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.
I rejoiced with those who said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
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.
Amy 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.