Healing the Disabled

As we prepared for the 2017 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we asked our leaders to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort and disruption into our lives and yours as we consider this calling together.


The student walked into his classroom on the first day of school. He was tentative and nervous; this sort of thing just did not usually go well for him. In nearly every social setting – no matter how hard he tried – he just couldn’t seem to fit in. He’d inevitably say or do something that was apparently against some unwritten rule that no one told him.

Either subtly or plainly (he didn’t know which was more painful), others would, maybe without even realizing it and maybe with the best of intentions, place him on the outside. So he tended to keep to himself. But that didn’t help, either.Either he was a weirdo for trying to make friends, or a weirdo for not. With that double-bind in mind, his anxiety was palpable as he crossed the threshold and overheard some classmates not trying hard enough to lower their voices.

“Ah, look who’s in our class! He’s such a retard. Look at how he dresses! Look at how he walks! Hilarious.”

“Ugh. I was hoping not to get him in my class again. He makes me uncomfortable.”

“Don’t they have, like, special classes for people like him? Or special schools? It would be so much better if this was just a place for normal people.

Now, the young man was indeed on the autism spectrum. But who, precisely, in this classroom had the disability? What is it that really needs healing?

Disabled Identity

Luke 5:17-26 is the episode of Jesus and the man suffering paralysis. We find this story in the midst of a number of narratives that show Jesus healing not merely physical ailments, but all sorts of brokenness – demon possession, illness, ignorance, hopelessness, isolation. Jesus has come to heal (v. 17; NRSV), and this sickness is wide and deep. Let’s look at how we see multi-dimensional healing in this text.

First, we find that the paralyzed man has faithful friends (v. 20) who take him “to lay him before Jesus” (v. 18), who had been gaining notoriety as a healer, teacher, and wonder-worker. Indeed, they can find no way into the house due to the crowds there to see him (v. 19).

And it is here that we are confronted a first form of sickness that needs healing. Why is it that the most vulnerable have the most difficulty in finding their way to Jesus? Why are there obstacles for this one who is the most in need? What obstructs the pathway to grace that this man needs? What obstructs the pathway to grace that this crowd needs? Yet even these obstructions will not stand, for the faithful bearers of grace go up to the roof such that their friend might encounter and bear it himself; perhaps the grace that the crowd most needs descends from above as, before their eyes, the paralyzed man is laid before Jesus.

Perhaps the sins that are being healed are greater than only those of the man, and extend to those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to receive the grace that Jesus has for them.

Second, when the man is brought by his friends to Jesus to be healed of his paralysis, what does Jesus heal? He says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you” (v. 20). What’s going on here? Why did Jesus not heal the man’s paralysis? Perhaps because there is a deeper paralysis that needed healing.

In the ancient world, disability was often associated with ritual uncleanliness. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish religious authorities regarded the sick or infirm, or those whose bodies were differently abled, to be suffering from the result of sin, either their own or that of others. So when the paralyzed man’s friends brought him to Jesus, he noticed their faith first; their trust in Jesus was greater than their fear of rubbing up against the perceived sin of their friend.

And while their trust in Jesus was well-placed, they did not get the result they were assumedly looking for, at least not initially. “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” Rather than removing the man’s paralysis, Jesus instead shows the man – and all those around him – that there is no sin causing this man’s paralysis. The man’s sins have been forgiven, and yet he is still paralyzed, which shows that the two are not connected.

And so here we find healing for a second sickness, that which imagines that those whose bodies are different are somehow unclean or distinctively sinful. Perhaps the sins that are being healed are greater than only those of the man, and extend to those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to receive the grace that Jesus has for them.

A Glimpse of the Kingdom

Third, the scribes and Pharisees from all over Israel (v. 17), who have likely come to see what all the hubbub is about concerning the rabbi from Nazareth (cf. 4:14, 37, 44), say to themselves that Jesus is blaspheming, either because he – not a properly-trained clergyman – has announced God’s forgiveness, or because it did not accompany traditional rites. Jesus did not need to hear to know what they were thinking; they still did not get it. He challenges them, asking: Which is easier to say, “your sins are forgiven you” or “stand up and walk”?

Obviously, the answer is the former, for it has no empirical verifiability; the religious authorities could pronounce forgiveness without it actually being the case, but they could never pronounce physical healing because it would not follow. And so, to show that he does in fact represent God and has come to deal with all sorts of brokenness, Jesus then says the harder thing, “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home” (v. 24).

Thus a third sickness is healed; Jesus is revealed as the “Son of Man” (v. 24) who has come to heal the breadth and depth of sin. Far from being ritualistically unclean, far from being one to be avoided, the man with paralysis becomes a medium of grace as he helps to show all who Jesus truly is.

Fourth, after Jesus pronounces healing and commands him to stand up, the formerly-paralyzed man “immediately” (v. 25) stands up, holding the mat that had once held him, and goes to his home. He does so with grateful recognition of God’s glory; indeed, amazement and awe fill the crowds who, reflexively, praise God. What has them so excited? The fact that Jesus did something miraculous? Probably. But perhaps there is also evinced an ineluctable joy, one that bubbles up as the Holy Spirit gives those gathered a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. A fourth sickness is healed as all present – the man, his friends, the Pharisees and scribes, and the crowds – see proclaimed before them reality as it is meant to be, and will be someday for all.

And just as the one who is paralyzed “gets up” to the glory of God, so the crowd sees the One who will rise up, revealing to all the full glory of God, prefiguring the Kingdom of new life for the cosmos.

Just as the man stands up and walks, so the crowd sees that they, too, will be fully healed of all their brokenness. Just as the man goes home to be re-integrated into a society that has wrongfully shunned him, so the crowd sees that the world, too, will become a place of belongingness for everyone. And just as the one who is paralyzed “gets up” to the glory of God, so the crowd sees the One who will rise up, revealing to all the full glory of God, prefiguring the Kingdom of new life for the cosmos.

A Marginalized Body?

The healing that Jesus brings is holistic in nature, and it goes far beyond whatever physical struggles, vulnerabilities, or “disabilities” that some individuals may have. In fact, while, like all of us, they certainly have struggles, the disabled are often the healthiest ones in our midst, and have merely been disabled by others who marginalize them. Which then confronts us with a question: Why are we talking about disability on a blog about youth ministry? To answer that question, I pose another: Where else in the church – and in the world – do we see people placed on the margins because their bodies are different than the majority?


Mike Langford (PhD) is a teacher, thinker, writer, and speaker who wants to help the church bring rich theology, good ministry, and deep spirituality into discipleship living. He’s Associate Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary, and Executive Director of Immerse Youth Discipleship Academy. Mike holds a PhD in systematic theology from Princeton Theological Seminary and is an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He and his wife, Kelly, live in the Seattle area with their four kids.

Gratefulness as Spiritual Practice

How can gratefulness be a healing spiritual practice? As pastors and leaders working with youth, how can we teach them to use gratefulness as a healing spiritual resource? As our youth experience difficulty, how can gratitude be a source of strength? While I do not have a perfect answer that will teach each youth to live a life of gratitude, I can share my personal experience of receiving healing through gratefulness.

At the age of nine I was diagnosed with an eye disease. A few years later as a middle school student, I lost most of sight. I could not read the print on the board in classes and I could no longer read my textbooks. In church I could not read the bulletin and in Sunday School I could no longer follow along with the printed material. Everything was changing. I responded with the normal stages of grief including denial, anger, and sadness. I was overwhelmed with depression and anxiety.

While I am not grateful for the horrible transition of becoming blind, I am grateful for the loving power of God that surrounded me in such a difficult time. I am grateful for the loving presence of God that is always and everywhere. I am grateful for the people who supported me during those traumatic days and who continue to support me each day.

My prayer to God was, “I cannot. I cannot. I cannot.” I would cry, scream, and silently think, “God, I cannot.” As a grieving teenager who was facing the tragic reality that I was becoming blind, it was healthy and normal for me to feel those emotions. It was also healthy for me to learn healing spiritual practices so that I could move through the stages of grief and continue living a life of meaning and purpose.

Grateful for the Love of God

One of the spiritual practices that was most healing for me was the practice of gratitude. In fact, in my book, Harnessing Courage, I focus half of the book on gratitude as a source of empowerment when overcoming adversity. Was I grateful for becoming blind? Am I now thankful to be a person with a disability? Absolutely not! So why did I write about gratitude? Why do I believe in the spiritual practice of gratefulness?

While I am not grateful for the horrible transition of becoming blind, I am grateful for the loving power of God that surrounded me in such a difficult time. I am grateful for the loving presence of God that is always and everywhere. I am grateful for the people who supported me during those traumatic days and who continue to support me each day. So, grateful for the adversity? No! Grateful for the love of God that flowed through each person and event? Yes!

Learning the spiritual practice of gratefulness did not come easily or naturally. It was a slow process of learning to be thankful for God’s power and love. Learning to be grateful did not magically take all my problems away. Life was still hard and difficult. In the midst of adjusting to my situation, gratefulness empowered me to focus on what I had rather than focusing on the negative thoughts.

So what practices helped me form the spiritual discipline of gratefulness? What practices can you teach your youth to use as they live a life of gratitude regardless of the situation they face?

Grateful for the Presence of God

One practice is to write down the moments that you are thankful for as you go through your day. Take a few minutes each night to stop and reflect on the people and situations you are thankful for during that day.

Some helpful questions are:

-Where did I experience the unconditional love of God?
-Where did I notice the presence of God today?
-Where was God present even in the midst of hard moments?

Exploring these questions helps us to become aware of the grateful moments in our lives. Some days the list will be long and easy. Then other days the list will be short and difficult. The purpose is not to have a perfectly long list. Rather the goal is to be thankful for the loving presence of God.

Grateful for the Actions of Others

Another powerful practice is to say thank you to others. Now, it seems obvious to thank people when they do something helpful. But, think about how many times we do not stop to say, “Thank you.” We are too busy or too hurried to thank others. The practice of saying thank you helps us to form a healing habit of appreciation. To get in the mindset of saying thank you, we can start by having the goal of thanking others three times a day. We can thank someone who has encouraged us, helped us, supported us, or empowered us. Once we are mindfully saying thank you to three people, we can let go of the number of times and live each day striving to genuinely show appreciation.

Writing down the thankful moments and expressing our gratitude to other people are two powerful practices. Forming the spiritual practice of gratitude is an amazing source of strength that we can offer to our youth. As pastors and leaders may we each seek to empower and support our youth through the spiritual practice of gratitude.

 


Laura BrattonRev. Laura Bratton graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2010. She is a United Methodist pastor in South Carolina and founder of Ubi Global LLC. She is the author of Harnessing Courage. Visit Laura’s website at www.ubiglobal.org.

Disability Theology: Taking the Body of Jesus Seriously

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.


God is a God of surprises. The surprise that the disciples encountered when they discovered the empty tomb of Jesus is paradigmatic of the surprising ways in which God interacts with God’s creation. The developing area of disability theology is a creaturely response to the God who surprises us. Disability theology has emerged as Christians with disabilities and Christians who do not share that experience have come together to ask fresh and challenging questions of Scripture, doctrine, and tradition, with a view to enabling the whole people of God, in all of their diversity, to see God, humans, and creation differently. Most theologies of disability are based on the premise that if we listen to the voices of people living with disabilities—voices that have often been excluded from the ways in which understandings of Scripture, doctrine, and tradition have been developed and lived out—we will be profoundly surprised and transformed by what we discover.

God is full of surprises. Disability theology renews the church’s openness to that surprise.

Disability theologians have noticed the way in which certain human experiences, and questions emerging from those experiences, have tended not to have been at the forefront of the development of biblical interpretation and theological reflection. This has meant that key questions about the nature of God, church, and humanness have been asked from a very narrow perspective, often working with implicit and explicit assumptions that prioritize narrow constructions of “normality” and ill-conceived perceptions of “abnormality.” This group of theologians push us to think beyond this narrow perspective on humanness and take seriously the surprising proclamation that the only gauge for normality within the Body of Christ is Jesus.

The Body of Jesus

More surprisingly perhaps, is the observation that within Jesus’ Body, it is human difference that is the mark of our humanness, not our ability or inability to conform to anthropocentric ideas about what is or is not normal. In Jesus difference is the new norm! In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul informs us that:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

All of us together in our difference and diversity constitute the Body of Jesus. In the Body of Christ, each member of the Body has its own shape, form, purpose and vocation. As Paul puts it, only a fool would say: “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” or: “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body:”

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

It is this kind of diversified anthropology that underpins most if not all theologies of disability. To be human is not a single thing, but a variety of possibilities, all of which are held together within Jesus’ Body. If one member claims to be representative of the nature of humanness, they have misunderstood God’s surprise and risk allowing their pride to distort the Body of Jesus. Disability theologians begin with such ways of thinking and move on to develop theological understandings and practical responses that recognise and respect the diversity of bodies that quite literally makes up the shape and form of Jesus’s Body.

The Question of Knowledge

Whereas traditional theologies tend to focus on intellectual and propositional knowledge—a type of knowledge that struggles to include people with advanced dementia, profound intellectual disabilities or forms of brain damage that make such knowledge inaccessible—disability theologians tend to take seriously the embodiedness of human beings. Knowledge emerges not only from our minds, but, as Merleau Ponty has ably pointed out, also from the ways in which our bodies encounter the world. Our bodies are conduits through which we come to know both God, ourselves, others and God’s creation. The shape, texture, and difference of our bodies mean that we encounter God and the world in quite different ways, each of which provides a different perspective on the nature of humanness as it is lived out within creation. If we attempt to understand the ways of God by focusing on a single type of body or a single way of thinking, then we end up with a picture of God and humanity that is quite different from the picture of the Body of Christ we explored earlier. If we are to experience something of the fullness of God and understand the surprising diversity of humanness, we need to take seriously the revelatory nature of human embodied existence.

In essence, disability theology seeks to remind the church that it truly is the Body of Jesus, and that a failure to remember this and to act in ways which fail to ensure that all of the bodies within the Body truly belong, is a re-wounding of the body of Jesus. Disability theology is thus not for “those who are interested in such a thing”; it opens up the very heart of the gospel.

Think of it in this way. If you have no sight, you will never see the scriptures; if you have no hearing, you will never hear the word; if you have no arms you will never feel what it is like to embrace someone even though you are embraced. To be embraced by the love of God will have a totally different meaning for you. If you have neurological challenges that mean you cannot or can no longer name Jesus, you will never know what it means to proclaim him with your lips. Such embodied ways of being in the world do not provide better or worse experiences. They are just different. On the other hand, if you can see, you will never know what it is like to encounter God without sight; if you can hear, you will never know what it is like to sign the Word and to use your body in ways that a hearing person simply cannot grasp. If you can remember everything well, you will never know what it is like to encounter God without remembering God. Likewise, if you can grasp the concept of Jesus with your mind (can any of us truly grasp the fullness of Jesus?), you will never know what it means to encounter him without words and concepts and to be dependent on the love of others to reveal what it feels like to be with Jesus. Such embodied ways of being in the world do not provide better or worse experiences. They are just different. It is only as we listen to our differences and learn to be hospitable to the fullness of the bodies within Jesus’ body that we come to know who God is and what it might mean to be human beigns before God.

The Heart of the Gospel

In essence, disability theology seeks to remind the church that it truly is the Body of Jesus, and that a failure to remember this and to act in ways which fail to ensure that all of the bodies within the Body truly belong, is a re-wounding of the body of Jesus. Disability theology is thus not for “those who are interested in such a thing”; it opens up the very heart of the gospel.

As we allow new perspectives that emerge from reflection on human disability to enter into theology and practice, we—all of us together—are opened up to new possibilities and new perspectives as we find ourselves called to form a very different kind of community. Reflection on human disability expands our imagination and helps us to break free from false anthropologies that may fool us into thinking that human difference is inevitably problematic rather than revelatory of the fullness of humanity. God is full of surprises. Disability theology renews the church’s openness to that surprise.

 


SwintonProfessor John Swinton is the Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen. Previously he worked as a nurse for 16 years, specializing in the areas of psychiatry and learning disability. He also spent a number of years working in the field of hospital chaplaincy. He is an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland with a strong commitment to supporting the work of the church. He is the author of several publications on theology, ministry, and disability, including From Bedlam to Shalom, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and Care of People with Mental Heath Problems, and Dementia: Living in the Memories of God.

Mi Casa Es Su Casa

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.


“Mi casa es su casa.” My house is your house.

This sign was everywhere when I was growing up. There were cheesy pit-stop placards, the “fancy” ones that mimicked Talavera pottery, or even homemade paint jobs. Yet, the words were always the same. What it communicated so clearly was a sentiment, the ethos of our local cultural standard: My house is open to you. You are not only welcome, we will make space for you, and we will recognize that your very presence will change the dynamics in this place and it will become something new.

This statement was not welcoming visitors to sit on the plastic covered chairs and to leave no trace of their visit. There was no sense that visitors should be silent until spoken to. This kind of welcome meant that communication was open and accommodations were made so that everyone could share the space. Everyone should feel at ease. At home. Mi casa es su casa means that this is a home for all who enter.

While my home growing up never had one of these signs hanging, my parents modeled this notion. My house is your house. For anyone who needed a meal, we made a place. My mother magically made the food stretch. For anyone who needed a place to sleep, the couch was readily available. They opened our home, repeatedly. There was no discussion about it. It just was what was. At times, this meant waiting longer in line for the one bathroom we all shared at the end of the hall. It also meant that sometimes what I hoped would be for breakfast was gone before I got to the kitchen. But for the most part, what it meant was that we got to change the lives of others just a little as they also changed ours.

In setting such an example, blue collar parents taught me a lot about youth ministry, theology, hospitality, and—believe it or not—disability.

We include adolescents with disabilities not out of obligation or guilt, we do so because they are strangers just like us and Jesus modeled it for us. They are strangers who too often endure ridicule or silencing, isolation, and extra burdens that most of us could not imagine. They are seen as other, not part of the “in group.” They may be seen as less than worthy of time and resources as leaders wonder if they “get it” when talking about the gospel.

Whether they intended to model it or not, they showed me the biblical model of a household. And it is in that model that we discover the deep meaning of hospitality. “Hospitality is a radical form of reciprocity that creates space for identifying with and receiving the stranger as oneself.”1 The reality is that we are all relative strangers at different points in our lives. We have needed hospitality, and someone took the risk to be vulnerable and let us in. Hospitality blurs the lines between insider and outsider, between neighbor and stranger. I would argue that it doesn’t just blur the lines, at times, it moves them.

An increasing number of teenagers—in particular, teenagers with disabilities—live in a perpetual state of being a stranger. This unfortunately happens even in their own “home” congregations. And that’s for the ones lucky enough to grow up in a church. So how do we be certain this doesn’t happen? Read the following paragraph and think about what would have to and what might change if teenagers with disabilities were to become an indispensable part of the ministry where you serve.

Once the stranger is invited in, the host yields stability and control, adjusting the household to accommodate and attend to the guest’s unique needs as they become apparent. Offering hospitality in this way invites disruption in household order and routine. The status quo is challenged, for the home is made different, even strange, vis-à-vis the presence of the stranger. The familiar is defamiliarized. Things do not remain as they were. The center of gravity shifts… As the host gives to the guest, the host paradoxically gains a gift, unexpectedly becoming more than he or she was before… In hospitality the center of gravity lies neither in the home nor in the stranger, neither in host nor guest, but in the God of both who is discovered redemptively in the meeting.2

What would you gain for being certain those with disabilities were truly embraced in your youth group?

You may need to change some things to allow everyone to be at home. You may need to adjust your snacks for allergies, you may need to get rid of games with popping balloons, and you may find a somewhat shocking level of bluntness and honesty. You may also dance more, laugh more, dive into blunt and honest conversations of deep suffering or even life and death. In short, by extending hospitality and creating space for the recognition of the gifts of teens with disabilities, we get to understand just a little more of Christ together.

You may worry that making changes in order to be more inclusive runs the risk of losing typical teens. Of course this is a possibility. Yet this is not what I have experienced in more than 15 years of ministry with those with disabilities. Typical teens learn of the breadth and depth of God’s kingdom through engaging teens with disabilities in a way they don’t often experience when everyone in the youth group is … typical.

When ministries include those with disabilities, one of the first things you learn is that everything goes at a different pace and often takes longer. Information flows slower. Activities take longer. Life together moves at a slower pace. And this slower pace allows everyone to recognize the abundance of God’s provision. The ministry does not devolve into a ministry merely for those with disabilities. It includes everyone in abundance. Instead of worrying about the limited time we have with our youth, we learn that there is more space and time than we ever imagined.

The best and richest ministries I know of today are those that do not try to match the frenetic pace that adolescents experience everywhere else in their lives. Rather, they provide space to engage the holy. By including those who foster a slower pace, these ministries model a counter-cultural, fuller way of living.

Hospitality is tied over and over again in the Bible to the discussion of a stranger. In the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites were exhorted to extend hospitality precisely because they had been strangers throughout their earliest years. These strangers “lived very vulnerable lives and were in need of constant protection, since they were all potentially marginalized people.”3 Those with disabilities are the strangers in our midst.

Jesus modeled the constant inclusion of the marginalized not out of pity, but because He knew they too had been created in the image of God and had great gifts to offer to the world. The church should be the arena leading the way in creating opportunities for these gifts to be recognized and put into service. It is the radical form of hospitality where both the host and guest recognize the gifts from Christ as they experience life together.

Inviting, including, and offering true hospitality to teens with disabilities is not primarily about what you have to offer. Yet, it is not for the faint of heart nor weak-willed youth workers. It is a theological declaration of the abundance that Christ has bestowed. It is a giving of abundance, out of abundance. We hear this declared in I John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us.” The hard part is that you may need to be the ones to open this conversation in your churches. It sounds great reading it in a blog or hearing a speaker at a conference. You may receive pushback. You will likely receive pushback. Even in the midst of pushback, repeat your declaration to love because He first loved us. It takes time, resources, and a willingness to let go. It requires that you allow others in and to make your home their home, too.

We include adolescents with disabilities not out of obligation or guilt, we do so because they are strangers just like us and Jesus modeled it for us. They are strangers who too often endure ridicule or silencing, isolation, and extra burdens that most of us could not imagine. They are seen as other, not part of the “in group.” They may be seen as less than worthy of time and resources as leaders wonder if they “get it” when talking about the gospel. I agree with Richard Beck as he describes sin as the force that brings about dehumanization and stratification.4 While our words may declare teens with disabilities as important, far too many of them do not experience that message. So, in this line of thinking, it is a sin to deny hospitality, to deny their very humanity by denying full inclusion of the presence of teens with disabilities, their gifts and graces, quirks and questions, doubts and faith. I talk with teens all of the time who know they can attend a youth group but also know that they will end up sitting by themselves, having no one to communicate patiently with them. They sit as a spectator knowing the leadership is patting themselves on the back for their inclusion. This is not inclusion. It is proximity and it is sin. Hospitality runs deeper than telling someone they can join what you already have in place. Hospitality moves well beyond “welcome.” Hospitality means inclusion and real relationships. Hospitality exclaims, “Mi casa es su casa!” True hospitality stands in solidarity with strangers, making accommodations, making it possible to recognize the gifts that strangers bring to the community.5

May you be encouraged and convicted to live out this call to the stranger. May you rejoice as you go into the house of the Lord with ALL His children, remembering the house ultimately is His.

Psalm 122:1

I rejoiced with those who said to me,

“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

 

—–

Footnotes:

1. Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: a theology of disability and hospitality (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press), 242.
2. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 243.
3. Lewis Merrick ed., And Show Steadfast Love: A theological Look at Grace, Hospitality, Disabilities, and the Church (Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing House), 13.
4. Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 122.
5. Lewis Merrick, Ed., And Show Steadfast Love: A theological Look at Grace, Hospitality, Disabilities, and the Church, 14.

 


Jacober squareAmy Jacober is a veteran youth worker who holds a PhD in Theology from Fuller Seminary. She volunteers weekly with Young Life’s Capernaum ministry as well as serves on the National Board. She is a founding member and faculty of the Sonoran Theological Group. Her upcoming book is titled Redefining Perfection: the dance between theology and disability.

An Open Letter to My Youth Minister

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.


At the beginning of this series, I was asked to write a blog post on “5 Things I Wish My Youth Pastor Knew About Me” in regards to having a disability. As I sat down to write, I kept thinking to myself that there are many things we do well as leaders of young people, and these are not celebrated enough!

So it is in gratitude to my youth minister that I write this open letter, in hopes that it will inspire other youth leaders in our churches to treat each child with compassion—the same compassion Jesus teaches in the Gospels.


An open letter to my youth minister,

There are many ways youth ministers make mistakes. Granted, I am a person who understands why these mistakes happen. Just like us—the rambunctious kids they are trying to teach about Jesus—they are only human.

Thank you for talking with me about the way I felt included, and asking in what ways you could improve. Thank you for not hesitating to reach out to me with questions, as they arose for you; however, I greatly appreciate you doing this separate from our time in a large group. You made sure to teach me that my story was important to you, and should be important to others too.

As a child and adult with a disability I have seen a lot of well-intended scenarios gone wrong. There have been times when I have been called out because “I don’t look well.” Or because “I cannot read.” These comments, I recognize, come out of genuine care for me. However, I am genuinely grateful to my youth minister who took special care to do things the best she knew how! For your patience, guidance, support, and encouragement I am forever grateful! It is because of you that I have become a person passionate about the Good News Jesus delivers to all persons—despite their capabilities or lack of abilities.

Now that I have grown up, I know the many ways in which we are told that we can do things better. Others are always offering tips on ways we can improve. I feel that youth ministers, especially, are told too often to “do this, not that.”

“Here are ways you can improve this…”
“Make sure you treat all persons fairly.”

These tips are welcome, and often necessary. Nonetheless, they can become overwhelming at times. Therefore, below you will find 5 ways that celebrate YOU in regards to things YOU are doing right when it comes to youth with disabilities.

1) Thank you for always letting me make decisions in regards to participating in activities. You never jumped to conclusions about my abilities, and you always trusted that I knew my capabilities of better than anyone else ever would.

2) Thank you for treating me like a member of the group. You always reminded me that my contributions were valuable and encouraged me to add different perspectives to our discussions. This translated into biblical stories chosen for discussion—stories were not skipped over because you thought they would be difficult for me to hear. This created a rich dialogue in our youth group.

3) Thank you for taking special care in planning activities, and to ensure that there would always be a way for me to participate. However, you did this without limiting the rest of the group. You never chose an activity solely based on my needs, but there was always a role I was able to play.

4) Thank you for not drawing attention to qualities that made me unique in regards to my abilities, or lack thereof. You knew, along with the other adults, that I was vision impaired (and many of our youth group members did too, just by way of being friends), but you never made a comment or announcement in front my peers. My story was mine to tell, not your story. This is what I appreciated more than everything else.

5) Thank you for ensuring that I was always included in the life of the congregation. You asked me to read scripture for worship (despite the fact that I read in a non-traditional manner). You asked me to teach Sunday school, and sing in choir. You ensured my church community embraced me as a full person. I was nurtured in a life of faith because of you! Each person and congregation promises to nurture children in the life of faith at the child’s baptism. Thank you for holding our congregation to this promise.

I know each person in your youth group is different, but the ways you included and treated me could not have been more perfect. Thank you for talking with me about the way I felt included, and asking in what ways you could improve. Thank you for not hesitating to reach out to me with questions, as they arose for you; however, I greatly appreciate you doing this separate from our time in a large group. You made sure to teach me that my story was important to you, and should be important to others too. You never limited me, but you were aware that there were some things more difficult for me to do than others. Thank you most of all, for empowering me to be a full-member of our church, for this has equipped me to be the person God has called more than anything else.

In Christ’s Love,

Thank you!

Christina

 


Christina squareChristina Cosby is a student in the Master’s of Divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary and a native of Lynchburg, Virginia, where her family has resided for decades. Growing up legally blind, Christina knows first hand what genuine grace and love look like—especially from her church community. She has served as an ordained Ruling Elder, participating in her presbytery’s youth council.

My Pastor, My Friend

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.


I consider Christopher to be one of the pastors of the little church my family and I attend. He never went to seminary, has no formal training, and isn’t called Reverend, but he is a pastor. Christopher is a young adult in our congregation who is refreshingly honest, affectionate, and always willing to give a hug as we pass the peace. Sometimes he is more honest than I would prefer, like when he whispered (loudly) that I needed to brush my teeth. And sometimes his affectionate embrace can last longer than desired, or be tighter than one can handle comfortably.

Christopher is also vulnerable. One Sunday morning we sat together on the floor in the back of the sanctuary during the sermon. He was sad, and cried as he mourned the loss of his uncle who had recently passed. We just sat there. He cried. We sat. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, and I realized that I was becoming annoyed with the situation. I was being distracted as I tried to listen to the sermon on loving one another. Catch that irony? It took me longer to figure that one out, but as soon as I did, I realized that Christopher had done it again. He embodied the gospel in a way only a young man like Christopher could, and called me into a deeper understanding of this passage from the Gospel of John, chapter 15.

I have a lot to learn about what community, and the church, could actually be like from someone like Christopher. Without his gifts our congregation would suffer. Without his presence, I might continue to hide from real community. We need the Christophers of our communities, and they need us.

Christopher is a young adult with Down’s syndrome, and we have known Christopher since he was in middle school and a part of the local Young Life Capernaum ministry. Years later Christopher has become a part of this little congregation, along with a few of his friends with disabilities, and some of their families. I say that Christopher is a pastor, because without his presence and his voice, we would all be missing something significant.

Zach is one of my heroes. Zach Grant is our part time youth minister, the other half of his work (which I’m sure adds up to like 4 jobs!) is working part time with the Capernaum ministry of Young Life in town. Zach believes deeply that the church should not only go out of its way to welcome folks with disabilities, but in fact that the church needs the voice, the presence, the gifts of those with disabilities. Zach is on a mission, not a loud or boisterous campaign, but a much more subversive hush-hush kind of attack. He wants us all to fall in love with Christopher, with Javontte, with Sarah, Matt and with many others. Zach knows that the gifts of these amazing individuals with disabilities will be the salve many of us need. He also knows that the love, community, and friendship that the congregation can offer will be readily accepted by his friends with disabilities as well. This is what happens when the church acts like the church: gifts are shared, healing takes place, and people are made more whole. Not in a “you are healed and therefore not disabled” kind of whole… but instead a “I am created imago Dei with gifts and beauty inherent to my life with disabilities” kind of whole.

That’s what Christopher has done to me. I say “to” me because I actually never knew to ask for this kind of love or ministry from anyone. I never knew that, in fact, a bear hug from a friend in the row behind me during the prayers of the people might actually be exactly what I needed. I never knew that while listening to that sermon on loving one another might have been good, actually getting the chance to sit on the floor and love someone in a time of need would be better. Christopher’s ministry is what Ben Conner talks about as an “evocative witness”1 insofar as Christopher actually brings something altogether new out of me. His witness, while meaningful and important on its own, has a second effect. His witness actually invites me into a more whole and faithful way of being human by experiencing a more genuine sense of togetherness with another person in Christian love and fellowship. His willingness to show affection actually resembles my latent desire to do so as well—the truth is that I’m just too scared to give a hug or tell someone that I love them or show pure joy and excitement when a friend arrives. His honestly and vulnerability about being sad resembles a deep cry within my heart to express how I really feel, my need and desire for someone to recognize my own pain at times, and sit with me in it.

I have a lot to learn about what community, and the church, could actually be like from someone like Christopher. Without his gifts our congregation would suffer. Without his presence, I might continue to hide from real community. We need the Christophers of our communities, and they need us. We need pastors who, rather than leading worship from up front, will lead from within the congregation as evocative witnesses. I’m grateful for Christopher, one of my pastors. May God bless us all with these evocative witnesses often overlooked in our communities and congregations.

—–

Footnotes:

1. Conner, Benjamin T. Amplifying Our Witness. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 68.

 


Justin Forbes serves as the director of the Youth Ministry program at Flagler College and has been involved in youth ministry since 1998. Currently a candidate for his PhD from the University of Aberdeen, Justin is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary earning a Masters of Divinity as well as a Masters of Arts in Youth Ministry. He also attained a Masters of Arts in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Having spent 12 years working for Young Life, and serving locally in his church, Justin brings a broad base of experience across different types of youth ministry to include urban, multicultural, suburban, special needs, and college ministries. He is the co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry, a youth ministry resource organization, and is a proud foster parent. His passion is teaching and mentoring youth ministers. He and his wife Bethany live in St. Augustine, FL with their 4+ children.

What My Son with Disabilities Is Teaching Me About the Bible

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.


In John 9, Jesus and his disciples encounter a man blind from birth. “Who sinned,” the disciples ask, “this man or his parents that he was born blind?” They present Jesus with two options. Jesus takes a third. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he replies. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Until recently this exchange, and the healing and controversy narratives that follow, never gave me much pause. Then I became the parent of a child with disabilities.

Five years ago my son, Owen, was born with a rare constellation of physical anomalies and has since been diagnosed with epilepsy and cerebral palsy. He is not able to walk, stand, eat, read, or talk on his own, but he is teaching me how to read the Bible. Owen is revealing God’s works to me.

If the main issue were simply the man’s physical blindness the story could have started in verse 6 and ended in 7. However, the query of the disciples in 9:1-5 and the interrogation of the crowds, the man’s parents, and the religious leaders in the remainder of the chapter reminds the reader that the blind man is part of a community, and it is the community’s inadequate response to him and to Jesus that disables both the blind man and those around him.

My son is not blind, but as a parent of a child with disabilities, it is no longer possible for me to read John 9 without feeling nettled, even angered, by the disciples’ misguided theology that would permit them to see the blind man only as a puzzle to be solved instead of a person to be embraced. In fact, according to the text, only Jesus is said to “see” the blind man at all (9:1). For the disciples, the man’s presence only represents a theological conundrum. Seeing they do not see.

I have been a student of scripture for years, but Owen has challenged much of what I thought I knew, overturning many of my interpretive tables. Like Jesus does with his disciples in John 9, my experience of raising Owen has exposed and subverted many of my unexamined presuppositions and prejudices and is opening me up to more liberatory and inclusive readings of the Bible that are good news for everyone, regardless of their abilities. Although I could see Scripture before, Jesus has used Owen to open my eyes wider to the Bible’s good news.

What does it look like to read the Bible with a greater awareness and sensitivity to the experience of disabilities? How should the reality of disabilities shape our interpretive approach to the Bible – our “hermeneutic”?

In his book, The Bible, Disability, and the Church, theologian Amos Yong argues that a “Disability Hermeneutic” entails three basic convictions: First, “People with disabilities are created in the image of God that is measured according to the person of Christ.” Second, “People with disabilities are people first who shouldn’t be defined solely by their disabilities.” Third, “Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated.”1

How might these commitments inform the way we read and teach the Bible?

Let’s return to John 9. On the surface, what we find here is a simple healing story. Jesus encounters a blind man and cures him. But the conversation with the disciples before the healing and the controversy with the Pharisees that ensues reveal something deeper at work. There is more to the story than meets the eye.

Disabilities are not necessarily evil or blemishes to be eliminated

For one thing, Jesus severs any simplistic link between disability and personal sin. Both with his disciples and with the Pharisees, Jesus insists that the man’s blindness was not the result of either his or his parents’ sin. Instead, what is sinful, according to Jesus, is the hubris of those who claim to see spiritually, yet fail to notice the places where God is at work, often where the world least expects it. “If you were blind, you would not have sin,” Jesus says to the Pharisees, “But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (9:41). Despite the fact that Jesus restores the sight of the blind man, the real healing involves far more than the blind man’s eyes. Jesus wants to illuminate a greater darkness.

People with disabilities are people first, and are not solely defined by disability

Jesus isn’t just interested in curing a blind man, he wants to shine a light on the social dynamic that disables the community from really seeing this man and heeding his testimony. If the main issue were simply the man’s physical blindness the story could have started in verse 6 and ended in 7. However, the query of the disciples in 9:1-5 and the interrogation of the crowds, the man’s parents, and the religious leaders in the remainder of the chapter reminds the reader that the blind man is part of a community, and it is the community’s inadequate response to him and to Jesus that disables both the blind man and those around him.

What is most eye opening in this chapter is not the restoration of a blind man’s physical sight, but the spiritual vision that this man attains in contrast to the obstinacy and hatred of a community that ultimately drives him away (9:34). Here, the social dynamics of disability are on full display. Although some may still cringe at the way this passage and many others in the Bible employ the language of disability (such as “blindness” and “deafness”) to describe negative spiritual conditions, we should not overlook the significant ways in which such language also serves to subvert their “normal” culturally-conditioned associations. Such a subversion occurs, for instance, in 1 John 2:11: “Whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because darkness has brought on blindness.” The passage utilizes “blindness” as a descriptor for a negative spiritual condition, but at the same time fundamentally reinterprets blindness not as an inability to see but as a failure to love. It is this failure to love that a disability hermeneutic highlights time and again, helping “abled” and “disabled” alike to read the Bible afresh as a call to radical hospitality and vulnerable communion.2

People with disabilities are created in the image of God

One final point to emphasize. John 9 might leave the impression that God is only glorified in the overcoming of disabilities, rather than their inclusion. After all, the blind man receives his sight, so doesn’t it logically follow that disabilities are blemishes that God intends to fix, if not now, at least in the end? This question is too complex to address here in full, so I simply offer a few points to ponder. To the extent that disabilities involve pain and suffering, I believe the Bible foresees a time when such trials will end. “The Lord will wipe the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:4). But, the hardships associated with one’s physical/mental/intellectual impairments are often rooted as much in the exclusions and barriers erected by society as they are in one’s own body. Thus, eschatological healing involves far more than the curing of individual ailments, but (perhaps more profoundly) the overthrow of an entire system of cultural norms, expectations, and ideals that presently disables those who are different. The heavenly healing the Bible envisions is not that “they” will become more like “us,” but that all of us will become more like Christ, whose own resurrected body, far from being free from blemishes, still retains the marks of his wounds (John 20:24-29).

In like fashion, the body of Christ today – the church – by including, embracing, learning from and serving with those society labels as “blemished,” embodies the paradoxical power of its crucified Lord.

—–

Footnotes:

1. Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 13.
2. The phrase “vulnerable communion” borrows from Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008).

 


EstesJoel Estes is a PhD candidate (ABD) in New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and Assistant Ministry Director at Grace Presbyterian Church in Titusville, NJ. In his scholarship and teaching, Joel aspires to connect the academy, the church, and the world through holistic theological education that engages heart, soul, mind, and strength. As the parent of a child with disabilities, Joel is frequently invited to speak on the topic of disabilities, theology, and the church. Joel lives in Princeton with his wife and four children (two boys and twin girls, all under the age of 6). He sleeps less than he should.

On Being Transformed

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.


“You never know. Maybe she will get up and walk. Maybe she will be able to eat and talk like other kids…maybe someday she will be normal.”

I have often heard these well-meaning words from friends, colleagues, and church folk about my daughter, Lucia, who was born with a progressive genetic disease of the brain. From the time she was just a couple months old, from her seizures, to her feeding tubes, and onto her diagnosis, our family has been confronted with the idea that Lucia is abnormal. But perhaps especially because she’s our first child and we know no differently, or perhaps because my husband and I have learned so much from her, I bristle at statements that suggest life would be better for us or Lucia if she would conform a bit more to the standards we hold for other kids. As a person of faith, I often wonder what God would have to say about our ideas of normal and how God might use children and youth like Lucia to fight against a culture that (perhaps un-self-consciously) worships ability and regards disability as a problem.

What would it look like for we in the church to change our normal ways of doing things to learn from those who are disabled? What would it look like for our churches to not merely find ways to include people with disabilities but be transformed by them?

In the 1970s disabled activists in Europe and the United States began to question the medical quality of disability. Noting that doctors, therapists, and medical knowledge maintained distinct power over their conditions and lives, they began to wonder if disability wasn’t as much a medical reality as a social construct. The subsequent social model of disability coined in the 1980s and sometimes called the minority politics model, suggests that disability, much like race or gender, may seem to have a biological basis, but actually operates through a social politics of exclusion. Disabled activists theorized that if we could get rid of the social barriers to disability, many people with disabilities could live freer, fuller lives.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provocatively defined disability as primarily social and invested private and public entities with the responsibility to make facilities and services accessible to people with disabilities. Since that time, not only have major institutions such as colleges and major public services such as trains and buses been adapted to service people with disabilities, but people with disabilities have become much more visible in our modern world. In a course I teach at Princeton University this semester, I invite students to reflect on whether this striking visibility connotes an increasing acceptance and inclusion for people with disabilities in society. Is this the “new normal?”

While so much, owing to disability activists and progressive politics, has changed, my students have come to discover that even if some physical and social barriers are dismantled, the cultural walls around normality, established and reified by medicine, education, even our Sunday schools—the “ableist” prejudice in our minds—often remain fully intact. Despite the ADA’s commitment to dismantling the social barriers to disability, our efforts to make space for people with disabilities are superficial if we fail to be moved ourselves, believing that the problem lies in the person with the disability rather than within us.

On the first day of the semester I have my students read a creative piece by a disability activist, Vic Finkelstein, about what it might be like for able-bodied people to live in a wheelchair world. In Finkelstein’s imaginative piece, the able-bodied people hit their heads on low door frames so frequently they become debilitated due to concussions, having to wear cumbersome helmets to get by. They struggle to make it in a wheelchair world where few opportunities are suitable or available to them: their able-bodied world is turned upside down.

Wasn’t this what Jesus was doing? Upending traditional cultural norms by uplifting the sick, the oppressed, the afflicted? Overturning tables in the temple, desperately seeking a “new normal,” a kingdom of heaven here on earth? We in the church are not called to conform to this world but “to be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2). We are not called to conform to an ableist culture in which we live but to fight against it, seeking creative solutions to our manmade problems. What would it look like for we in the church to lead the way in loving, accepting, and appreciating difference in disability? What would it look like for we in the church to change our normal ways of doing things to learn from those who are disabled? What would it look like for our churches to not merely find ways to include people with disabilities but be transformed by them?

A couple months ago, my husband and I read an article about a teenager named Michael with cerebral palsy whom the Pope had reached out and touched during his visit to Philadelphia. The news story told the joys and struggles of the family’s daily lives, including one priest’s unwillingness to give Michael his first communion because he could not make his first confession. Embittered, the family didn’t give up but found another parish where the priest not only welcomed Michael’s first communion but gave him the Eucharist through his feeding tube each week at the altar.

I’ve yet to read or write about that moment without shivers, because I think there’s something instructive for all of us in experiencing and seeing the Eucharist being given through a feeding tube. There’s possibility in a new appreciation of the elements, in a new vision for community, in a broader, more expansive, better vision of God’s kingdom here on earth. When we in the church struggle to consider how we might serve Lucia or Michael, we are certainly doing good work. But when we consider how God might be using Lucia or Michael to serve us or force us to struggle with our unholy ideas of normality, we are willing to be transformed. How might your church respond?

 



Raffety squareErin Raffety holds a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Princeton University. She is currently a Lecturer in the Writing Program at Princeton University where she teaches courses on Modern Childhood and Disability. She is also an Associate Pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church where she coordinates burgeoning outreach and education programs for adults with developmental disabilities. Raffety’s academic work takes place at the intersection of Disability Studies, Childhood Studies, and the Anthropology of Kinship. Her current book project, Families We Need, follows elderly foster mothers who raise orphans with disabilities in modern China who are often adopted to the West. She has published broadly on childhood, disability, and intergenerational relationships in scholarly journals, and an article from her personal blog, “I’m Not Sorry,” was recently featured in the Huffington Post. She lives just outside Princeton with her husband, Evan and her daughter, Lucia.

Disability, Possibility, and the Church

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.


In the fall of 1980 I randomly, (or so I thought), met a pack of 25 high school kids in wheelchairs on the Blackford High School campus in San Jose, California. My unexpected immersion began into the world of kids with disabilities. Like most, I was unprepared, uncomfortable and a complete stranger to this world. I didn’t know how to connect or what to say. Early on I had an encounter with The Parable of the Great Banquet  in the Bible, where the host commands his servants to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame to his great banquet. For the first time, I read that passage literally, in the context of my new friendships with kids with disabilities.

I was moved. Was it possible that God had a very direct mission towards those with disabilities and it was high on His priority list? In that moment that is exactly what I discovered and God’s life changing phrase was given to me:

Kids with disabilities… lead us to LOVE often without visible results. They are many times unexpected prophets, screaming loudly, “I am valuable, simply because I am.” I perceive that if ours is not a theology that is inclusive of our friends with disabilities, then it is our theology that is disabled.

Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

This phrase opened the way through my fears, allowing me to forge deep-spirited friendships with kids with disabilities. A fundamental shift occurred in me. They were no longer disabilities who happened to be kids, but new friends who happened to have disabilities. This led me deeply into their lives to know them and be known by them.

I discovered young people with the same hopes, fears, and dreams as anyone, but rarely able to engage in them due to lack of access, economic disadvantage and no transportation. They were misunderstood, shunned and much of the time, invisible to others, except in their limited world of parents, teachers and doctors. I quickly learned their greatest challenge was our glamour filled, success and performance oriented culture. They simply did not fit.

So, we innocently began a weekly Young Life club meeting for our friends with disabilities. It was their only regular social gathering outside of their families. It took off. They were ravenous for adventure, community, laughter, fun and the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I soon found out that, not only did they not find a welcome in the fast paced teen culture, they also did not easily find a welcome in my own ministry organization. But, over a fourteen-year period, I watched a miracle take place. As we slowly integrated our new friends into every part of Young Life culture, their presence transformed them and their able-bodied peers, leaders and staff in dramatic ways.

Capernaum, which we named our ministry, is based on the story in Mark 2, where four friends go to great lengths to bring their disabled friend to the feet of Jesus. Today, Capernaum is completely integrated into the fabric of the Young Life culture. The result is 273 ministries across the United States, and ministries in 39 countries. What is the lesson in this? Young Life is a clear road map for the Church. In Young Life…

-A ministry focused on disabilities didn’t exist
-No one thought about disabilities
-God called one person of no experience to a group of kids with disabilities
-Through faithful persistence, the flicker became a flame and an idea spread throughout an international ministry

It is now normal in Young Life for each staff to consider our friends with disabilities in their area planning and outreach. So, what keeps our Christian Church doors closed to this community?

1) A theology of strength versus a theology of weakness. This is a group of people where God’s power can be perfected in weakness. Unfortunately, Christendom has been impacted by the “idols” of large numbers and impressive programs. Kids with disabilities, as a ministry, will typically be small, unimpressive, and as many say, “Do they even get the gospel?” By the way, yes, they do, but it is in their spirit, more than their mind. They lead us to LOVE often without visible results. They are many times unexpected prophets, screaming loudly, “I am valuable, simply because I am.” I perceive that if ours is not a theology that is inclusive of our friends with disabilities, then it is our theology that is disabled.

2) Being uncomfortable. Drool, feeding others, helping someone in the bathroom, garbled speech, random sounds and outbursts…for most of us, this is uncomfortable to be around, especially in church. Our friends cannot hide their disabilities. Many of us can, and do. We want our services to be spotless performances. Enter our friends with disabilities—the messy church. Isn’t that really who we are? Doesn’t the Jesus we proclaim know our messy selves as well as the others we consider a mess? We need a church that is comfortable with being uncomfortable.

3) Who is qualified to lead? Don’t we assume only the eloquent, the charismatic, the dynamic and the intellectually sharp should be leading? Don’t we want visionaries with brilliant strategies? The problem is our choices are almost always at odds with who God chooses to lead. He chooses the small, the insignificant and those lacking in confidence to do his greatest work, as stated in 1 Corinthians 1.

4) God has chosen the weak to shame the strong. He chose the foolish to shame the wise and the lowly things of this world and the despised things – the things that are not – to nullify the things that are. Based on this, my friends are first picks on the leadership list. But, do we believe this? As long as the Body of Christ closes its doors to those with disabilities, the Body of Christ itself is severely disabled. When we open the doors to these precious friends, the fresh wind of the Spirit blows in, bringing stunning examples of joy, love, friendship and worship like we’ve never known. Welcoming those with disability creates a church of glorious new possibility.

 


Palermo squareNick Palermo is the founder of Young Life’s Capernaum Ministries which was established in 1986 in San Jose, CA. He has served on Young Life staff since 1983 as a Club leader, Capernaum founder, Capernaum’s National Director, and currently is the Director of Young Life’s Metro Capernaum ministry in the Santa Clara Valley. Born and raised in San Jose, he is married to Sumarah (Sue) and has three sons. His favorite time of the week is any Capernaum club where he can be with his friends.

Don’t Disable Your Youth Ministry

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.


While issues of class, race, ethnicity, and economic marginalization are beginning to be addressed by theologies of youth ministry, youth ministers have largely been led by de-contextualized, universalizing, ableist, white, male-dominated, middle class theology. Consequently, it is not surprising that the lived experience of marginalization related to disability rarely enters the theological imagination of the youth minister. Take some time now to browse your youth ministry resources and note how many of them address or even mention the reality of disability. Examine your books about discipleship. Browse the index of your theology collection… anything on disability? My guess is no.

What makes the absence of disability concerns in youth ministry so odd is the prevalence of disability among young people in the United States. People with disabilities can be conceived of as the largest minority group and, if abstracted as a group, includes a collection of people who can be found in every class, race, ethnicity and economic circumstance. The fact that eighteen to twenty percent of the population has a disability and thirteen percent of US children and youth in public schools receive special education1 suggests that nearly every young person in the US is touched by disability.

Young people with disabilities are not only an essential part of the diversity of the human experience but their contribution, gifts, perspectives, and weaknesses are also necessary if the church is to have a relevant witness.

The most common way that theologians and youth ministers have engaged people with disabilities has been by addressing the disability as a perceived individual deficiency and by trying to include the disabled person into an existing program. In youth ministry, people with disabilities have been made targets of mission and evangelism rather than being considered co-participants in the missio Dei. They have been managed as objects in the form of “inclusion” rather than being understood as members of the body of Christ who fundamentally belong and whose contributions are essential for the flourishing of community. Consequently, youth ministers and the theologians who support them have unwittingly perpetuated the ableist biases that are inherent in our youth ministry architecture (which includes theological frameworks and programming). Their theology is never challenged; their programs are never reimagined from the perspective of disability. Youth ministers simply don’t know what to do with what Debbie Creamer calls the “unspectacular” or normal reality of disability. I know my evaluation sounds harsh, and I recognize that there are some individuals, churches, and para-church organizations that are challenging my portrayal of youth ministry. But, if you haven’t examined your theological and ministerial resources yet, please take some time to do so and see whether or not you agree with me.

I believe that the discipline of missiology could help youth ministers to engage disability in terms of gains to theology, mission, community, and ecclesiology rather than in terms of simple inclusion. That is to say, through missiological categories, concepts, and practices, disability could be reconceived positively in the church in a way that renews and enriches youth ministry and the church. Beyond the conceptual challenges, the presence of adolescents with disabilities in our youth groups can stimulate us to engage in a kind of contextual theologizing. This has the potential to change the theological questions we ask together, open up new ways of interacting with each other, and expand our capacity to know and be known as adolescents with intellectual and developmental disabilities challenge what practical theologian John Swinton calls our “hopeless dependence” on our intellect. Young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, especially, can help the congregation to be more attuned to non-linear, intuitive, non-symbolic, or even non-agential ways of responding to proclamation and evangelism. They can remind us that human personhood is a dynamic and not a static concept and that the individual call to discipleship requires participating in the ongoing redemptive mission of God in Christ as part of a community—we all have gifts and needs.

Let me be more specific: What intellectual capacities, social skills, or physical abilities are required to bear the witness of the Spirit?

The power of our witness does not originate from within ourselves; we are what Lesslie Newbigin describes as a community that serves as sign, instrument, and foretaste of the reign of God. In that community, the Holy Spirit is the guarantor of the pluriformity of Christian witness as the Spirit gifts the community with what it needs for the building up of the church and for announcing (in word and deed) the kingdom of God.2 That is to say, as Pentecostal theologian and disability scholar Amos Yong suggests, the many tongues of Pentecost issue in many forms of testimony—not simply in terms of language, but also in terms of ability. Against an inclusion model where an “us” has to include “them” in the ministry and witness of the church, Yong imagines that, “the outpouring of the Spirit unleashes many tongues and many senses—many different communicative modalities—to bear witness to and receive the witness of the wondrous works of God. All forms and all types of dis/abilities, then, would be possible conduits for the Spirit’s revelatory work.”3

Viewed this way, young people with disabilities are not only an essential part of the diversity of the human experience but their contribution, gifts, perspectives, and weaknesses are also necessary if the church is to have a relevant witness. As I have written elsewhere, the absence of adolescents with disabilities, the loss of their presence, concerns and perspectives, diminishes the fitness of our witness. No one is so impaired that they can’t bear the witness of the Spirit, and no single person should be disabled from participating in the church’s witness.4

How does this look? Megan, who has a significant intellectual impairment, has been coming to church with our family. She can’t read the hymnal so she makes “musical noises” while we sing. She can’t remember the Apostles Creed, so she makes appropriate sounds in rhythm with the congregation’s recitation. She sits through sermons but can’t follow the logic of them even when they are reduced to three simple points. Nonetheless, she is a part of the community and evokes peace, love, and goodwill from others in the congregations. She has an intuitive sense that she belongs to this community and that this community belongs to Jesus. So connected is she, that she invited a friend of hers, who happens to have Down’s syndrome, to come be a part of the community. Seth has been coming ever since and was baptized last month. As it turns out, Megan is a more effective evangelist than I, and she lacks all of the capacities (rational capacity, reasoning skills, social skills, etc.) that one would expect from an effective evangelist. Perhaps Megan will challenge our youth group to reimagine evangelism as the joyful sharing of life—as an invitation to participate in something/someone that grabs us. Within the limits of her capacities, Megan exercised her agency and bore the witness of the Spirit. Would you like to have Megan in your youth group?


For more on the subject of disability and youth ministry see my Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities, which, at its core, is a practical theology of youth ministry. For more on disability and mission, see Enabling Witness, IVP Academic in their Missiological Engagements series, coming fall, 2017.

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Footnotes:

1. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp
2. Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989, 232-33
3. Yong, Amos. The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A new vision of the people of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011, 72.
4. Conner, Benjamin T. “Enabling Witness: Disability in Missiological Perspective” Journal of Disability and Religion 19.1, 15-29.

 


Ben Conner SquareBen Conner is Associate Professor of Christian Discipleship, Western Theological Seminary and Director of the Graduate Certificate in Disability and Ministry, the only program of its kind in the US. For seven years before joining Western’s faculty he ran a ministry to and with adolescents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.