I once taught a Sunday school lesson on poverty to a group of people. In the group was a homeless man that I had known for several years who had been living on the street. Although the information that I had been sharing about poverty from the Bible was all good and truthful information as best as I could discern it, the presence of a homeless man living on the streets made me be much more circumscribed in the information that I would present. I almost felt as if I needed to be careful about the information I was sharing because there was an expert so to speak, a person living in poverty listening to me. The presence of this person changed the dynamic of the delivery of information from the person who was the instructor, changed the dynamic of those in the room in terms of their appreciating and understanding poverty and possibly impacted the individual living on the street themselves in that here was this person in a room full of people with resources that were talking about poverty and this dynamic had the potential to impact the degree to which this man continued to live or not live with limited resources. The people in the room had the potential to provide significant additional resources perhaps not to the degree that the man would no longer live in poverty but at the very least to the degree that the man's life would be much improved in terms of having consistent meals, in terms of having decent clothing, in terms of having social relationships, in terms of having the potential for transportation, the potential for involvement in families among other opportunities. So although these people living in poverty or homeless people are amongst us living potentially on the street, it's only when they find their way into our actual social spheres that they have potential to impact us and we have the potential to in some way impact them.
I believe the same is true with individuals with various disabilities. Initially our desire should be to bring them into the church setting for the same reasons indicated above relative to the homeless man. I cannot talk about the sovereignty of God in the same way potentially if I have people whose life experience would cause those around them to perhaps question the sovereignty of God in the room. That's not to say that I will change the truth of the gospel or the truth of the scriptures that I see relative to understanding the sovereignty of God, but perhaps there is a humility that comes with speaking of the sovereignty of God to a group of people who are affected by disability. I won't be so cavalier in just saying all we all need to trust God in the midst of our difficult times when I have an individual who is living life under the social consequences of disability and wonders about this sovereign God and why his life experience seems so different from my experience. This kind of connection, this kind of humility only comes with the presence of these individuals about whom we might be speaking. So, one of the benefits of inclusive churches is the way that the churches are changed by the presence of individuals devalued by society. It's difficult for a pastor to talk in the same way about people who have disabilities if the front row of the church is filled with people with disabilities. It's difficult for the pastor to talk about people who live in poverty in any kind of a glib manner if the front row the church is filled with people who are living in poverty. The presence of these people changes things in the way that material is delivered and the way that people interact with one another. Now I could take all the homeless people and put them somewhere else or take the people with disabilities and send them somewhere else in some sort of the segregated setting and think that it's identical to having them present with those who are not affected by poverty or disability but I am only fooling myself. And that is what groups will often do.
I remember in the town in which I live there was a meeting of community leaders to discuss the homeless situation. It seemed that there was an influx of homeless people coming to the community and the community leaders were concerned about what to do about that. One suggestion was to build a homeless center. This would be a place where you come to live for short periods of time where there would be food provided there would be places for showering etc. It would be a way of reaching out to the homeless people to assist them with their needs. But interestingly the answer to building this homeless shelter was that it should be built in the next town over such that the answer to serving the homeless people in my town was to build a homeless shelter in another town. Now no one was being fooled in terms of understanding why the homeless shelter should be built in a different town. Was there compassion and in building a homeless shelter? Of course there was. However, there was something else going on in terms of saying we want to serve the homeless people in a different town not in our own town and everyone in the room knew exactly what that was about. The same type of problem occurs when we take individuals with intellectual disabilities, for example, and say we want to serve them in a totally separate segregated setting. Is there compassion in serving individuals with intellectual disabilities? Of course there is. But at the same time in the same way as the desire to serve homeless people in a different city there is something additionally that is communicated when we say that we want to serve intellectually disabled people at a different time or a different setting apart from the larger church group and people may say that this is irrelevant but I think they're fooling themselves. If you were to come to my church and I were to say to you people with your characteristic, whatever that might be (particularly if it was a characteristic thought of negatively by society), go to a program in a different setting in a different time you would rightly be unhappy. Now if that characteristic was that everybody at that time spoke Spanish or everybody at that time were just women or were just men in terms of having additional special program offerings, that may be acceptable. However, if the only opportunity for participating was at a separate place and time you might wonder, “Why I can’t be with everybody else?” “How come I have to just with other people who have this perceived characteristic?”
In the same way that the presence of people living in poverty has the potential of having their need met through the resources of those in the larger group, the presence of people with various disabilities also provides the potential of their needs being met through the resources of the larger group. Now people will say I didn’t know of their need or I didn't know of their presence in the community and on some level I would agree as people can live their lives and have limited contact with people with particularly more severe types of disabilities. However, at the same time one must know of the presence of these people in the community and if they don't, the only way that they will know is if the environments that they are in are less segregated. So, segregated religious settings for people with disabilities in no way contribute to people moving out from an ignorance of the needs of individuals in the community. It's only by having people together in a setting that I began to become aware of the needs or even the basic presence of people with these characteristics in the community. Those who would segregate individuals with disabilities do little more than remove the potential of changing the lives of all of both those with disabilities who hold various resources and the lives of those without disabilities who hold various resources from coming together to the benefit of both.
A further problem with segregation of individuals with disabilities is that if the only way someone can be served is in some sort of the segregated setting or the only way that someone can participate is in some form of a segregated setting in a different time and place, that communicates to the larger community that there something wrong with these people and that they have no responsibility towards people with a particular characteristic and only furthers the negative stereotypes the society may have already laid upon these individuals. This is not something that the church wants to be a part of. If anything the church wants to be opening up the potential for relationships with people, particularly people who society has devalued. By the church segregating people, it contributes to the devaluation and negative stereotyping, actually affirming the negative societal attitudes towards people with disabilities. It actually exacerbates the negative social consequences of disability when there is no reason that it needs to do those things. It seems that those who segregate on the basis of disabilities are oblivious on some level to the lives of people with disabilities. Although people with intellectual disabilities for example may not understand the fact that they are being segregated, the higher functioning a person with intellectual disability is the greater the likelihood that they will desire things of a more typical nature. They will desire living on their own, they will desire of jobs in typical community settings, they will desire friendships with a variety of different types of people. If we as those who are not intellectually disabled understand these facts why we would we continue to play on the fact that those who are intellectually disabled do not understand these fact? Why would we continue to play on the fact that people, particularly with intellectual disabilities, don't know what they're missing when they are segregated when we were not intellectually disabled to understand what they're missing by being segregated and yet are unwilling to facilitate the integration that would potentially ameliorate some of the negative effects of self-segregation?
The scriptural principles that underlie this perspective are so obvious they almost would seem trite to lay them out. Principles like loving my neighbor or helping people who are devalued by society or reaching out to the least of these or the importance of every member of the body of Christ. All these most basic of Christian principles underlie and provide a foundation for the notion of integration of people with disabilities into the larger body of Christ. Which is why it's so surprising that there are so many who would move forward with programs of segregation in the face of these basic types of scriptural principles. But I understand the lack of understanding by many in the Christian world on these issues. A colleague of mine in talking about special education in Christian schools felt like he did not want to use the term special education because of the negative connotation it would have been Christian schools. Now this was not necessarily a philosophical orientation or a philosophical objection to the way that special education has developed in America or something along those lines. Rather, it was a gut level, negative feeling about the presence of children with disabilities in schools and that this notion was encapsulated with the term special education.
As I've said before in this blog the way to begin with integration starts with simply taking a position. The position is that people with disabilities belong in the church. But the next level of that position is that people with disabilities need to be integrated as much as is absolutely possible within the programs of the church. Once these positions are taken, once that philosophical decision is made the rest becomes logistics. How do I integrate people? How do I change the way that we do Sunday school? All those are good questions with myriad answers. People will come to me and say, “Jeff how they do I do integration?” My response is always “Has your church decided that they want the people there?” If the answer is yes then it's just a matter of coming up with ideas for how we can do integration, how we can be more inclusive. Simply coming up with ideas and trying them out. Those are all logistical issues. However, if the church has not made the decision that it wants the people there and not only wants them there but wants them included, then we can make suggestions all day long and they won't make any difference because the logistics will become too hard as the basic decision to want the people there has not been made. Once that decision has been made, that doesn't mean that the logistics become simple. However, it does mean that people are more willing to interact with logistics and different ways of meeting a need than they would be if the decision had not been.
Thursday, January 06, 2011
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Brilliantly said. Thank you. I will share and use your thoughts.
This piece was eye opening. I completely agree; in order for individuals to make a change, we have to take a stand in what we believe in. Most importantly, we have to be sensitive to the needs of the people we are trying to assist.
Our school has wrestled with the term special education as well. Parents are concerned about the negative connotation "special" education has taken and how it may further segregate the students. To me it is the least of my concerns. The school has enveloped the program and accepted the students. I continually have to think about and advocate for integration where integration is appropriate. By appropriate I mean, I do not integrate for the sake of integrating but rather, integrate where it is beneficial for the students. There are times I could integrate more, but I have noticed the students enjoy and feel the comfort of our classroom and need the safety. It's a thought I continue to ponder and weight the value of integration and their need to be in their classroom.
You made a valid point that I need to further investigate. I started helping out with the disabilities ministry at our church. There are a lot of really great ideas brewing; however, I want to know how does the senior pastor feel about disabilities ministry. We can spin our wheels all day long but if it is not accepted, do I continue my efforts or go somewhere else? And I seriously ask this question and look forward to discussing it with you.
This article speaks the truth as many in the community (including the church) feel that it is necessary to segregate their outreach or ministry towards people in need, placing them at a distance both physically and emotionally/spiritually. By doing this both those who are in need and those that are in service are missing the greatest opportunity by metaphorically trading shoes. There is no doubt that when you spend time with someone, whether homeless or disabled (or sometimes a person that is both homeless and disabled) that you begin to have compassion for them as they tell their “story.” It is equally important for them to hear “your story” too! Getting to know this person in this way enables both parties to see each other’s needs, which aren’t just met in one way as people that are homeless of disabled meet the needs of others too if given the chance. But placing them in positions that keep them distanced continues to create a chasm, taking away any opportunity for integration to take place. Recently I spoke to a Pastor of a church whose congregation was mostly made up adults who are developmentally disabled; this includes the majority of their worship team. At first I thought that this was a cool idea by creating a place where all people with disabilities can feel comfortable….then I realized I don’t fellowship with in an all blonde church that thinks and acts like me…but instead I look forward to interacting with people who are different than me as this causes me to think about the world around me. Excluding those who are homeless or disabled causes us to miss a perspective of the world that is necessary for all of us to understand, especially when trying to listen to and understand the heart of God.
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