was when she was in school, or trying to get eligible for some services. At this point in her life, to her, she "used to have down's syndrome." Now she is just "a normal human adult" as she would say.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

No accommodations

As I often do, I received an email from a parent today who spoke about how his daughter with a learning disability had been in Christian schools, unidentified but supported, throughout elementary school with pretty good success.  However, as she entered Junior High, also at the Christian school, she began to have difficulty keeping up.  She had to stop involvement in extracurricular activities as homework would consume her after school hours.  The man contacted the school and asked for help for his daughter.  He wondered whether she could perhaps be given a little more time on assignments or tests and quizzes, or whether perhaps less homework could be assigned.  He indicated that the school replied in the following manner...   

"One teacher, the supervisor for 3 others, stated that the school does not have a certificate of completion program there and so will not be able to accommodate or reduce what is required of her.  I don't even know what that means."

He was not asking about a "certificate of completion" only extra help so his daughter could complete the work.  No wonder he didn't know what they were talking about.  But I am dismayed by the response and the lack of desire to help this parent and his daughter.  In the public schools, a 504 plan might be the solution, however, because the school is private, many of the same regulations do not apply.  Literally, after years of participation in the Christian school, this family can be dismissed with a wave of a hand when a child begins to fall behind academically.  Elsewhere in the email it was implied by teachers that the child was not struggling academically (the implication being that the parent was not seeing the child struggle with homework every night) or that she just needed to work harder (denying the fact that the girl did indeed have a mild disability).

It would bother me much less if this were just some secular private school with who knows what set of standards they are reflecting.  But this is a school that has identified itself with the Lord, Jesus Christ.  As His agent, there is a different level of responsibility for service.  This parent is being told that Christians do not understand, do not have compassion, do not want to help and are unwilling to change to assist a young girl with a mild disability.  I wish this were not typical.  I pray that God will not allow this to happen in the future.  These who set themselves apart from the secular world of education and call themselves Christian are acting in a far from Christian manner.  In reality, in the sphere of education, the secular world is acting much more Christian than probably 95% of the Christian schools in the United States are.  But the saddest part is that they read a posting like this...

...and they don't care.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Putting disabled people on display

As I was doing some work on my computer last night, I had the first night of the new American Idol season running in the background. As I watched something bothered me.

With such a program you have the typical people who are entering a singing contest who cannot sing. You have people who act crazy just in the hopes that they can be on TV, particularly on a show that is watched by a lot of people. You have people who think they can sing, and can to some extent but just not to the level of being selected to move on in the competition. But I saw something very different last night.

There were at least two people in the competition who struck me as being either mildly intellectually disabled, people who had perhaps high functioning aspberger's syndrome, or perhaps even mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. At times it seemed that these people provided the "comic relief" for the program. No doubt they provided "entertainment" value. Put a person with mentally illness in front of a camera and upset them (whether or not it is justified) and they will do things that are very different than what people might typically see in the community. But the "entertainment" they provided was comparable to watching someone with a physical disability in some sort of sideshow display. They draw our interest in a prurient kind of way (although not sexual in this context). It is an interest in seeing someone self-distruct, watching the mentally ill person act mentally ill. The individuals portrayed did not draw our compassion as did one of the scenes where an African-American woman was actually comforted by the evaluators. We were drawn to look because people were acting crazy due to a disability, all the while knowing that they were in some way aberrant which was the actual reason for their acting the way they did. Yet the camera did not turn away. It forced us to look and was actually a catalyst for the inciting of further irrational behavior.

I was very uncomfortable with the whole presentation for this reason. The program in some ways incites devalued people to aberrant behavior and then watches. It hopes for, aches for the crazy person to act crazy.

If I were to present myself before the judges thinking that I had a singing voice worthy of even moving to the next level, you would do me a favor by telling me that I should pursue some other area in my life as my singing voice will not take me most anywhere. However, if I am cognitively or emotionally disabled in some way, to use my display of irrationality due to my disability as a point of entertainment is not appropriate.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Understanding your experience

The following excerpt is from the book Adam by Henri Nouwen.

     How did I come to realize all that was happening to me?
     One day a few months after I had arrived at Daybreak a minister friend who had taught pastoral theology to many students for many years came to visit me.  He arrived after I had completely shifted and forgotten my initial, narrow vision of Adam.  Now I no longer thought of him as a stranger or even disabled.  We were living together, and life for me with Adam and the others in the home was very "normal."  I felt so privileged to be caring for Adam, and I was eager to introduce him to my guest.
     When my friend came to the New House and saw me with Adam, he looked at me and asked, "Henri, is this where you are spending your time?"  I saw that he was not only disturbed but even angry.  "Did you leave the university, where you were such an inspiration to so many people, to give your time and energy to Adam?  You aren't even trained for this!  Why do you not leave this work to those who are trained for it?  Surely you have better things to do with your time."
     I was shocked.  My mind was racing, and I thought but did not say, "Are you telling me that I am wasting my time with Adam?  You, an experienced minister and a pastoral guide!  Don't you see that Adam is my friend, my teacher, my spiritual director, my counselor, my minister?"  I quickly realized that he was not seeing the same Adam I was seeing.  What my friend was saying made sense to him because he didn't really "see" Adam, and he certainly wasn't prepared to get to know him.
     My friend had a lot more questions about Adam and the people who lived with me in my home: "Why spend so much time and money on people with severe disabilities while so many capable people can hardly survive?"  And, "Why should such people be allowed to take time and energy which should be given to solving the real problems humanity is facing?"
     I didn't answer my friend's questions.  I didn't argue or discuss his "issues."  I felt deeply that I had nothing very intelligent to say that would change my friend's mind.  My daily two hours with Adam were transforming me.  In being present to him I was hearing an inner voice of love beyond all the activities of care.  Those two hours were pure gift, a time of contemplation, during which we, together, were touching something of God.  With Adam I knew a sacred presence and I "saw" the face of God. (p. 52-53)

Nouwen gets so many things perfectly right in this section and illustrates how others can get things so wrong at the same time.  The Bible teaches about how all people have equal value in God's eyes.  It teaches how interactions with the "least of these" are interactions with Jesus himself.  It teaches how love is the greatest commandment.  It teaches that we should pour ourselves out in service, in the same manner Jesus did.  Surely Jesus had better things to do than wash his disciples feet.  Surely there were smarter people he could have given his time to than a bunch of fisherman.

Noumen relates that his friend was a teacher of pastoral theology as a point, I think, of saying how the "experts" have gotten things all wrong.  They may think themselves experts in pastoral theology but they have not done pastoral theology to the point of understanding it.  In the church, we have knowledge but not love.  I wonder how many professors, how many experts, how many church leaders, how many university programs have anything to say about disability?  I met recently with a dean of a pastoral program (training leaders in Christian ministry at a respected university) who indicated that they don't talk about disability anywhere in their curriculum.  Do we need to list the times that Jesus interacts with disabled people and stick it under their noses before they realize that these people were a priority for him?  It is an example of what I have spoken of elsewhere regarding how Christian religious education, from Sunday school to seminary has gotten it all wrong.  Ignoring people with disabilities when you claim to be an agent of Jesus Christ speaks volumes about your lack of understanding of what is really important.  It is about loving people independent of their personal characteristics.  At the moment, we appear to love people or not love people, care for people or not care for people, prioritize or not prioritize people on the basis of their characteristics and that implies a very basic misunderstanding of the Christian faith at its most basic point, love.

I had the experience once of being asked by a pastor to head up the men's ministry at church because "working with those disabled people is just a black hole for service."  This church leader compared people with and without disabilities and not only indicated that one group was better than the other, he even ridiculed those who would work with persons with disabilities as if they are wasting their time.  

Teachers of students with severe disabilities, whether Christian or not, have also had the same experience.  If you were to ask a teacher of students with severe disabilities, "Has anyone ever told you that you were wasting your time, wasting your professional life because of the students you are working with?" they will no doubt respond, "Yes."  Students have told me how friends, family, parents, other teachers have all made such comments.  I don't expect those who have not yet committed themselves to Christ to understand these issues from a Biblical perspective, but surely we might expect enlightenment from those within the church, within the Christian academic community, from those in Christian leadership, but unfortunately it is too often not the case.  And as Nouwen states, "I didn't answer my friend's questions...I felt deeply that I had nothing very intelligent to say that would change my friend's mind."  Do you catch that point?  It is once again the notion of knowledge.  I need something intelligent to say change someone's mind.  Paul says, "The man without the Sprit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). How foolish to waste your life with persons with severe disabilities.  How very foolish.  I will not say that people who do not understand these issues are "without the Spirit," however, I will say that if you, particularly as a Christian leader do not understand these issues, there is much room for spiritual growth.  I continue to hammer on these issues, as did Nouwen through his life of writing, but I understand his feeling of not even being able to respond.  You feel like the person who criticizes ministry to persons with severe disabilities doesn't understand the most basic of Biblical principles.  It is a breathtaking lack of understanding.


Friday, January 04, 2008

Scary questions and frightening answers

I have to admit that I like Quentin Tarantino movies.  They are quirky and they make me think.  In the film Pulp Fiction the dialogue between Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) is interesting.  There is one point in the film where the following exchange occurs.  Vincent says something to the effect "You are scaring me Jules."  Jules responds,

"If my answers frighten you Vincent, then you should cease asking scary questions."

That is the problem often, isn't it.  We don't ask the hard, the scary questions because the answers will frighten us.  You know I also think we have actually gotten to the point as a church where we have stopped asking some of the scary questions, perhaps because we have a good idea of what the answers would be.

Should my church make room for people with mental illness?
Should the Sunday school include children with autism?
Are worship services too knowledge oriented?
Do we love our neighbor as Jesus would have us love our neighbor?

The rich young ruler asked Jesus a question, for example, and he got a frightening answer.  He didn't realize that his question was scary but it sure was.  "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"  I think he expected Jesus to say, "You know you are doing great.  Just keep on doing what you are doing."  But Jesus didn't say that.  He said, "You lack one thing: go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor."  Jesus' answer made the young man's question become a very scary question.  It demanded him to change, to eschew his comforts, to step out in faith, to do something he had never done before, to take his commitment to God seriously.  You see if we ask the right questions, we may get frightening answers, but it they are from God, they are the best answers, the answers that will guide us to growth in our faith and in our likeness of Jesus.

But we first need to ask the questions and the questions are very basic, very very basic to what the Christian life is all about.  Imagine asking questions like,

"Good teacher, should there be a place for everyone in the church, be they mentally ill, or physically disabled, or emotionally disturbed or mentally handicapped, or profoundly disabled, or are there some people who by their nature can be excluded from the church?"

"Jesus, am I loving my neighbor as a church if I pick and choose those in the community whom I will care about, particularly if I don't choose those who have been devalued, or are disabled, or are disenfranchised?"

"Lord, if the way we do church from Sunday School to worship service, to social gatherings, to small group Bible studies are exclusive of particular people, are those programs worth retaining in their current form or should the be scrapped in their entirety and reimagined with say, disabled people being present in mind?"

"Good teacher, if people with disabilities do not fit within the current structures of the church, should we exclude the people or change the structures?"

I suspect Jesus would look on us with love as he did to the man in the story because, hopefully we are asking out of a desire to be obedient.  But I suspect his answers would rock our world.

But we must continue to ask these scary questions even though the answers truly do frighten me as well.  As God reveals the answers to these questions to me, I pray that I will not "be shocked and go away grieving" because I was unprepared and unwilling to act in obedience to what I was told.  I am asking the questions and I am beginning to understand some of the answers as they are revealed to me.  May God give me, give us all the faith to do what we should do in spite of how the requisite changes will shock us and show us our disobedience.