Since you guys were so patient with my dry spell all June, I think it’s high time you got a bonus round. I decided to resurrect Dear Church. If you don’t remember, the original Dear Church was a post I wrote to the Christian church in general, pleading with them to stop saying and doing certain things about/to people with disabilities, and start doing more productive things. And since the Christian church has simultaneously done more to improve and damage the face of disability, I think we need another round. Here we go.
1. Stop asking me to celebrate segregation. Many churches act excited when they get a “special needs” Sunday school class. Today, members of my church clapped and cheered upon hearing the pastor commend them for partnering with local job services. They were partnering to put on a prom for teens and adults with “special needs.” While I’m sure intentions were good, please don’t expect me to celebrate. I can’t. I won’t. It goes against every fiber of my being. Look for ways to integrate instead. Remember, Jesus was probably the biggest integrator ever to walk the planet.
2. Define “independence.” My church and others have an interesting understanding of this word. They rightly preach against independence from God–the attitude that says, “I am completely self-made. I do not need God. I can save myself.” And that’s fine–amen! Keep preaching! In our arrogant society, people need to hear it. But at the same time, be aware that some of your congregants are crying out for the chance at the kind of independence everybody takes for granted. They’re aching for the chance to stand up for themselves and make their own choices. You don’t have to say it every time. But please, delineate more clearly between the prideful attitude of the self-made person, and the human need to operate with at least some autonomy. While the Bible extols community, it doesn’t call independence sinful. Which brings me to…
3. Improve PWDs’ places in the community. So often, we are lumped in with little children and the elderly, as people who need the congregation’s care. And sometimes we do. But most of us suffer from a lack of opportunity to care for others, to do real things. We fight for places in our communities outside the church. If the church widens its understanding of what we can do, maybe that fight won’t be so hard.
4. Listen to our whole stories. Yes, disability is a big part of who I am. It has informed much of my experience, spiritual and otherwise. And yes, it’s a huge part of my testimony because God and I work through it together every single day. I am honored to share that with you and I’m sure other PWDs are, too. At the same time, we want to share parts of our testimony that may not be disability-related. For example, if I went on a mission trip to Romania to care for orphans, I’d be bursting to tell that story. I’d want to brag on God. I wouldn’t necessarily want the focus to be what I overcame to get there. And that goes for college, marriage, anything.
5. Talk about something other than my disability at coffee hour. Pretty self-explanatory, but bears repeating since church is often a place to share honestly about what’s going well or not in our lives. We unload our burdens there, as we should. Thank you for helping me carry it. Remember though, that sometimes I need a break (more on that in a later post).
6. Let us lead. Yes, PWDs can teach. We can facilitate Bible studies, coach church league teams, plan a retreat, etc. However, I’ve rarely seen a PWD in a leadership position. By letting your members with disabilities lead, you set the ultimate example of inclusion. You also send the message that like anyone else, PWDs can be divinely chosen to influence others on a large scale.
7. Ask us. Ask, “What do you need/do you need help”–yes, absolutely. But after that, ask, “Have you signed up for X yet? If you want to but have hesitated, what could we do to make it easier? Is there another activity you’d prefer?” Which brings me to…
8. Think outside the ministry box. A lot of congregations focus on a few key ministries, like sports or prayer walking. Those are great! The problem is, they often leave little room for alternatives. Personal example: I have always wanted to be on a church drama team, or get a Bible trivia team going for the older Sunday school kids. And I have had opportunities to do things like that, which I relished. But they weren’t consistent because not enough other people were interested. Pastors, leaders, don’t use that as an excuse. Don’t leave it there. Ask, “How can we generate interest? How can we accommodate X disability? How can we change what we’re doing in X ministry so it’s more inclusive?” Partner with other churches if you can; it gives everybody a chance to meet new people. In some cases, it may break down barriers (if a Catholic and Protestant church partner, for instance, some myths about both could be dispelled).
9. Talk openly about Jesus’ relationships with PWDs and what He has to say to us and for us. Now, the Bible never specifically mentions the words “autism,” “FASD,” or what have you. They didn’t have those terms and frames of reference back then. That’s fine, but here’s the thing. The church usually only talks about Jesus and disability in the context of His healing abilities. As with above: yes, you can start there. But don’t stop there. If a congregant asks you, “What would Jesus do/say about this,” do your best to give feedback. Ask yourself, “What would Jesus see if He moved among the PWDs of our world? What does He want our theology of disability to be?” There are some excellent books on this subject, by the way.
10. Pray and evangelize WITH us. Sometimes the church puts a big burden on PWDs to pray or tell the unchurched about Jesus, because we’re seen as inspirations to whom no one, not even God, would ever say no. First off, that’s totally false. And second, that’s too big a burden to carry. Yes, some of us, yours truly included, are what have been called “prayer warriors.” Some of us are gifted Gospel presenters. But no one person can take on all the responsibility for these tasks. Remember what Paul said about “one body, many parts.” Be our partners–not our helpers, but our ministry partners.
11. Teach us how to find and use our spiritual gifts. A lot of PWDs struggle with this, or think they are exempt from spiritual gifts. False again–if you are a believer in Christ, you have at least one spiritual gift. Church leaders, help your congregants with disabilities find and use theirs. If opportunities are limited, see #8.
12. Invite us and attract us. Our churches are hurting for diversity, not only in terms of disability but in terms of all kinds of backgrounds. The more vibrant, active PWDs we see in a congregation, the more eager we are to join in. Look around. How many members with disabilities do you actually have? Are the disabilities all the same? Who is being served, and who’s not (for instance, a high-functioning individual may feel unserved if all the other PWDs at church are cognitively affected. A young PWD isn’t gonna want to hang out with the old folks all the time). Treat disability as diversity, and go looking for believers with disabilities. Say, “Welcome! Come get to know God with us–and with many different people.” You’ll love the results, I promise.