The church offers great potential for participation in ongoing relationships and prevention of abandonment. At times, those of us who are not intellectually disabled, can emphasize the importance of relationships with peers who are not disabled while those with disabilities may not recognize this difference. We are motivated to seek to integrate people for the benefit of those without disabilities (individually and as the Body of Christ) as well as for the benefit of those with disabilities. We do this out of obedience to our understanding of what the Bible teaches about people. This is true even though those with intellectual disabilities themselves might not understand these motivations and even though the larger Christian church might not understand these motivations.
To truly embrace belonging, we cannot say to someone, “You belong over there.” That is not belonging, that is segregation. In spite of the care of those in the group to which someone is assigned, to be assigned is to not fully belong. We also see a difference between those doing the assigning and those being assigned. Howard Thurman in part encapsulated this.
Segregation can apply only to a relationship involving the weak and the strong. For it means that limitations are arbitrarily set up, which, in the course of time, tend to become fixed and seem normal in governing the etiquette between the two groups. A peculiar characteristic of segregation is the ability of the stronger to shuttle back and forth between the prescribed areas with complete immunity and a kind of mutually tacit sanction; while the position of the weaker, on the other hand, is quite definitely fixed and frozen. (Thurman 1976, p. 42, as cited in McNair & McKinney, 2015)
Belonging to the Body of Christ versus to a subgroup of the body changes things. If I belong to the whole body, I have expectations for the whole body. If I belong to a subgroup of the body, there may be different expectations, but they may or may not be antithetical to the goals for the entire body. So,
A. Subgroups should reflect the mission of the whole (assuming the mission of the whole is a true reflection of the Bible).
B. If the result of the work of the subgroup facilitates the mission (or what should be the mission), then that is desirable.
C. If the mission of the whole is wrong and the subgroup facilitates that mission, that is wrong.
D. But if the mission of the whole is wrong but the subgroup facilitates an alternative mission that is in line with the teaching of the Bible, then that subgroup is attempting to facilitate cultural changes within the larger group.
Belonging is basic to that mission. It is also basic to the vision of what the church should be. Many churches are not embracing belonging, and many ministries are not embracing belonging. They may think they are, but if they are segregated there is an aspect of that mission that they are not getting entirely right. Leaders who do not embrace people fully belonging are teaching their congregations about who they believe those people to be. That is the lesson that has been taught for decades which has led us to the situation we find ourselves trying to dig out of.
This important conversation is about how to understand and facilitate belonging, is evidence of the degree to which we have misunderstood, as the Christian church in the world, our responsibility towards people who have been devalued because of disabilities they experience. But are we willing to do what belonging would require?