Disabilities and the Church: From Periphery to Center (Guest Post)
The day my youngest brother was born was simultaneously incredibly joyful and acutely painful. Being in 5th grade, I was filled with the excitement at the prospect of a new addition to our family, and hopeful for future trips to Disneyland. But all that changed when, upon his birth, the doctors informed us that Daniel was born with Down syndrome. I remember many people visiting my parents in the hospital, bringing meals over, and rejoicing with us in the birth of a new life, but also mourning with us that it wasn’t what we expected. I’ve heard it described that having a child, or family member, with Down syndrome is like planning a trip for Hawaii and then ending up in Russia. Nothing can really prepare you for that moment. But in the painfulness of that time, I got a glimpse of God in our church community’s response. It was also truly beautiful to see our church surround us with the love and comfort of God.
But as Daniel has grown up in the church it has been frustrating, to say the least, to see the church “just deal with him.” And I don’t think my home church is peculiar in that. In the many other churches I’ve seen, I don’t think the church – the body of Christ – really knows how to incorporate those with disabilities into their midst. We don’t know how to interact with those with autism, help those with cerebral palsy, or love those with severe brain damage. When Daniel was in Sunday School, he would often be set in the corner to draw and play on his own as to not interfere with the other students’ learning. I have seen teenagers with autism put in the nursery so that they won’t cause any trouble. I realize that I cannot speak for every church body, but in my experience within the church, we have failed to truly engage our brothers and sisters within the disabled community. We just bunker down and try to survive the storm. And if it gets impossible to handle, we’ll outsource to those who are “properly trained.”
I am constantly haunted by Luke 14:15-24 and 1 Corinthians 12:21-26. The former is Jesus’ parable of the Large Banquet, in which the invited guests snub the invitation for lesser, trivial matters. Therefore, the master sends out his servants to bring in “the poor, maimed, blind, and lame.” While the context seems to imply that Jesus is referring to the inclusion of Gentiles into the Kingdom of God, I cannot help but imagine the church to be the very place where the poor, maimed, blind, and lame find a home. Even more, the Kingdom of God flipped upside-down our assumptions and ideas about social-status. In the economy of God, rather than the marginalized remaining on the periphery, they become the center of God’s redemptive work. The outcasts are the very people with whom Jesus associated. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 12:21-26, Paul discusses how the body is made up of many diverse parts, but that all parts need one another. Going even further, in verse 22 he states, “On the contrary, all the more, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are necessary.” Do we, as God’s called out ones, honor our (seemingly) weaker brothers and sisters as necessary members of our body? Or do we continue to marginalize them? Does our preaching reflect our need for them? Or do we continue to minister to the majority, expecting the outcasts to become just like us? Rather than understanding those with Down syndrome, or any other disability, as necessary to our body, I have found that we view them as hindrances to the growth of those who are “disability free.”
For a church community to truly incorporate the autistic, the mentally handicapped, and the quadriplegic is not an easy task. I don’t pretend that I have all the answers. But I do believe it requires us to tap into our imaginations and envision a new way of doing church, of being the body of Christ. It might mean that, out of respect for our sisters who cannot walk, we no longer sing songs that proclaim “I am free to run, I am free to dance.” It might mean that, rather than sequestering the severely handicapped brother into a separate room, we include them in our main sanctuary, vocal outbursts and all. It might mean that for those who cannot sit still, we let them wander the sanctuary as they desire, even if it may be into the pulpit. It might mean that the Lord’s Supper regains a primary place in our services over the sermon, so that those who cannot grasp cognitive propositions can still receive Christ in a tangible, physical manner. Whatever it may be, my prayer is that the church will live into its calling to be the people of God, even if it makes us really uncomfortable.
Calvin graduated from Biola University with a degree in Christian Education and is currently working on an M.Div at Haggard School of Theology of Azusa Pacific University. He is the Youth Pastor of a church in Orange County and lives with his wife Kenzie.