Rev. Mark Stephenson has served the Christian Reformed Church denomination as director of Disability Concerns ministry since 2006. Previously, he served as pastor of two congregations.
Devan Joy Stahl, a professor of ethics at Michigan State University, challenges a common theological narrative about disability, sin, and the kingdom of God. When I met her a few years ago, she told me that her questions are personal, because she has multiple sclerosis. Many Christians assume that only after the original paradise was marred by sin did humans begin living with disease and disability. Stahl told me that if that were true, “Then my life would be an embodiment of sin that has entered the world, and I don’t want that.” In her journal article, she suggests, “Rather than understanding the persistence of disease or disability as a sign of the ‘not-yet-ness’ of the Kingdom of God, the community that gathers around the person with disease or disability and cares for her is itself a sign of the Kingdom to come as well as its alreadiness.”
When people with diseases and disabilities are cared for and loved as well as when they express their care and love for others within a faith community, that care and love is a taste of heaven. Yet, in practice, most people with disabilities experience some degree of marginalization in society and in faith communities.
Faith groups can move toward true community by focusing on three priorities. (Author, theologian, and friend of mine Dr. Tom Reynolds gave me this idea.) These three levels can be pictured as an upside down pyramid. The lowest levels are foundational for the upper levels, and each level increases in importance with regard to forming true community.
Level 1 focuses on the rights of people with disabilities. At this basic level, a faith community seeks to eliminate discrimination and remove barriers that keep people with disabilities from participating by seeking Universal Design in their built environment, communication, and programming. A friend who lives in Ontario told me that some in his church opposed construction of a ramp over some of the steps outside. They said, “We don’t need a ramp. No one going to our church uses a wheelchair.” Fortunately, the pro-ramp people prevailed over such illogic. The very first Sunday after the ramp was completed, six people who had not been to that church in a while, or ever, attended using their wheelchairs or walkers. Universal Design also includes barrier-free washrooms, facilities, print materials, projected slides, sound, and many programmatic considerations.
Level 2 focuses on the responsibilities of people without disabilities. Most faith communities think of themselves as hospitable and welcoming. Still, although about 85 percent of people with and without disabilities consider religious faith to be important to them, only about 50 percent of people with disabilities in the United States attended worship in the previous month, compared to 57 percent of people without disabilities. People without disabilities in a faith community must be intentional about engaging everyone. When Connections Church in Wyoming Michigan first began, the church took deliberate steps to welcome neighbors with disabilities. Today, about one-third of people at Connections Church have disabilities, about twice the percentage of people with disabilities in the general population. Most churches and other faith communities have far fewer than that.
At the broadest and most important level of engagement, faith communities seek to build loving relationships among all people. At this level, friendships, mutual accountability, and mutual vulnerability flourish. Each person contributes to the life of the community and receives care from the community. Faith communities encourage all members to use their gifts for the flourishing of the faith community and their neighborhood.
In a speech at the 2016 Summer Institute in Theology and Disability, Rabbi Darby Leigh insisted that true community gathers people who are widely diverse. He said that when a faith community makes accommodations such as ramps, accessible bathrooms, or hearing loops, these accommodations are not for the people with disabilities; they are for the rest of the people. “A group needs people with disabilities to be a community. Otherwise, it’s a country club.” About 17 percent of North Americans live with a disability, and 25 percent of households have at least one member with a disability. As faith communities move toward these percentages in their own membership, they move closer to true community.
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