“So, parents of kids with disabilities in the church, what do you wish good church people knew?” Preston Yancey tweeted in April. With the responses, the hashtag #disabilityinchurch was born. As the conversation evolved, people with disabilities chimed in, recentering the discussion on their own lived experiences. Many people noticed, retweeted and shared how moved they were by the contributions.
I wasn’t surprised that the conversation was driven by parents of children with disabilities, not people with disabilities themselves. I wasn’t surprised that story after story revealed how little church leaders think about disability in their planning. I wasn’t surprised to see the depths of pain displayed in 140 characters over and over again.
As justice conversations are gaining steam, we talk a lot about race. Immigration is discussed often, too, especially the question of refugees. Religious liberty for Muslims comes up, as we know threats to freedom for one faith can affect all faiths. Misogyny is a topic we’ll tackle, and LGBT discrimination might be discussed.
But disability? We don’t usually consider that a justice issue. We the disabled are even marginalized by those who consider themselves champions for those on the margins. I live with physical disabilities as the result of childhood abuse and a chronic degenerative joint disease. I parent a son with autism, a daughter with ADHD, and a daughter with cerebral palsy. I look for handicap accessibility as I walk with a limp and my child uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility.
Our history of exclusion and erasure of people with disabilities in the church goes back to biblical times. In Old Testament law, priests with any disfigurement were forbidden from presenting offerings in the temple. In John 9, we hear the disciples express the early church thinking that disability must be the result of personal or ancestral sin.
On the other hand, St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings offer recommendations for the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in the church, from baptism and communion to presence in general. However, U.S. churches haven’t prioritized inclusion efforts until recently. Historically, U.S.-based Catholic and Protestant groups have built hospitals for those deemed crippled but haven’t made space for us in their places of worship.
Martin Luther, who showed compassion for people with disabilities, once suggested that a specific child with significant disabilities be drowned because he wasn’t fit to live. Luther’s response was not an uncommon theological response during his day, according to Brett Webb-Mitchell’s “Unexpected Guests at God’s Banquet.”
Similarly, the church has offered mixed messages about the worth and personhood of those living with disabling diagnoses. We have demonized the disabled by blaming them for their conditions, deified the disabled by treating life with suffering as akin to Christ’s life, devalued our shared humanity in declaring the disabled to be in need of charity but not community and of dependence but not dignity, and denied the disabled by refusing to provide access to religious life.
Our family saw this play out in a small way on our last Sunday at a prominent Southern Baptist church in Raleigh, N.C, we left a year ago. That night, the preschool class sang as part of the opening worship time. For our youngest child to participate with her classmates, my husband and a friend had to lift her in her wheelchair onto the worship stage because no ramp existed to allow entry otherwise. Why aren’t ramps required there, like they are in other public venues? Because Christian schools and churches successfully fought to be excluded from the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was passed 27 years ago this week.
This history is why I wasn’t surprised by the stories of #disabilityinchurch, why I wasn’t surprised when then-candidate Donald Trump’s mocking of disabled reporters didn’t end his campaign and why I haven’t been surprised recently as legislative health-care efforts moved forward even as disabled people spoke of the detrimental effects on their lives.
The advocacy organization ADAPT, which fights for people who are disabled, led the charge toward passing the disabilities act, positioned in opposition to the church in its stand for people with disabilities, so it doesn’t surprise me that the church is largely silent again as ADAPT has been the most vocal opponent of the replacement and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
The disabilities act set the stage for our exclusion, for people with disabilities less likely to attend services, Bible studies or other church activities. One-third of those parents say they’ve left at least one church because their child wasn’t welcomed, according to a 2013 article by Elizabeth O’Hanlon in the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health.
The churches with the largest and best-established inclusive ministries for children — like McLean Bible Church in Virginia and Stonebriar Community Church in Texas — are led by pastors who have children or grandchildren with significant disabilities. They didn’t know the need; they knew the person. They didn’t care about special needs; they cared about a person with special needs.
Many people with disabilities were begging fellow Americans to join with them in understanding and advocating for health care. I’ve been among those sharing my heart and my story, performing my pain in hopes that I will finally be seen clearly enough for others to care about my well-being. But unless you love me or someone like me who lives with disability, then these stories will be only stories.
Our justice was never meant to be an afterthought. In her book “Roadmap to Reconciliation,” Brenda Salter McNeil writes, “Reconciliation is an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.” Her context of writing was race, as is often the case in our discussions about reconciliation in the church. As the mother of one Asian and three black children, I’m thankful these conversations are taking place. But when it comes to this sort of reconciliation for people with disabilities, many Christians aren’t ready to seek forgiveness, repentance and justice.
Most Christians I know are more knowledgeable about health-care legislation’s effects on middle-class families’ premiums than on disabled people’s ability to live at all. The impact of governmental actions on those with disabilities shouldn’t be heard via stories online but rather stories shared as we pray and break bread together in community. Disability in church should be a commonplace reality, not a surprising hashtag.
Shannon Dingle is a writer, speaker and advocate at shannondingle.com. She lives in Raleigh, N.C., with her husband and their six children.