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.
It seems clear that most pastors perceive the appearance of someone with disabilities in church as a challenge. They create “burdens and practical tasks for the church’s leadership that benefit only the people with disabilities themselves.”Brian Brock quoting Bethany McKinney Fox, Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body
This is one of those perspectives that I didn’t notice until I read it. For me, it’s rather profound, and it’s increasingly obvious now that I’m thinking back on past communities. The challenge of disabled persons in congregations is often assumed to be a charity obstacle rather than an issue of communal identity. “Who we are” as a congregation isn’t seen as the issue that needs to be addressed; the solution (or lack thereof) isn’t seen as impacting congregational identity, much like handing money to a beggar on a street corner and then never seeing them again.
It occurs to me that this might be similar to “not seeing color” when it comes to racial issues. The idea of being “color blind” to race is often an excuse to not truly see a person and their struggles. It gives a person an excuse to not be aware of, let alone share in, those aspects of others related to race. This also keeps discussions about race from being part of the communal identity.
Similarly, when congregations “don’t see disabilities,” the challenges of welcoming disabled persons become disconnected from communal identity. We can “solve” the issue of a wheelchair ramp or a walkway railing without the discussion of disabilities becoming part of our communal identity. I think this makes sense when we consider the difficulty of creating hospitable spaces.
Part of the challenge of intentional hospitality is being honest about the fact that opening a space to new people means continually discussing how changes in demographics affect identity. If we welcome people without re-evaluating communal identity, it’s not hospitality. It’s like inviting someone into your home as a temporary guest; the space isn’t shared. They can enjoy the space as it is but have no real input in the space itself. We say, “Make yourselves at home,” but what we usually mean is, “You can be comfortable but only within the boundaries of proper etiquette.” That tends to be how congregations are managed; you can come in, but the welcome is only as good as your ability to conform. If you make us uncomfortable or challenge our communal identity, you get shunned.
Brock points out that our inability to welcome people into our spaces is a big part of why families with special needs often leave churches or refrain from participating in church activities. Several of the studies he cites specifically reference special needs children and the ways congregations and communities fall short of welcoming such children and families. It’s more than saying that a disabled person or a family with special needs can be there; real hospitality happens in dozens or hundreds of little things within spaces, language, and interpersonal interactions, and the little things are results of identity. Communal identity informs communal language and action in the mundane.
Core Members and Leaders
I certainly don’t have this all figured out. I can do the niceties of human interaction, but I carry the baggage of shame, and I often struggle with self-compassion. It seems virtually impossible for those of us who struggle with shame to welcome others into shared spaces when we feel that we, ourselves, are not truly worthy of those spaces. It feels almost like inviting someone into another person’s home rather than our own or perhaps into a home of which we are only caretakers and not actual residents.
We reinforce that mentality when we talk about churches as houses of God. The language around that sort of posture often excludes congregants from ownership. It’s not our space; it’s God’s space. It’s not our congregation or community; it’s God’s congregation or community. The implication becomes that we’re guests in, or stewards of, God’s house or, maybe worse, objects in God’s house. I think we see this in the way many congregations are organized.
Congregational leaders are often presented as stewards of the space (i.e. God’s space). Without continual discussions about communal identity, that stewardship often becomes gatekeeping. Leaders, and sometimes “core members,” are responsible for deciding the shape and identity of the space for the entire community, which essentially dictates who can actually claim the space (i.e. who can actually share in it). Everyone else is a guest, at best, welcomed into the space without ownership or authority.
Unfortunately, persons with disabilities and others who are marginalized but still present often get treated as objects. It’s the metric of “church membership.” People get reduced to numbers, and since they’re not full-fledged, core members, they have little to no impact on communal identity. Whether they stay or go is irrelevant, so long as numbers are up and they aren’t too disruptive.
The Shame of Disruption
Having grown up in conservative congregations, I’ve assumed for most of my life that children must be controlled during services. “Disruption is disorder, and disorder is ungodly, because God is a god of order.” I remember how embarrassing it was as a child to accidentally laugh too loud during a sermon; it was downright shameful, and it was hard for me to look people in the eye after service. That sort of posture toward children being children was normative.
I currently have three children ranging in age from preschool to Middle School. I try to approach them with more grace and dignity, but even now, I feel the constant pull of shame. Are they being too loud? Does it at least look like they’re paying attention? Are they at least trying to be respectful? Did anyone else notice when they made that noise or tore that paper?
If this is the shame we heap on parents of children without special needs, what must it feel like for parents whose children can’t be regulated? Imagine what kinds of messages we send to folks with Tourette’s or physical ticks. Imagine the message we send when we ask people to leave auditoriums because their children are too disruptive.
I’m only starting to understand microaggressions, but I imagine that the average American Christian congregation is filled with them. They’re probably all over in our words, our body language, our church building layouts, and the flows of our services and activities. I imagine that it’s similar to how I feel walking into a fundamentalist congregation where I can’t help but anticipate, hear, and see the telltale signs of spiritual abuse; it’s thick in the air and visceral in my gut.
It wasn’t that anyone told them out loud church was no place for a family impacted by disability, but that was the message they received loud and clear.Amy Jacober, quoted by Brian Brock, Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body
What’s worse is that the idea of disruption is subjective. The very idea that disabilities or special needs or even simply loud noises are disruptive to a worship service or church event is something that’s decided as a community. That probably has a lot to do with the environments in which we were raised and the experiences we’ve had, but that only evidences my point: what counts as a disruption is subjective. That means congregations have decided to draw the line in a place that disenfranchises and marginalizes people with special needs.
It isn’t framed that way, though. It’s framed as an objective reality, and that puts the shame of being disruptive on disabled persons and families with special needs. If a family can’t regulate a child with special needs and that child subsequently causes a disruption, the objective framing implies that that child is inherently disruptive, and if disruption is disorder and disorder is ungodly, it’s signaled to the family that their child is seen as ungodly.
I want to be clear: I don’t believe that “disorder” or “disruptions” are inherently ungodly, and I certainly don’t believe that persons with special needs are inherently disorderly or disruptive. I do know, however, that I still struggle with the scars of shame from that sort of theology, and I’m certain it’s part of the reason why it’s so hard for me to create hospitable spaces for disabled persons. Even writing this is causing me to feel ashamed, but this is part of the uncomfortable work of being honest and vulnerable with ourselves so that we can be healed and start being safe for others.
In short, the lines that have been drawn around and within congregations that determine who’s “in” and who’s “out” can be redrawn. Fundamentalist Christianity might argue that they’re based on objective limitations set forth by God. I couldn’t disagree more. They can and they should be redrawn. To use Dan McClellan’s word, we need to negotiate our communal identity, our morality, and the boundaries of inclusion such that disabled persons aren’t viewed as challenges to overcome but integral and consistent members of the body of Christ.
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