Disability, Part 1

This series is inspired by Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body by Brian Brock. I’m writing these posts as I read through this book as part of my exploration of disability theology.


One question I’ve gotten is whether Brock is disabled. He’s not, and he’s up front about that. Although I’m not sure where Brock’s journey began, I do know that he has an autistic, adult son with Down syndrome, and that’s a big part of why he’s worked so hard to decenter ableism from Christian theology.

Disability seems to be written primarily for non-disabled persons, such as myself, to help us decenter ourselves. If you have a permanent disability, especially if you’ve been disabled your entire life, some of the things in this book might seem rather basic. It’s probably going to be much more groundbreaking for me.

For example, in Chapter 1, Brock uses a serious but temporary finger injury to help readers imagine how drastically even a small injury can alter one’s entire life. This is the entryway for those of us who take our bodies for granted.

Connecting the Dots

Welcome. Gentleness. Presence. Attentiveness. Commitment. This is all Christians need to know about disability. Simple words that sometimes ask more of us than we want to give.

Brian Brock, Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body

Connecting the dots between my theology and disability has confronted me with two obstacles, so far (more to come, I’m sure). First, I need help recognizing that there’s a disconnect; until relatively recently, it literally never occurred to me that there were dots to connect, let alone a need to connect them. I’m so thoroughly entrenched in ableist theology that I often don’t recognize the ways hospitality, gentleness, presence, attentiveness, and commitment are being withheld from disabled persons. That is, I’m often not aware of the ways disabled persons are disenfranchised.

Second, even as I’m recognizing the disconnect, I’m confronted by the simple and heavy reality of Brock’s words: do I actually want to connect the dots? It’s easy for me to say that Gospel ministry is most fully lived in the margins of society. It’s easy for me to say that ableist theology is harmful. It’s easy for me to say that Love includes hospitality, gentleness, presence, attentiveness, and commitment for disabled persons. But, when the rubber meets the road, the price of living those words is often greater than I realize.

I think the second obstacle is a symptom of privilege. One way privilege can be seen is in the existence of a choice; I can choose whether to pay the price of participation. For contrast, a disabled person has no choice whether to participate; they are disabled whether they want to be or not. Because able-bodied persons are almost always responsible for setting the parameters of spaces in our society, disabled persons have no choice but to accept whatever level of hospitality is present (or not present, as is most often the case). Therefore, I’m privileged; I can decide to go about my day as though there’s no price to pay.

Recognizing the Disconnect

We don’t need to be told what to do but shown how to think creatively about what needs to change in our churches.

Brian Brock, Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body

Recognizing the disconnect between societal norms and the realities of living with disabilities seems to be what the introduction and first chapter of Brock’s book are about. They lay some basic groundwork for those of us who are still learning to be aware. It’s not enough for me to be told what to do; I need to learn how to think differently or, as Brock says, to think creatively. I need a new imagination about all of life and humanity and a new theological imagination to re-envision the idea of church.

My family and I started 1310 Ministries about a year and a half ago, and for the last year or so, we’ve been having worship services at an independent living retirement community. Before that, I was ministering at a small congregation where my wife and I were the youngest adults. I’m used to worshiping with older members and watching folks transition from more active roles to less active roles. Yet, until recently, it was a superficial understanding. I didn’t think of the older congregants as having disabilities even though they had chronic illnesses and decreased motor functions. Now, worshiping every week with folks who use walkers and wheelchairs, are hard of hearing, have varying levels of dementia, etc., I was struck by this passage from Brock:

Hans Reinders reflects on the most common way pastors speak about disability in their churches: “The times that I have asked ministers and pastors about members of their congregations who are disabled, the most frequent response is, ‘We don’t have them.'” This is a remarkable claim. If it is true that most congregations do not have disabled members, huge numbers of people are not in church. If it is false, ministers are widely affected by the serious problem of not seeing what is in front of them. Either way, serious questions need to be asked about why this is such a common response among pastors when asked about disability.

Brian Brock, Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body

Where was my attentiveness when one congregant after another stopped showing up at worship because they were physically incapable of doing so? Where was my attentiveness when members had to stop helping lead services because they were no longer able to do so? How was it that I could recognize the need to install a railing along the walkway leading to the front door where we worshiped but not recognize that the folks who needed the railing were disabled? How could I be good friends with the “one” disabled person in our congregation but not consider how overwhelming the new socially-distanced chair arrangement would be for them?

Had someone asked me about disabled members of our congregation just two years ago, I probably would have said we had only one. It seems so obvious, now, how remarkable such a response would have been.

Disabled People Exist

The fact that disabled people exist is obvious, but sometimes, it’s the obvious statements that need to be made. It’s why clichés can be so poignant when used at just the right time. It’s not that we don’t all “know” that disabled people exist, but are able-bodied ministers, in general, really, consciously aware that disabled people exist?

In the quote above, Brock says either huge numbers of people aren’t in churches or ministers aren’t seeing what’s right in front of us, because the existence of disabled people is a reality that permeates the entire world. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1 in 6 people worldwide experiences significant disability, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. has some form of disability. It’s incredibly unlikely that any American congregation can somehow avoid roughly 25% of the adult population.

My realization about my own church experiences is that Brock is right about both options. We seem to be unable or unwilling to recognize disabled congregants, which makes it easy to miss or ignore folks who aren’t in churches because of disabilities. I can immediately think of at least four individuals/couples at our previous congregation who stopped attending because of disabilities. What did we do to continue being part of their lives? Nothing. They were there, and then they weren’t. Even those with disabilities who still attended didn’t talk about those who didn’t. We nurtured, even expected, a culture of ignorance toward disability.

I think part of this was also resentment, not just from those of us without disabilities but also from those becoming disabled. I see the same thing at the retirement community to which I minister now. There’s a resistance to the idea of being unable to do what we once did. A preacher who refuses to stay retired, a person who refuses to stop driving, a song leader who feels pressured to continue leading, having a permanent handicap parking sticker but refusing to acknowledge a disability, barely being able to walk to the dining area for a meal but continually looking down on “those people” who need caretakers, etc.

I’ll have to explore those things more in future posts, because if I try to put all my thoughts down, here, who knows how long this post will become. The point is, we know that disabled people exist, because disabled people make up 25% of American adults, yet we’ve created such a strong culture of shame and dismissiveness around disabilities that we often seem to shame congregants into pretending they don’t have a disability. We encourage a willful ignorance in the body of Christ for the sake of comfort in the other 75%, and that shame can be so powerful that the ignorance persists even when a congregation goes from being mostly able-bodied to mostly disabled. When combined with the second most common response from ministers, this willful ignorance makes it extremely difficult to create safe, hospitable spaces for those with disabilities.

Responsive Ministry

This is the second most common response from pastors when asked how they might relate to people who would come to their church with special needs. In one pastor’s words, “When people come to us, then we try to answer those needs and help them in whatever way we can.”

Brian Brock, Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body

I remember when a family visited our previous congregation with their autistic child. They explained to me that he was very sensitive to sound and large crowds and asked if we had anything in place to accommodate their needs, such as a quieter nursery area. We didn’t; there was a small, windowed room at the back that we used as a nursery space, but it wasn’t enough. I had said we could work with them to accommodate their needs, but looking back, I think they recognized that I was offering more than I realized. They politely declined and looked for another congregation.

I think about that encounter from time to time, but I’m realizing that I only do so in passing. Our congregation talked about it, but it didn’t lead to making preparations for future accommodations. We had similar conversations about hospitality, and the results were always the same: it’s up to “others” to tell “us” what they need, and we’ll respond accordingly. This led back to the pressure of shame that kept us willfully ignorant; who was going to come forward and advocate for themselves when they felt ashamed of their own needs?

I think ministries should be willing to respond to realized needs, but hefting the burden of advocacy and education onto the shoulders of those in need indicates that the congregation doesn’t recognize them; they’re invisible. Disabled persons are told that they’re part of communities and then ignored as if they don’t exist. Responsive ministry ignores the reality that disabled persons are already present.

In my story about the visiting family, it’s true that we didn’t already have autistic congregants, but our responsiveness was indicative of our larger ignorance. We had a child with down syndrome, a blind mother, a woman in a wheel chair, several people with walkers or canes, a person with Parkinson’s, several people with forms of dementia, a survivor of a massive stroke who lost the use of one leg and one arm — the list goes on. We had every opportunity to be aware, proactive, and hospitable, but we refused.

Paying the Cost

Paying the cost of building communities and congregations that are inclusive of disabilities is a huge obstacle that can’t be overcome by a few individuals. Part of the cost is the necessarily communal aspect of hospitality. That is, we have to stop clinging to hyper-individualism.

Brock used the word “welcome,” but I’ve been saying hospitality. I think it’s true that many spaces aren’t even welcoming of disabled persons, but even those that try to be often fall short of hospitality — of creating spaces that are actually shared, where disabled persons have equal ownership and voices. Instead, people are welcomed in and instructed on which parts of a space are available to them. Sit here, wait there, do this or that if you need assistance, etc.

In order to even begin paying the cost of diversity, entire communities have to decide to stop being willfully ignorant and start making changes. That also means that we have to get past our shame about disabilities. We have to stop teaching each other that it’s shameful to be old or to develop chronic illnesses. We have to stop teaching each other that it’s shameful to need accommodations or to look different or have different abilities. We have to stop idolizing conformity and uniformity and start celebrating diversity.

In short, we have to start addressing our own selfishness and hurt and start practicing empathy and compassion, and that’s only scratching the surface.

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