Diversity and Disability in the Church
Including the disability community in the wider discussion about diversity is not only important, it is also imperative.
Photo Credit: iStock.com/FangXiaNuo
Over the last decade, diversity, equity, and inclusion have proven to be among the most important conversations taking place in our culture and subsequently in many churches across the country.
While much of the diversity discussion has been centered on issues of race and ethnicity, there is a very important community that is largely missing from the diversity. At about twenty percent of the population, the disability community is the largest minority group in the world. People can be born with a physical, intellectual, or developmental disability or a person can become physically disabled due to a wide variety of life circumstances. The disability community is the only minority group that anyone can join at any point in life for any reason, and if a person lives long enough, they are likely to experience disability of some kind.
Including the disability community in the wider discussion about diversity is not only important, it may also be imperative.
For many in the disability community, regularly attending worship services and the ability to be actively informed and engaged in the life of a local faith community has been a challenge that they know very well. The disability community at large has long had challenges to access the support of the faith community. When the pandemic caused many organizations, including churches, to cease regular meetings, the church at large was temporarily exposed to the problems of access that the disability community had long experienced before the pandemic, which in turn provided an opportunity to talk more about the role of the church in serving the disability community.
Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia provides some important steps to take in approaching the conversation about disability.
My dear friends, what I would really like you to do is try to put yourselves in my shoes to the same extent that I, when I was with you, put myself in yours. You were very sensitive and kind then. You did not come down on me personally. You were well aware that the reason I ended up preaching to you was that I was physically broken, and so, prevented from continuing my journey, I was forced to stop with you. That is how I came to preach to you. And don’t you remember that even though taking in a sick guest was most troublesome for you, you chose to treat me as well as you would have treated an angel of God—as well as you would have treated Jesus himself if he had visited you? What has happened to the satisfaction you felt at that time? There were some of you then who, if possible, would have given your very eyes to me—that is how deeply you cared! And now have I suddenly become your enemy simply by telling you the truth? I can’t believe it. — Galatians 4:12-16 MSG
It is customarily believed that Paul may have had some vision problems. In fact, Paul writes here that some people would have given their eyes to him if they could. In any case, Paul shares that his impairment led to him living a life with some restrictions as he reports that it prevented him from continuing his plans to travel. When we understand Paul’s words in this context, we can learn how to have meaningful conversations about disability.
Place the disability community at the center of the conversation
Paul asks the church to “put yourselves in my shoes.” This is an important first step because often the conversation about disability takes place without the presence or voices of the disabled.
Approximately one in five people live with some form of a disability, so chances are there are people in your church that are disabled.
Here are three ways to have meaningful and transformative dialogue about disabilities by including the disability community.
- Have a conversation about disability with disabled people in your congregation
Many churches are unaware of those who identify as disabled who are already in their congregations. Sometimes these can be elderly members who are physically limited due to age, other times there are families who live with invisible disabilities (disabilities that cannot easily be identified), such as autism, ADHD, conduct or mood disorders, or epilepsy. Approximately one in five people live with some form of a disability, so chances are there are people in your church that are disabled. Plan a small gathering for those who are willing to participate and invite them to share their experiences with the leadership of the church. Be sure to make it a safe space to share their stories, struggles, and suggestions for making the church more inclusive.
- Have a conversation about disability with disabled people in your community
Engaging the disability community at large will help deepen an understanding of issues related to disability. There are many wonderful organizations in the community that your church serves that work with the disability community. In fact, the local school system also serves students with disabilities and their families. This can be a great place to begin the conversation by offering the church’s support and resources. Conversing with the disability community outside of your church can give insight into their experience with your church specifically, or more importantly, with the church in general. What do people with disabilities who do not share our faith think of the church? What do they want or need from the church? What can the church do to make them feel that Christians care about the disabled? With statistics that show that many in the disability community feel unwelcome at church, having this conversation can result in a valuable learning experience as well as creating a strong relationship between your church and this community.
- Have a conversation about disability with experts, educators and advocates who are disabled
In placing ourselves in the shoes of those living with disabilities, we are also placing ourselves under the tutelage of their experiences and their collective education and wisdom. We can learn terms and perspective such as person-first language and identity-first language, and what it means to have a meaningful discussion about disability. Experts, educators and disability rights advocates can be great conversation partners. While you may not always be able to have in-person conversations with the numerous experts about disability, you can read and learn from their work, including articles, journals, and videos and sermons by disabled people who are experts in their field. Find authors, leaders, pastors and theologians that write and speak about disability theology and expose your staff, leaders, and congregation to their work. You need not agree with everything you read or hear, but at least be willing to listen and wrestle through the tough questions that will undoubtedly surface as you travel the path toward more disability awareness.
In the end, the discussion of disability begins with the connection to diversity. As our churches seek to grow and develop disciples of all groups and backgrounds, we must invite the disability to the table to discuss and disciple the church toward greater inclusion and greater impact for God’s Kingdom.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
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