By Amy Petré Hill, Preached at Mountain View United Church
10/8/17 UCC Disability Access Sunday
This Sunday churches across the United States are celebrating Disability Access Sunday, a day to revel in the wide variety of abilities, gifts, and challenges each member and friend of the congregation brings to our faith community. In the midst of celebration, there is often discussion about architectural barriers—non-accessible bathrooms, a chancel with steps that does not accommodate a wheelchair—and, perhaps a quick discussion of providing large type programs for people living with visual impairments and microphones for people who struggle to hear.
I hope we can continue to have these kinds of conversations in 2018. But as a church that covenants to welcome people of all abilities and people with both visible and invisible challenges, keeping the conversation at the level of “access” is not enough, for it cuts us off from a deeper call to welcome people into belonging. It is a call to offer honesty and openness to anyone who wishes to join in our community. It is a call of radical hospitality that follows the example of Jesus.
We don’t often hear of “belonging” when discussing inclusion of people with mental health, physical, or intellectual differences. Our national conversations about disability focus on access as required by law, usually in reference to the Americans with Disabilities Act. But one of my favorite disability theologians, Rev. Dr. John Swinton, describes the importance of churches moving through access to belonging plainly and beautifully:
To belong, you have to be missed. People need to long for you, to want you to be there. When you’re not there, they should go looking for you. Belonging should be the goal of all communities. Particularly religious communities. The law can build up structures to protect people with disabilities and enhance life, but it can’t make people care for one another. That seems to be a primary thing religious communities can do: create spaces where people can learn to care for one another, even if people are quite different, in some respects, from yourself. And this is not just for people with disabilities or people with dementia. It’s for all of us; we all need to belong, to be missed when we are not there.
Rev. Swinton says that in order for people to belong with us, we have to be interested in the particular embodiment and experiences of those people: what do they love, what inspires them, what challenges them, what do they want to learn? And we have to offer things about ourselves as well. That requires some level of intimacy and vulnerability, an opening of ourselves being seen for who we really are and not how we would like to be seen. How scary!
Emma in We’ll Paint the Octopus Red provides us a great example of the intimacy and vulnerability in belonging. At first, the girl doesn’t think she wants the relationship of a new sibling: she likes having her parents to herself! But then she begins imagining with her father how she will be with this new baby. She thinks about how she will be a big sister and what she will teach the baby. This vision of who she is going to be and how she is going to be accepted by this new sibling is powerful. She feels in some control of the situation because she and her dad share an understanding of what the “normal” baby will be like and how Emma will interact with this new family member. She is ready!
And then she and her father are presented with the unexpected: a baby boy born with Down Syndrome. What they have imagined about themselves and how the world will work is shattered. There is mourning and a questioning of whom she will be as a sister to a brother who doesn’t act like all the babies she’s seen. How will she relate to him or make a connection with him as a unique individual, if they can’t do the things she imagined they would do together? She and her dad both sit in a place of unknowing, of vulnerability, trying to understand what it all means. She begins questioning her assumptions by asking her dad what she and her brother could do.
As it turns out, almost everything she originally thought she might do with him they can do together, but she may have to do it differently. She is going to have to be present and open to learning what her brother likes and what he can do. She is going to have to become more aware of how she communicates and moves through the world, because her brother may have a very different experience of time, space, or language. But if she does this, she will have the joy of belonging with her brother: she will miss him in all his uniqueness and he will miss her when they were apart.
Like this little girl, we may also experience fear and vulnerability when we are called to be more aware of who we are with others embodied differently than we. As Thomas E. Reynolds explains in his book, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability & Hospitality, it is easy to shy away or “misunderstand a person whose humanity exhibits itself in unconventional and ostensibly deficient or dysfunctional ways.” The vulnerability and apparent interdependence of people with obvious differences remind us how temporarily able-bodied, and able-minded we are ourselves.
Allowing the belonging of people with obvious differences in our faith communities forces us to face the flimsiness of our current existence. It exposes the lie in our national myths that if we work hard, play by the rules, and pray enough, we can be truly independent and map our own life course. If we are good, we will get what we deserve. Baloney!
Accepting people in all their uniqueness also undermines the comfort that comes with viewing human beings through the current medical model: there is “normal” and “healthy” described in a chart on the doctor’s wall. Everyone different from that conception is “broken” and someone we need to fix, regardless of that individual’s opinion! Jürgen Moltman, another great theologian who thought about disability, puts it this way: “There is no differentiation between the healthy and those with disabilities. For every human life has its limitations, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. We are born needy, and we die helpless. It is only the ideals of health of a society of the strong which condemn a part of humanity to being ‘disabled.’” Jesus’ own life, his death, and his continued manifestations of the scars—the disabilities—created in his crucifixion in his resurrection, demonstrates that being a beloved child of God is not about perfection or a lack of suffering.
As the Psalmist rejoices in Psalm 139: “It is God that forms my inward parts; you knit me in my mother’s womb, I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Of course medical science is a gift to alleviate suffering, extend life, and make life easier, but science doesn’t judge the moral worth of people per their differences. That is God’s job, and God has an infinitely larger understanding of how each created thing is good than we do. God wishes healing for us even if that healing does not result in a return to a “norm” as defined in medicine. Life happens to all of us and it is not perfection or piousness that gets us through, it’s being known, accepted, and supported—in all our messy complexity—by God and by other people.
The apostle Paul shares something similar with this Sunday’s scripture reading from Philippians. Just to put this passage in context, Paul is in jail when he writes this letter to Jesus followers in Philippi, a city in Macedonia, a part of Greece. The Philippians are worried for Paul in jail and very worried about some new teachers who have come into their town. These new teachers claim that to be a follower of the Way, you have to become Jewish, and if you are male, be circumcised. They wonder, is there something they can “do,” an action they can take, some change they can make to themselves to prove their worthiness, to get over their fear of not being found acceptable to God and join Jesus new life.
Paul responds by talking about Joy and fulfillment in following Christ. Jesus called God as his Abba (or daddy) a nurturing force that seeks the intimacy of seeing and being seen by each of us in all our particularity. And so Paul states that his seemingly long bragging list of privilege and qualifications—circumcision, following the law in Torah, and being a very educated Jew—means nothing when it comes to being in a relationship of love with Christ. Paul wants to “know” Christ, which means authentic belonging in a community. It can’t be bought.
This brings us back to where we began in thinking about access versus belonging as a church that is called to be a safe and just place for people of all abilities. I see our church moving into belonging. As a congregation, we have looking at our own vulnerabilities and the vulnerability of others straightforwardly by hosting a Mental Health First Aid training that shared how to support someone in a mental health crisis. Lots of folks take out 30 minutes the first Sunday of each month to attend Take 5 for Mental
Health to earn about a topic that we usually don’t talk about in polite society, such as depression, suicide prevention, or dementia. And then there were the twelve members and friends of the church who attended the Hope Farm Project’s Fall Festival to celebrate the horsemanship of Brian Brewer and other people living successfully with developmental differences.
And we are called to do more to help everyone belong here. So on this Access Sunday let us commit, once again, to being a truly WISE Congregation that Welcomes, Includes, Supports, and Engages every person who comes to Mountain View United Church. Let’s be brave and let ourselves be vulnerable by facing that the ways we are used to doing church may keep others from participating. And let us keep strengthening our sense of belonging with one another by being in honest relationship with each other in Christ. May it be so.