By: Deaconess Sharon McCart, chair Cal-Pac DisAbility Taskforce
In the proposed revision to the Social Principles, we read that “We lament that the church has often stigmatized and discriminated against people with disabilities by imposing labels with negative connotations, by failing to make space in church life for the full range of God’s people, and by interpreting words such as “blind,” “lame,” and “deaf” in pejorative ways. Because of this, people with disabilities are frequently dismissed or undervalued, both in the church and in civil society.”
The stigma and discrimination against people with disabilities is known as ableism. Just as with racism, sexism, and heterosexism, people with disabilities are presumed to be less than people without disabilities. Everything is set up for “normal” people and people with disabilities are forced to struggle to get into sanctuaries, classrooms, and pulpits, and to truly belong to a congregation.
Does Jesus love people with disabilities? Of course. Read the Gospels and find Jesus showing that love. Do people with disabilities need to learn about God and experience God’s love through a faith community? Of course. Every person is created by God and needs to know their loving creator. Every person needs to love God with all that they are and to love neighbor as one’s self. Does the Holy Spirit give people with disabilities gifts that the body of Christ (the Church) needs? Of course. Scripture tells us that all people are given gifts to be used for the good of all.
Does God call people with disabilities to serve others, even as clergy? Of course. God does not discriminate based on outward appearance but instead sees the heart!
And yet people with disabilities are often merely tolerated in churches. They are not allowed to be full participants— barred from fellowship by inhospitable attitudes, barred from learning and from teaching by inaccessible classrooms, barred from leadership by incorrect assumptions, barred from pulpits by steps.
Sometimes people with disabilities are barred from worship because they unsilence the silent prayers of others, without any understanding that their noises might be the way that they pray. Other “unusual” behaviors may also attract glares. Sometimes this leads to a request not to return. I once met a man who had been disinvited this way because his son has autism. The entire family had been asked not to return by thirteen churches. When I asked how many churches were in his community, he told me “Thirteen.”
Do we dare, in the sight of God, bar anyone from our congregations? If so, do we dare complain that we are losing members?
Accessibility is hospitality, and hospitality is an important Biblical value, with an emphasis on welcoming the stranger. How can we refuse to widen our doors, ramp our entrances, provide access to our chancels and our restrooms, and be in full communion and fellowship with everyone, including those with limitations (aka disabilities)? We must open our hearts, minds, and doors wider so that we are fully accessible to everyone!
Reprinted with permission from the Cal-Pac MFSA newsletter, February 2020