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

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Beginning traditions

While working on a brief article for the the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disability's Religion and Spirituality division newsletter, it occurred to me that we, as the Christian church in the world, are in the position of beginning traditions relative to the place of persons with disabilities within the church. To date, our traditions have been largely exclusive and ignoring as if there were few if any people with, for example, intellectual disabilities. However, as we begin to move into a new time of inclusive practices that will literally change many aspects of the way we do church, I think it is important to consider how we are informing the models we use which will ultimately become our traditions.

Will we move of on a direction where we totally segregate people with intellectual disabilities from the traditional church as if they were some pariah, claiming we are doing what is best for them? I hope not. If we do, people without disabilities will continue to grow up in churches without any experience with people with disabilities. The church will also largely remain unchanged rather than becoming all it might be by including essential parts (1 Corinthians 12:23).

Will we borrow our practices from the public schools, instutiting inclusion classes within the Sunday School program? I hope not. If we do, we are building programs with the same problems that the public schools face (one reason why some research indicates that only 10% of schools have inclusive classrooms in the US). In addition, we are following a knowledge based model, which may not only not be the best for those with intellectual disabilities, it may not be the best for any of us, children or adults. Social integration has largely NOT been the result of public school inclusion programs.

Will we borrow our practices from psychology, expanding the pastoral counseling role? I hope not. If we do we will perpetuate that people with disabilities have something wrong with them, when they are just perhaps not as typical (in terms of intellect, the manner in which they move about the community, or the way they perceive the world). There is a difference, in my mind, between having something WRONG and having something different. We as the church can lead the way in helping the world to see people as having differences not wrongs.

All this is to say, that Lord willing, we will be looking at the practices of the church in 100 years, and wonder how they got the way they are relative to persons with disabilities. I would advise the church to step back and look at the way they do all programs. How would the presence of persons with disabilities cause those programs to be different? Perhaps that is the way they should have been in the first place.

We can literally do just about anything, unrestrained, without limits in terms of the manner in which we will include those who have been excluded in the past. Lets dream big, go deep in prayer and come up with crazy solutions that have never been dared in the past. Lets think about the ideal situation and plan for that. I will admit that too often I have only dreamed as big as what I think I will be permitted to do by my church, or those in leadership over me. I have not pushed the envelope as I might. As a result, I fear that the traditions that I have been involved in developing within my church will be soon outdated. Not because I didn't have bigger dreams, but rather because I settled for what I would be permitted to do, not fighting for what I had dreamed.



Anonymous said...

Once again, Jeff, you have offered highly provocative ideas. Action producing ideas. What and how to inform the church about disability issues, and what to do with that information presents us with serious challenge.

I feel our challenge is getting the church to understand that persons with intellectual disabilities are people who are different from more typical persons,not people "suffering" from something that is wrong with them.

I am inspired by your call to be bolder in what we allow ourselves to dream. I share your feeling that the things we have proposed for our program have only been as brave as we perceive the church leadership is willing to allow. There is fear and reluctance in deciding to push the envelope. We are at the beginning of a brand new program, our envelope feels very small and constraining. Perhaps that will be an advantage; no matter what we do we will "push the envelope." Perhaps we will quickly become comfortable with pushing and the leadership will grow to expect (and experience the benefit from)being pushed.


Anonymous said...

I am fresh from a bad experience with our church's Youth Group, so I hope this comes out as constructive. I think that as a universal church we are a long, long way from what you are describing. Our theology just doesn't include a view of sin that allows for behavioral differences that are neurologically based. Since "bad" behavior is seen as sin, the person is prayed for, ostracized or asked not to return. Accomodating the person's differences is rarely suggested or seen as a viable alternative.

I am glad your blog exists for the purpose of asking hard questions.