liberation theology

Ten Things You Should Know To Welcome People of All Abilities to Church

By J.C. Mitchell

1.    If you have had one or even a few people with special needs in your ministry, this does not mean you know how to welcome all.  Very often when I tell a pastor about my ministry at Open Gathering they start telling me their one success story (which I do enjoy learning from), but they do not seem to understand there is more to do to welcome all.  This is not unlike someone saying there is no more racism because Obama was elected president.

2.    Accommodation is important, but it is not in and of itself welcome.  Having a ramp at the back door may be a financial reality, but if the main entrance is accessible to all that is much more welcoming.  

3.    Having a cry room is great for babies, but children that are old enough to start learning to sit in the sanctuary may make noise. Suggesting that they should go to the cry room is inappropriate.  Yes, some parents would rather go to the cry room, even with a kindergartner or older child, but it should be their choice.  Many children with autism, for example, need to learn by doing the same thing, so going to the cry room the first time will become the way the child goes to church, creating an extra and unnecessary step in learning.

4.    Using person first language should be the assumed way of talking about a person with disabilities. (For more information check out Arc's Website)  Yes, there are some that use their different ability as a proud identifier, and if they desire to use a descriptive such as “aspie” of course use that when referring to them specifically, but one’s name is still preferred.  This is less about offending one with a different ability, but to help those to see the individual and not the diagnosis. 

5.    Do not diagnose.  You may be obsessive and compulsive, but that does not mean you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (if you suspect you do, you should get help as well as a diagnosis).  This goes with many diagnoses and when a person hears others being labeled incorrectly, you belittle those that actually live with that diagnosis.

6.    Avoid the word “struggles. “ Unless you say struggles as a descriptive of the way our culture accepts and includes people with different abilities.  

7.    Do know that life is harder, more expensive, lonely, and stressful for families with someone with special needs in the family.

8.    Never assume, as you know what that spells.  Thus keep this question in your pocket, “how can I help you?” rather than “do you want me to show you the cry room” or “Don’t you think your child may be happier to wait in the fellowship hall until Sunday School” (Most kids would be).

9.    Talk about this welcome openly and be open to places you fail.  It may be not possible to include every child in a program like VBS, but work with the parents to include all children.  Generally if you tell me, “Your son is welcome and we will figure it out” after I tell you he has a disability, I am much more suspicious than the church that asks specific questions with a desire to make it work, for the latter knows it is hard work.

10.    When a parent tells you their child has a disability or a diagnosis, refrain from saying, “That’s OK” or “I am Sorry.”  The latter to me is less offensive for it is honest, but the former is simply annoying, for who are you to tell me if it is OK or not?  I realize you mean well, but to say, “thank you for sharing” or bonus “thank you for sharing, and how best can I interact (or help) your child and/or you?” is ideal.  Often the reason we feel compelled to share with you that our child has a special need (or if one self-advocating) is that we think you should know, and we already know it is OK and at the same time awfully difficult.  So if you can go beyond the pleasantries, you will be much more welcoming.

11.    Bonus: Know that the work to welcome all will never be completed, and there is no program or book that will give you all the answers, but I do suggest these three books to develop a theology of inclusion:  

Vulnerable Communion by Thomas Reynolds

The Bible, Disabilty and the Church, by Amos Yong

The Disabled God, by Nancy Eiesland


Kingdom at the margins

(originally posted in Isa 61)

I write letters to complete strangers in prison.

I have never been incarcerated, by the way.

There's a couple ways of describing why I do this. Depending on one's comfort with a certain vocabulary, I could say that God told me to write these letters. If that offends, I could instead say that the idea occurred to me and that I had an overwhelming compulsion to follow it. It doesn't matter. How I describe it is not what's important.

In the letters, I don't preach. I don't patronize. I simply try to offer hope, because I know what it's like to be hopeless.

When I received the call to ministry a little over a year ago, I was sure the One on the other end of the line had the wrong number. At my worst, I have broken the laws of the land and the hearts of those I love. At my best, I have been vaguely spiritual while religiously ambivalent. I had been attending church regularly for the first time in my life after a mostly non-religious upbringing, but only because I had children, and a wife that longed to return to her own faith, from which she had become estranged in her college years.

If pressed, I don't know if I could say that I was really even a Christian. If it weren't for Martin Luther King or Thomas Merton, I assure you the answer would be no. Buddhist? Maybe. Christian? No thanks.

The most disturbing part was that I couldn't begin to imagine myself pastoring a congregation. Not only had I zero desire, but I was certain my experience and qualifications left me far short of ministry. I did not know the language and I had not even read the Bible all the way through. I still have a hard time seeing myself as a pastor. And what makes this vision difficult to materialize in my imagination is not theology or the vocation itself. It isn't fear of economic insecurity or ridicule.

It's the church.

Actually, it's what I had thought was the church, informed in part by my own misconceptions and in part by the truth of a broken institution threatening collapse under its own weight.

I'm not here to bash. But I'm not here to apologize either.

The point is that in my call, the biggest point of resistance centers around church as I have both misunderstood and correctly understood it. And if little ole me can look at what congregations have become, fairly or unfairly, then I can imagine that I'm not the only one who has been turned off by the church, to put it mildly. Of course, I don't speak for all denominations or all people and not for all time in all places. But from where I stand in a relatively affluent, white corner of the United States of America, to say the church can be irrelevant or co-opted by the empire shouldn't be shocking.

So I write to prisoners.

I write to prisoners because the message of hope, forgiveness, wholeness and love that wants to flow through this space I occupy so forcefully that I feel irresistibly drawn to the places it is needed most. I have come to believe that we are not individual creatures, that the lines we draw around ourselves to mark where you end and I begin are arbitrary at best. Truthfully, we are connected in ways that you couldn't imagine. Inextricably. We are like threads of a great tapestry woven tightly together. And when you want to know the condition of our social fabric, you must go to the edges, to the margins, because that is where our tapestry becomes unraveled first.

I believe there is something trying to be born in this age. You can sense it in the growing swell of tension and unrest, of disillusionment and disgust. There are communities trying to come together, fighting to be heard over the deafening noise of commercials, news pundits and the voice in your head that keeps telling you to check the Internet on your phone again, and again, and again. I implore those of us who are seeking new community, drawn out of or repelled by church buildings, to meet at the margins. Until the criminal, the addicted, the poor, the mentally-ill, the homeless are set free of the lies that they are obsolete human garbage, then none of us are free.

Years ago, I found God roaming the barren grounds of a homeless shelter in downtown Louisville, KY, lighting cigarettes for broken men. I found myself in the dried, yearning eyes of those men. I don't necessarily believe that it is because the addicted, the criminal, the poor deserve hope more than anyone else, although it may be true, but one cannot grasp hope so long as his fingers are clinched tightly around his hollow idols. You see, one must know he is broken in order to surrender the shattered pieces to God. And it is undeniable that your chances of finding someone who knows that he is broken -fairly or unfairly- tends to be greater in the places where society has thrown away its people. Once I caught a glimpse of the Kingdom at the margins, I've been unable to stay away. It is where I go to find myself and lose myself all at once. And in embracing my brother, I find that I am held in the very hands of God.