Discussion of issues related to Christianity/theology and persons with disability, hosted by Jeff McNair, a Special Education professor.Jeff and his wife Kathi have been involved in ministry with adults with intellectual disabilities for 35 years.With the idea of developing maturity through asking the question is small steps toward a goal has grown out of the article they wrote.
A religious leader was asked, What was the most important thing for a church to do?"
He responded, "What do you think it is?"
The questioner responded, "You should love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul and mind and you should love your neighbor as yourself."
"That's correct! A church should reflect the commands of God."
The questioner responded "What does a church look like that loves its neighbor?"
The religious leader responded with a story.
A man with a disability went to a local church. He went to the worship service of the church. While he was there he was totally ignored. No one so much as spoke to him. It was as if he wasn't even there. He left as he came, a person devalued, without worth.
The man then went to another different church the following week. He went in and was greeted. When he asked whether the church assisted people with disabilities, like himself, they were gracious. However, they said that ministry to people with disabilities was not a priority because they are doing so many other ministries. They did ministries to the poor, and evangelism overseas. So they couldn't take the time to include those with disabilities as a focus of ministry. But they noted that there was another church just down the street that had made ministry to people with disabilities a focus so they felt like they didn't need to address this group of people. They told him to just go there.
The following week the man went to the church down the street the other church alluded to. As he entered, he walked past the handicapped parking spaces and up the ramp into the building. When he used the men's room he noted that there was a wheelchair accessible stall. There was an elevator that went to the second floor and there was a section in the worship center where people who used wheelchairs could sit. During the sermon, the pastor passionately stated, "We are not really impacted by disability, but we will love all people who come to us!"
The religious leader then ask the questioner, "Which of the churches was one that loved its neighbor?"
The man replied, "The one that had the accessible building."
The religious leader replied. "That is not correct. None of the churches were loving their neighbor. The first church ignored people with disabilities in the community. The second church skillfully sidestepped their responsibility toward persons with disabilities. The third church made modifications to their building in response to government regulations. We must not confuse compliance with mandated, government regulations with loving your neighbor. Additionally, it is fine to say that a church will welcome only those who come, but in reality they may not be welcoming to persons with disabilities because so many do not have the ability to come. Either they have intellectual disabilities that prohibit them from getting a driver's license or they have physical disabilities that would make it difficult or impossible to drive a car. So to say we welcome all who come is not sufficient."
So the man in the story with the disability just kept looking...
The way we have always done things is a significant barrier to change. What might be called "precedents of practice" can be reason enough to eschew change. Sure there are reasons why practices develop as they do. Many of those reasons are Biblical reasons and we should embrace those firmly. The Bible should be taught. We should sing praises to God. We should welcome strangers. We should assist people in need. We should love our neighbor. We should observe communion. We should bring tithes and offerings. With each of these statements, you probably have a specific practice in mind as to how each of these are done. We need to do these things but we needn't do them in a manner that reflects an immutable precedent.
Our precedents may be sinful (see previous post on the sin of the environment). As I quoted in a post from 2007, there is also this fact.
Collective unconsciousness can be so vast that even the most global societal policies may be undeclared, unexplicated, unacknowledged, and even denied. Thus for many people to all work toward a bad thing requires no deliberate or conscious conspiracy. While this is well-known by social scientists, most citizens are not aware of how they themselves can be totally unconsciously acting out undeclared, large-scale, societal policies in their own daily lives. (from "A leadership-oriented introductory social role valorization (SRV) workshop, February 27, 2007)
When we simply accept our practices, whatever they might be, without being reflective about them in changing times, we risk doing wrong things. Church cannot look the same as it did in 1930 or 1960 or even 1990. We reflectively learn, hopefully mature, and continue to grow. Precedents of practice might need serious change. Disability ministry has been one of those bright lights that has shown on our traditions and practices. If we dare to look at what that light is illuminating, we should own any ugliness that we now see and seek to change, creating new precedents which will no doubt need to be revised again as we continue to mature.
I believe the worst thing we can do is stubbornly dig in our heels and refuse to change. If you do reflect on precedents, you realize that the main need for them to be changed is how they keep us, in a comfortable way, from loving our neighbors. The spotlight of disability ministry on precedents of practice make us uncomfortable because of the demands precedent changes would bring.
I am reminded once again of 1 Peter 2:19-21 which says, "But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you and example that you should follow in his steps." We need to embrace the discomfort and feeling of insecurity when we change our traditions that need to be changed. If we reflect on our precedents of practice, perhaps out of obedience we will begin to move in a different direction leading to a different practice. McNair
In Mark 7:1-13 there is a telling interaction between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. In verse 5, Jesus is asked, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders…?” They were asking about the fact that the disciples didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before they ate. Jesus responds by quoting Isaiah saying, “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (ala Romans 12:2). That is pretty damning. But Jesus follows up by saying in verse 8, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” He goes on to tell of how in this case, they do not honor their parents. “Thus you nullify the word of God by your traditions that you have handed down.” He concludes in verse 13 by saying, “And you do many things like that.” Their traditions, in this case, did not honor a group of people they should have been honoring. There are traditions which contribute to functionally impairing people, socially and otherwise, via an unwillingness to make the changes to the environment, the traditions, that would better reflect the commands of God.
If we as “these people who honor me with their lips” do exchange the commands of God for the traditions of men, we are guilty of the sin of the social environment. Fill in the blank as to what that particular social environment might be. It could be the school, the restaurant, the church or the local park. Our traditions teach us to treat people with disabilities as different from ourselves. We also seem to have a hierarchy of persons with disabilities as well in that people affected by disability can also fall into this kind of social environmental sin. I addressed this a bit with a post back in 2007 called "Don't hate the player, hate the game." But to blame our behavior on the way we have been socialized or that everybody acts in a similar manner, is childish. I am responsible for my own actions and if the social environment is behaving in a wrong manner, that is not an excuse for me to behave similarly.
I am responsible for my behavior toward others.
I am responsible for my language toward others.
I am responsible for my exclusion of others.
I am responsible for my not choosing some people as friends.
You didn't MAKE me do anything. I took the opportunity of your presence to express the ugliness that resides within me. I took the opportunity of you being someone different from me to embrace the the ugliness within me and celebrate it. I am the ugly one, not you. I am the intolerant one, not you. But if my blaming you for my ugliness is tolerated, then it will be encouraged and only continue.
Take responsibility for your own participation in the sin of the social environment and stop it.
Today an interview I did with Judy Redlich, is being broadcast on the radio program "Encounter" Join Judy Redlich Tuesday 1:30 p.m.
You can tune into Encounter weekdays at 1:30pm on KSIV AM 1320 or FM 95.9 for Christian perspective, world view and stimulating conversation. Judy also works for the Joni and Friends office in the St. Louis area. Please tune in for an interesting discussion. Here is how the interview is described.
"Looking for a Sunday School curriculum that could reach developmentally disabled adults at your church? Meet Jeff McNair, its author, and national disability advocate. Learn about new tips for advocating for persons with disabilities and their families."
So, a person with a intellectual, emotional, or mental disability approaches you. He stands too close to your face. He asks you questions that you think are inappropriate. He touches you too much. He doesn't get your hint that you are feeling uncomfortable. He doesn't understand your language indicating that you want to end the conversation. He will not let the conversation end. Finally you break away. When you get with a friend, you comment, "That guy is weird. He's a mess. He doesn't get it at all, he was like standing too close and touching me and couldn't take a hint."
The question is...who just committed the sin?
He doesn't get it, you do. He is flailing around in attempting to be loving and friendly. You aren't nor do you want to be loving or friendly. He will talk about you as his friend. You talk about him as weird and how he doesn't get it. He will look forward to a chance to talk with you again. You will avoid him in the future. He will give you all the time he has. You will give time only out of some feeling of guilt.
So who is committing the sin?
It is amazing what we, what I, will do or think about a person just because their social skills are not all they should be. The person is not being evil, the person is not doing wrong, the person just doesn't understand many of what are truly the subtleties of social skills. My response is to reject him and 90% of my friends and 90% of the church would probably agree with my rejection of him. We as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, condone, understand, accept, advocate, discuss, follow through on rejection of people with various disabilities because of their social skills.
May God forgive us.
Yet as I approach the Lord, of course my social skills are flawless. To the Lord, interacting with me is no doubt "a day at the beach!" How fortunate for him that he is able to be in my presence (being the Lord, and being omnipresent, he kinda doesn't have a choice but to be in my presence). I am confident that the three persons of the trinity do not huddle together and say to each other, "McNair is weird." But you know, in reality God's interactions with me, and my prayers to Him are "a day at the beach" because the Lord loves me. He loves me not because I am "a day at the beach" but because out of his love he has chosen to make interactions with me "a day at the beach." He has chosen to make me feel like I am "a day at the beach! " In spite of all my problems, my sins, my poor social skills, my pride, the crap that is in me and circles me like flies because of the choices I have made, HE LOVES ME! You see that is the example he provides.
He shows me, ME, as the example of loving someone who is difficult to love,
and then He loves me.
Do you think he cares about the social skills of the person who bothers you? Please! No, he treats him like he is "a day at the beach" just as much as he does to me.
So do you get it? Social skills deficits are not sin. If I reject another on the basis of social skills, that is sin and I am the sinner. We, I, need to learn about love. True love is not easy. It is messy and inconvenient. It makes you feel uncomfortable. It makes demands on you. I pray that when I am put to the test, when God asks me to show real love to another human being, I will not be worrying about that person's social skills. I hope my concern will be whether I am reflecting the kind of Love that God shows to me. I pray that I will be worried about the sin I am tempted to commit by rejecting another person who God truly loves. McNair
Every year on Easter, just to experience something different I like to go to a different church. I found one not to far away and thought I would try it out. As I walked up to the building, I was greeted enthusiastically by a woman.
“We are so happy you are here!”
“Thank you” I responded.
“Have you been to this church before?”
“No, I go to a different church and thought I would just visit yours today.”
“Well we have a perfect place for people like you! You will have the opportunity to meet and make many new friends.”
I looked at her quizzically and said ‘”OK. Great.”
“There is a special place for folks like you to sit in big church. It is in a section over there” where she pointed to other 60ish men sitting together.
As I looked around, I saw lots of people sitting and talking waiting for the service to begin in the main area of the sanctuary. But I followed directions and moved toward the area populated by men with grey hair (those that had hair) who were a similar age to me.
She accompanied me and got me situated. “After the singing, you will go out to your class with the other men.”
“My class?” I asked.
“Yes the class for people like you.”
“Like me? What do you mean, like me? Couldn’t I just stay here and listen to the sermon? I’d be happy to sit with the other people if that would not be too much of a distraction.”
“Oh no!” she responded happily, “you will be happier with the way we have everything ready for you and the others.”
As I looked around, the others smiled at me and back at her. With that she moved away.
A guy sitting behind me tapped me with his iphone. “After the singing, we can go to the class and color pictures of Jesus while we are waiting for everyone to arrive. Last week we made popsicle crosses.”
“What? Why do you guys color pictures of Jesus?” I asked. “I’ve never been to a church where I was given pictures of Jesus to color.”
“I guess it has to do with the way they see you here. You’ll get used to it after a while.”
The service started and the other men and I participated in the singing and bowed our heads for the prayer. As the sermon was about to start, the friendly woman came back and said, “OK guys time to follow me.” They all got up so I did too. People waved to us as we exited and went to a classroom where colored pencils and pictures, more like cartoon pictures, awaited us. The other men sat down and immediately started to color.
As I looked around the room, I saw a friend of mine who was a high school math teacher named James. “Hey James, how long have you been coming to this church?”
“For a little over a year. I’ve gotten good at the coloring. My wife likes putting the pictures on the refrigerator.”
I looked at him and kind of shook my head, but shortly he was back at coloring.
The teacher came in. “I want to talk about work today. How many of you have jobs?”
Everyone’s hand went up including my own. I’m a professor.
She turned to Bob a couple of seats down from me, his hand raised.
“What kind of work do you do Bob?”
“I work at a marketing firm which specializes in commercial real estate.”
“Good for you!” she responded. “That’s wonderful! Commercial real estate is VERY special. How about you, Sam?”
Sam was sitting right next to me.
“I’m a police officer.”
“Do you ever get to work with the animals? I bet that would be fun.”
“No, I do more traffic enforcement.”
"Cars go so fast. Please be careful out there!”
“Thanks, I will.”
As I sat there, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and seeing.
“We are going to have a snack shortly. You will be able to choose the kind of cookie you would like.”
As she turned away, I grabbed Sam. “What is this?”
“What do you mean?” he replied.
“This class, the things you do, the way she talks to you. How do you stand it?”
“Isn’t this the way all Sunday school classes for senior men are like?”
Agitated, I responded, “NO, it’s not the way all Sunday School classes for senior men are like!”
“Really? It is all I have ever known.”
“You are kidding, right? NO they aren’t like this. Men are treated like men, like adults. They get to sit wherever they want to. Why should 6o year old men be treated like this?”
“Isn’t that who we are?”
“It’s not who I am.”
We were interrupted by guitar music.
“EV-ry BO-dy SING! If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” followed by clapping.
“I’m not happy and I know it!” I said to Sam sharply.
“I feel like the way we are treated is the way these people here in this church see us. It feels a little strange to me as well, but I don’t know. Maybe there is something in the Bible or something that causes them to act this way towards us. It’s like the only place I go where I am treated this way. I definitely don’t get treated this way at the precinct. Maybe this is the Christian way of interacting with men like us.”
“It's like they don’t respect you. How can you stand it?”
“Well is there any place else I could go where I would be treated differently?”
“You should come to my church. Don’t put up with this…”
I have just completed reading Dr. Steve Grcevich's new book Mental Health and Church. In a nutshell, I highly recommend it for any reader. Steve takes his incredible wealth of knowledge and experience as a child and adolescent psychiatrist and applies it to the Christian community. The book is so practical and takes the mystique out of the question of "What do I do?" in relation to inclusion and ministry with persons with mental illness.
I particularly enjoyed Part 2 where he helps the average person to "overcome" in a variety of areas leading to an inclusion strategy. But chapters 10, 11 and 12 really grabbed me. As chapter 12 exhorts, we have some apologizing to do to those we have excluded before we can ask them to trust us to the point of being among us. Chapter 11 points out the hardship of social isolation while at the same time providing, dare I say obvious ways, we can assist people to not be socially isolated. The ways are obvious but they are things we are NOT currently doing, so perhaps they are not as obvious to most. Then chapter 10 speaks of developing friendships among other great suggestions.
I walked away from Part 2 feeling like there can be no excuses for not taking the next steps toward an inclusion strategy. Steve, once again, removes the "I don't know what to do" excuse and replaces it with so many great ideas. McNair