(This past week, I flew down to OKC to, among other things, record some short videos about disability and the Church. Here’s the text of one of those videos.)
Just over 55 years ago, Martin Luther King remarked that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” His point, of course, was that our church practices bely the unity that we profess as the body of Christ. Our division shows that we lack shalom—that peace, wholeness, completeness that marks the Kingdom of God.
Unfortunately, in the subsequent years we’ve only gotten marginally better on this score. It’s still the case that 86% of congregations in the US have only one predominant racial group—down from 97%.
This past month I was teaching a course on disability. We watched a documentary, Lives Worth Living, about the history of the disability rights movement in the United States, which was modeled on the successful civil rights gains regarding race in the 1960s. My students were shocked to learn that churches lobbied to be exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990 and which requires public buildings and accommodations to be accessible to those with disabilities. And they were successful. This is why, for instance, public buildings like this hospital need to have wheelchair accessible entrances, elevators, and barrier free restrooms. But churches don’t.
But even if a person with a disability can access the physical space of the building, they often encounter other kinds of barriers—social barriers—that prevent them from feeling or even being welcome. While physical accessibility is needed, it’s certainly not enough.
Social exclusion in the Church is often worse than in the culture at large. People with disabilities are significantly less likely to attend church or some other place of worship than are members of the non-disabled public. According to a recent survey, adults with disabilities in the US are approximately 40% more likely to never attend a place of worship. In another study, 60% of adults with autism report rarely, if ever, attending church. More than half of parents of children with disabilities who regularly attend church report that their children have been excluded at church because of their disability. Erik Carter’s research has shown that even among adolescents with disabilities who do regularly attend church, only 14% participate in other congregational activities such as youth groups or choirs.
These statistics resonate with some of my own experiences.
We’ve been asked if we wanted our disabled son to be in a much younger Sunday school class. While they didn’t say it, the reasoning behind this request is that it would have been easier than making him welcome and accommodated in the class with students his own age. I’ve had Christians tell me that if I’d have enough faith, my son would be healed—I confess I don’t even know what it would mean for someone who’s missing part of their genetic code to be ‘healed’. Someone in the Sunday school class I used to teach shared that it was good that her daughter miscarried, because otherwise the child may have grown up to be retarded.
Think for a moment of all the ways—in our songs, in our sermons, even in the Bible itself—that disabilities such as blindness and deafness are used as images of sin or moral failure. Think of how we collectively sing connecting disability to imperfection or spiritual death. And then think what impact that has on the person in your congregation, if there is one, who uses a wheelchair and who thinks that the problems they face aren’t caused by the wheelchair but by a culture that doesn’t give them or their needs any thought. In these moments, shalom is broken.
The Church ought to be a beacon of inclusion. It ought to be a place where we can come together as a whole body, united in spirit and love for the good of all. It is together, collectively, that we are made holy. Together that we live in shalom. Together that we are conformed into the image of Christ. And this is something that all of us—indeed all of creation— contributes to.
The Church needs to work better toward belonging, toward making those with disabilities welcome and integral parts of all we do. Our focus shouldn’t even be just on ministering to those with disabilities. It should be on ministering with those with disabilities. As my friend and disability advocate Barbara Newman says, “prepositions matter.” Our focus should be on loving all those we encounter, and on enabling others to love and be loved. We need to fold all of God’s people into a community where they are valued and can be of value to others.
The attitudes and practices that exclude those with disabilities from the Church aren’t rooted in malice. They’re rooted in ignorance.
Hans Reinders writes, and keep in mind that he’s talking about the Church here: “What ultimately prevents people with intellectual disabilities from full participation in our society is the fact that they are generally not seen as people we want to be present in our lives. We don’t need them. They are rarely chosen as friends.” We often don’t even notice that we haven’t chosen them, that we have made them feel as if they don’t belong. Ignorance not malice.
Autistic pastor Lamar Hardwick reflects on the parable of the lost sheep in this way: “what if the greatest lesson to be learned is not in the sinfulness of the sheep, but rather the shamefulness of a community that sees itself as complete while one if its own is missing?” There is no shalom without all of us.
Remember, approximately 20% of the general population has a disability. You may be among them. But if you’re not, if you don’t have friends with disabilities, if your church doesn’t have one out of every five members with a disability you may be doing something to exclude them from your lives. Even if you don’t mean to. Ignorance and not malice.
So go find them. Befriend them. Listen to them and learn from them. Draw close to them. Sit with them. Invest in their lives and let them invest in yours. Support their ordination. Build the Kingdom with them.
As British theologian John Hull says, “disabled people are not so much a pastoral problem as a prophetic potential.” When these prophets are welcome in and valued by our communities, we live into the shalom to which we’re called.