Sunday, September 01, 2013

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Book Review: Divine Towels

Most current theologies of disability construct new possibilities by rejecting previous philosophies as unsuited for the modern world.  Every once in a while, however, an author will rely on the historical tradition of faith and call people to a new, yet centuries old way of living. 

Divine Towels in an intriguing book: while not strictly a theological treatise, it does contain multiple reflections on the transcendence, immanence, and character of God.  Technically, the style of writing arises somewhere in a vortex of inspirational literature, parable, and Christian mysticism – a cross between the 19th century George MacDonald and The Shack’s William P. Young.  Do not read this as a novel; the action is interspersed with long devotional thought.

While not explicitly stating as such, this twelve-years long labor by novice author Beau Jason McGlynn draws upon his own experience as an adult with Cerebral Palsy (CP) and his relationship with his own mother to craft a modern retelling of the Madonna and Child.  In parabolic form, Jesus is successfully re-imagined as an adult with a disability who has the motivation to heal others yet understands his own limitations necessitated by the purpose of the cross.

As true in most pietistic literature, the Christian laity is called to become more engaged in both praxis and service outside of the worship service.  Furthermore, existing institutional structures of church and medicine are considered corrupt:  the church is redeemable but the reliance on a biomedical framework is rejected.

Many evangelicals will embrace the devotional flavor, but find difficulty with mystical rituals. Disability theologians will applaud the rejection of medicine as healer, but will find an Augustinian Christian worldview difficult to accept.  Editors will undoubtedly want to tighten and strengthen the movement.  Yet Divine Towels proves to be valuable as an expression of what it means for a person with a disability to be used by God to minister to others.  People with disabilities are not only important parts of the body of Christ – they can be active parts as well.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Book Review: A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability

What does it mean to be human? Disability theology has long sought to access the biases of anthropology in the understanding of the formation of the imago Dei in those with profound intellectual disability. Molly C. Haslam (PhD.-Vanderbilt) advocates for a new perspective in A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability: Human Being as Mutuality and Response. Haslam reflects upon her more than twenty years’ experience as a physical therapist in this first theological work.

This 134 page treatise integrates a phenomenological example which gives voice to the critique of common anthropological models in Christianity. Haslam is concerned that disability theology continues to utilize outmoded anthropology, which requires a conceptualized distinct agential self and its corresponding intellectual aptitude. The author suggests that anthropology be constructed in terms of mutual relation instead of capacity. Utilizing the dialogical model of Martin Buber’s [I-It] and [I-Thou] relationships, the author posits that the image of God is discerned in the mutual relationships between created beings and their mutual responsiveness, even in non-symbolic ways.

Haslam begins her critique by engaging Gordon Kaufman’s theological anthropology which privileges the imago Dei in the agential capacity of co-creators with God. She rejects this option as not broad enough to embrace those with profound intellectual disability who lack the ability for purposeful action and self-reflection. The author continues by assessing George Lindbeck’s anthropology; humans are defined as those with the capacity to decipher linguistics and symbolic expressions in order to understand the covenantal story of God and his people. Haslam goes further when questioning the motive of Stanley Hauerwas’ disability theology; does it serve individuals with disability or are persons with disability subservient to the story? She chooses to embrace Kaufman’s concept of biohistoricity – appreciating all religious claims as locally valid in time and space over against an unchanging narrative.

Utilizing her vast experience of working with profoundly intellectually disabled persons, Haslam draws out illustrations of non-communicable and pre-linguistic individuals unable to differentiate self. Those same individuals, however, show responsiveness in the presence of others, eliciting a dynamic of mutual response, and resulting in the cultivation of ongoing relationship. These scenarios give force to her development of anthropology based on Buber’s idea; the existence of human being can only be defined in mutual relations and the pursuit of knowing God through [I-Thou] relational presence. For Haslam, this model is most relevant as it relies on relationships through the interplay of will and grace outside the control of self. As this model does not see the other as an object, it eliminates all self- serving acts and allows the focus to be on mutual helping and healing.

Haslam concludes with a re-examination of the historical construction of Imago Dei. She rejects the substantialist conception found in both Aquinas and Calvin, whom both elevated intellectual reason as the discrete marker of God reflected in humanity. Informed by Martin Luther and Buber, she embraces a mutually participatory relational concept which includes God as a participant. Her un-anthropomorphized concept of God as yearning itself, however, is informed by the mystical writings of the 5th century Pseudo Dionysius. Only in this context, does she believe that individuals with profound disability can participate fully as image bearers of God.

Haslam’s analysis of traditional anthropology reveal some shortcomings. Christian theologians have been reluctant to address items related to the anthropology and the necessarily related soteriology in terms of individuals with profound disabilities. The development of a framework of mutuality and response through selfless relationship bears promise as it relies on the inner working of the Trinity.

Some evangelical readers will rightly wonder if the rejection of the narrative drama of redemption in favor of one informed by mysticism is preferable while developing such an anthropology. Haslam premises the work with an acceptance of a modern notion of the universe which understands God as a concept within the realm of knowledge and not as an actor on history. Her suggestion that this anthropology can extend to all animals and inanimate objects in the universe potentially under-privileges the very population she desires to serve. The heart of this work, however, is valid. The author, by illustrating the failures of current thought and practice points us towards a direction in which mutual responsiveness and authentic relationships are required for being human.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Book Review: Lessons From Katherine

In recent years, a new genre in disability related literature has emerged.  While not scholarly in nature, lessons can yet be extracted.  This new narrative emerges from the perspective of the parent of a child with disability - most often the mother.  One such story is Lessons from Katherine, written in an easy conversational style by Glenda W. Prins, an ordained United Church of Christ minister.

Lessons from Katherine is not a recounted biography of the adopted daughter Katherine, but an up close and vulnerable 157 page diary of the author’s spiritual struggles through life in a context tempered by disability.  In fact the story is not focused on the multiple disabilities of Katherine, but on the inability of the author to cope with lost dreams.

Inability defines this work – inability to achieve ordination as a female, to conceive a child, to navigate the complex bio-medical world successfully, to keep a business afloat, to sustain a marital relationship, and to communicate openly with God.  Yet despite these disabling conditions, the author eventually finds resolution within the tension: ordination is achieved, businesses become restored, relationships are reconciled and new life emerges.  The human journey is messy yet redeemable.

Lessons from Katherine unveils a seldom lifted curtain on the emotional stress families affected by disability undergo.  It reveals the mindset behind a parent doing whatever it takes for their child.  Do not look for pithy comforting statements in this book – it is full of anguish and emotion.  Nor is this a guidebook – lessons learned are not articulated to be replicated.  Perhaps the major insight gleaned is reflected in the epilogue – experience with disability does not make one a better person, but a different one.

As a parent of a child with a disability, I can relate all too well to these genuine scenarios. As a disability advocate, I see how much further society must go. As I read and compare the blogs of young moms today, however, I am struck by the difference in tone and hope.  This book is an important historical reminder of the accomplishments made through the pain of the previous generation.

For professionals in the special education or human disability service sector who desire to understand real family dynamics, this book provides a partial glimpse.  Yet this is not just for professionals or those impacted by disability.  It is a journal of how a person develops a faithful spiritually, tears and all, during times of continual crisis. Spiritual journeys are often personal.  This memoir will comfort some and create questions in others – but can be worth the time to read.

[This review is updated  from the one provided to the publisher - for original review, click here.]

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Marriage Matters: Monica and David

The evangelical world has been abuzz the last few months, waiting to see how trends in legal interpretation will impact marriage.  As the rhetoric dies down the lines have become clear.  Modern marriage has two distinct definitions and contexts -- one as a sacrament ordained by God and administered by the church - the other a civil agreement made for legal, tax, and insurance purposes administered by the government. While some will laud and other decry recent decisions, there is still a group of Christians who find it difficult becoming accepted and married within the church.

People with intellectual disabilities have the same emotions and drives as a typical person.  They fall in love, look for comfort and companionship, and dream of a lifelong partner.  Yet both parents and clergy often put an end to that dream quickly.  I understand.  As a parent of a daughter who jokes about boyfriends and likes to dance, I know that someday I will play the part of an overprotective parent.  I also know the quickest way to make a long winded pastor speechless is to ask him to officiate a ceremony between two intellectually disabled adults. 

The 2010 Tribeca Film Festival Award winner Monica and David follow the life of two thirty somethings who decide to get married.  The film focuses on their wedding and the first year of marriage life. An honest analysis indicates that many of the same struggles they encounter are actually very similar to those that every newlywed couple finds. Just as anything else, people with disabilities are just like you and I.

To be sure the supports are still there, intentional conversations were held, and detailed plans were made and rehearsed endlessly.  The success of their marriage is largely due to the close ties they have with family and community -- but isn't that true for all of us?  Perhaps one of the lessons this teaches us is that marriage relationships would become healthier if we were more interdependent with one another.

As people with intellectual disabilities live longer and assimilate more, pastors will need to be ready to sit down with them and those close to them.  As a keeper of the sacrament, pastors will play a role in counseling both the parents and the couple into charting an unwalked journey.   Relationships are key.  A great way to do this is to become engaged in the development of a person centered plan years before wedding bliss even appears on the horizon. This overprotective dad will thank you for it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Morphing Disability

Two news stories regarding people with disabilities appeared this week.  Both of them made me stop and think.  The first was about a woman who was seeking to pay surgeons to make her permanently physical disabled.  The second was about a team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts who believe they have unlocked the first step in turning off the 47th chromosome of Down syndrome.  Both stories challenge our thinking on medical ethics, social integration, identity, anthropology, and ministry.  What does it mean to be disabled?  Is this a step that the biomedical sphere should engage in?  Does the advances of medicine even contribute to our socially constructed ideas of disability?

Many people with late onset disability often wish they could return to their previous state – because they have knowledge of it.  Those with lifetime disability have no frame of reference outside of disability and often will express the desire to remain with that particular disability.  Both groups attempt to assimilate in culture all the same.

Perhaps the ladies request to become disabled is shocking because those of us who are not yet impaired cannot fathom a life devalued like that, never realizing that we are the ones that contribute to that very perception.   Our minds quickly argue that she is in need of serious psychological healing.  

Yet are we not the ones who require a cure?  Perhaps if we developed meaningful relationships with and integrated people with disabilities into all aspects of our lives and friendships, this request would not even register in our consciousness – we would welcome her not matter what.  Our problem is that of blindness. Sharon Betzer, author of Spirit and the Politics of Disablement neatly relates this optic problem with the story of the threatening man who became an unnoticed invalid with the wave of a white cane.  The first picture invoked fear; the second was not even noticed.  Neither of these reactions are appropriate.

It is no longer unfathomable to think that genetic science might provide clues to identity.  While some (me included) appropriately wonder if we are crossing a line that belongs to God, we do so having already benefited from numerous technological and medical advances that crossed that same line years ago.  We forget our own heritage.  Yet my main concern does not lie in the fact that someday this might be possible and some may choose invasive corrective procedures.  It rests in the fact that those who do not choose it may become further alienated and disfranchised.

Our calling as disability ministers remain clear – whatever choices people make, whatever identity they absorb as part of the bearer of Christ’s image, we are to prophetically gather all in one body to worship.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Expanding Capacity

It's nice to be home.

I've spent most of the last month in Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri meeting and talking with disability ministry leaders from around the country. One thing I've observed is that the methodology we do ministry is changing as the cultural attitudes which shape our audience has evolved over the last several decades.  Barb Ward Dittrich rightfully points out in a recent blog that the basis to ministry is still rooted in relational friendship -- reiterating the theological development Hans Reindeers penned in the Gift of Friendship.

For those of us involved in well established ministries this presents both opportunities and challenges.  The entrenchment of our methods gives us a place to be comfortable -- to be at home.  Venturing out into unfamiliar territory and strange surroundings is as uncomfortable as an extended-stay hotel mattress.  It is much easier to retreat towards and relax in a place we know is safe.

Recently, I sat and listened to Dr. Craig Van Gelder, a noted North American missiologist, as he discussed the processes needed and the obstacles to expanding capacity in ministry.  There is no question that all of those in disability ministry want to find more volunteers, develop more networks, and find ways to minister more effectively alongside those in our churches and communities.  The biggest obstacle to that goal tends to be our desire to remain comfortable where we are.  Our discussions were scripturally rooted in Luke 10. This passage related the story of when Christ commissioned the seventy to go out as the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few.  The next few verses have deep yet simple implications for networking, hospitality, ministry funding, and expansion. Why? -- because it challenges all involved to move out of normal comfort and into a trusting dependency upon God's providence.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Privileging Disability through Mission, Vision and Value Reviews

I am grateful for churches who have developed special needs and disability programs.  In the last decade more have come into being, although not nearly enough.  But a caution to ministry leaders -- just because you have developed something, do not let it wither.  Strategic reviews are periodically necessary to ensure that it is still meeting the need of your community and the mission of your church.  If you do not intentionally look for your blind spot, someone else will find it for you. A great church in Southern California, with a successful disability ministry, missed something and has been called out on it publicly.  Be proactive and do not let it get to that point.  If Jesus could take time to wash the disciples feet, then we can take time to let our programs be subject to the personhood of people with disability.

So how do you avoid this?  By privileging disability.  Ensure that an intentional attempt is made to put those with disability in our line of sight.  Author Thomas Reynolds argues for this in his theological work Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality.  A simple purview of the New Testament will show that Jesus spent much of his public discourse with those who were either disabled in body or socially disabled within the community.

What does this look like in a church or pastoral staff meeting?  Every decision should be examined from a standpoint of disability. (Notice that even in my language here I did not privilege those who are unable to stand - ablist attitudes are unconsciously  interwoven into our thought and speech). Mission, Vision and Implementation statements should clearly welcome those with special needs.  Sermons, programs, and budgets should match the vision.

How can churches practically do this?  Here are just a few ideas.

  • Put the special needs information in the bulletin or on social media on a regular basis - do not hide it under layers of other ministries.
  • Assign a pastor, board member, or key congregational leader as the person with oversight and input -- and publicly identify them.
  • Feature disability prominently in your public mission statement - (example: Orchard View Alliance Church in Janesville, Wisconsin.
  • Ensure that persons with mobility needs are including in discussions of facility priorities.
  • Allow people with special needs to be fully included in all areas of the church -- even governance.
  • Invite a person with a disability to minister from the pulpit.

Privileging those with disability will allow us to embrace God's entire picture.

    Wednesday, June 19, 2013

    Disability in the Hebrew Bible

    Language Matters.  Those who have taken the R-Word pledge understand the disabling effects of words.  In order to adequately develop theologies of disability, attention must be paid to both the social context in which Biblical passages emerged and to the very words themselves.

    In Disability In the Hebrew Bible: Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences, Saul M. Olyan (PhD – Harvard), professor of Judaic Studies at Brown University in Providence Rhode Island, investigates the earliest textual representations from a philological perspective.  By examining the words and their related cognate forms in other languages, he articulates some insight into how disability obtained meaning in ancient writings.

    The study begins by examining the physical characteristics that mark either beauty or ugliness in the ideal male and female and then relates the contrast between blemish and perfection.  While there is major overlap, the categories are not exclusively congruent, particularly in the Wisdom literature.

    Olyan examines blemish further and proposes there was another broader taxonomy inclusive of disability based in weakness, vulnerability, and dependence.  He discovers that mental disabilities and some physical disabilities did not fall into the blemish category, but all shared marginalization and stigmatization as evidenced by surrounding textual information.  He acknowledges that much of the prophetic utopian vision uses persons with disability to demonstrate YHWH’s purpose and power.  While some of the text indicates continued marginalization, there is a strong thread that also shows the opposite.  Those with disabilities, both ambulatory and non-ambulatory, are welcomed back from exile, into worship, and made beautiful in their disability.

    Olyan refocuses his attention from persons with blemish to the relationship between wholeness and holiness.  The same stigmatizing language used for people were also utilized for building materials and sacrifices deemed unsuitable for the temple.  He concludes his work by examining how the Qumran community actually broadened the category of defect and increased marginalization, prohibiting any from entering the community assembly.

    Olyan accomplished his purpose of reconstructing disability taxonomy through the analysis of the text.  The philological method utilized in this book is an important key in reshaping our contextual notions in the interpretation of certain passages from the Hebrew Bible.  The limits of this method are acknowledged -- it is impossible to determine motive behind the textual fragment.  Isolating text can give insight, but also removes it from the larger context of the Biblical tradition and redemptive history.  His work does, however, demonstrate that the religious trajectory has been more exclusive than even the original writers intended and is in specific contrast to a line of prophetic utopian envisioning which seeks to privilege disability.  Further scholarship, particularly in the eschatological passages, will be welcomed.

    Disability In the Hebrew Bible is relevant particularly to those engaged in Hebrew Bible or disability studies, as well as those seeking to understand the Judean context into which Christ spoke and performed healings.

    Wednesday, June 12, 2013

    Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities

    Book Review

    The integration of disability theology and ministry is a relatively new field of study with most attention focused first on de-institutionalized adults in the late 20th century and then on the inclusion of children with special needs in the first decade of this one.  Children naturally grow towards adolescence and emerge into the natural chaos of youth groups.

    Benjamin T. Conner (PhD-Princeton), Associate Professor of Christian Discipleship at Western Seminary in Holland, MI, draws upon a twenty year experience of youth ministry and his training as a missiologist to inform Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities.   Having both offered and received ministry from numerous youth across a wide ability spectrum, he articulates a missional paradigm of friendship-based, inclusive youth ministry in this very accessible 116 page practical guide.

    Conner’s key concepts are reflected in the title: As the faith community needs to hear all prophetic voices in order to bear full witness of Christ, the role of the youth minister is to ensure that those not normally respected must be given opportunity to fully participate and be heard.  He takes a practice centered approach, advocating the creation of appropriate environments and welcoming spaces for faith to be nurtured by the Spirit.  Recognizing that many with development disabilities have difficulty keeping up with the pace of youth culture, he challenges the notion that faith development and human development are in strict tandem alliance.

    Conner urges fellow ministers to seek the Visio Dei – seeing life through God’s images.  That approach peers beyond impairments and gives new imagination in doing relational ministry of friendship.  He continues by exploring the Imago Dei, asserting the face of God is more about encountering Him through friendship than conceptualizing Him through reason.  Similarly, as agents of Christ, we are called to be sacramental by developing intentional grace filled friendships as opposed to instrumentally utilizing people to fulfill ministry responsibilities.  He challenges our incomplete understanding of the Missio Dei – the role of the church in participating in God’s redemptive story .  We must allow those with profound disabilities to transform our faith and witness by offering them a place to appear.  He concludes by articulating the Opus Dei – the work of God – as it relates for mutual ministry with adolescents with disability.  Here he turns from a theoretical structure and outlines practical steps for implementing changes in youth groups and their hosting congregations.

    Conner’s work engages the best in current evangelical and pentecostal scholarship. Those within the reformed tradition will feel especially at home.  Those outside that tradition will only need to extract the intentions behind his analysis of the sacraments and redesign the application to fit their communities. 
    Amplifying Our Witness is an excellent readable resource for any minister or lay youth worker and should become an essential supplemental text in any introductory youth ministry course.

    Sunday, June 09, 2013

    Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality


    Over the years repeated studies of the social habits of persons with disabilities and their related families have been done. The one constant, despite changing attitudes in education and employment, indicates that families remain isolated outside of community and the church due to perceived differences. Thomas E. Reynolds (PhD.-Vanderbilt), the Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto, Canada seeks to chart a path towards inclusion that does not begin with self-sufficiency but human vulnerability. Reynolds writes VulnerableCommunion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality not only as a theologian but also as a father of a child with significant disabilities. His ideal audience is neither the typical lay disability minister nor family of persons with disability, but pastor theologians responsible for creating local church community.

    This 256 page book delves deeply into theological and social constructs yet remains rooted in the real experiences of theologian as father. While the focus is certainly not on his family’s story, the occasional vignettes shared lend credence to critical thought within the work. It is in part this passion that provides an impetus to reconstructing a theology of disability that begins with vulnerability – thereby offering inclusion to all humanity by privileging disability and culminating with hospitable community. This prophetic beam into the cult of normalcy illustrates redemption through the paradox of Christ’s power in weakness.

    Reynolds begins his discussion by summarizing the current progress of disability theology, quickly discarding the medical model and clearly articulating that while impairments may be physical, disability is a social construct. He pushes beyond the sticky answers of theodicy questions by arguing that theological understandings are held sway by that same construct and must be re-examined through the lens of privileged disability. He grounds his hermeneutic of disability within the larger redemptive narrative, arguing that all persons in their vulnerability co-exist in God’s presence.

    Rethinking disability must begin by challenging the cult of normalcy, Reynolds asserts. He defines true community as the place where personhood of all is welcomed and allowed to flourish with purpose within a structured framework. He argues that all social cultures create a sense of normal which imposes control on those that are abnormal while acknowledging that dominant Christian understandings of holiness (wholeness) has contributed to the overarching pejorative social norms. Reynolds rebels against this construct due to his rejection of its fundamental premises. Normalization does not equate to independence, free choice, and utility; those are subsets of yet deeper holistic goals. He argues against society’s reasoned perception by which personhood is determined through the participation of the free, equal, and independent. He continues by illustrating the faults inherent within the productive imperative – the societal pressure which promotes consumerism by creating efficient capital – which further marginalizes those with disabilities.
    Reynolds posits an alternative ideal, drawing upon redemptive hope that lies within the relational embodiment of welcome and the moral embrace of love. He sketches out a new anthropology, illustrating an economy of exchange, not based on body capital but upon gracious gifts of God distributed throughout Christ’s body. All beings are therefore incomplete and vulnerable – wholeness and personhood is only found through coexistence within Christ. Vulnerability necessitates all persons are at times needy and endure suffering, facilitating genuine bidirectional, enabling, welcoming, and available love.

    Reynolds reexamines God’s continuing redemptive loving relationship towards his creation. His analysis of the creation story yields that all created beings are welcomed as good, despite what human economies might attribute. Furthermore, he asserts that the creation story illustrates the interdependence and vulnerability of creation upon itself. It is this vulnerability which attracts the ensuing shadow of tragedy in which God too suffers. Yet it is through this suffering that the culmination of the redemptive story is enabled.
    Reynolds presents the providential grace that upholds the created order as the antidote for the cult of normalcy. He argues that the image of God signifies that humans have the capacity to share in relation, creation, and the agency of God’s work. Sinfulness disrupts this capacity, but the redemptive suffering of Christ, sharing in our vulnerability, allows for reconciliation. It is this redemption that transforms vulnerability into communion with God – foreshadowing the future eschatological glory. This Reynolds states, validates his thesis – disability bearing the image of God, perceived as part of creations vulnerability and not as a deficiency, is an affirmation of God’s redemptive love.

    Reynolds concludes his work by seeking to empower the church (ecclesia) as a hospitable place – a vulnerable community. The task of the local church is to work out this new anthropological economy living out as the body of Christ by means of embodied relationships. It is in this space that genuine healing takes place through the welcoming of the weak and vulnerable hiding within the margins of society. Church growth occurs as welcome leads to welcome. In essence, the church can only become a redemptive space by empowering those with disabilities to find a welcomed place at the table.

    Reynolds successfully articulates his position that the paradox of the cross and vulnerability are the nexus of community. Some may justifiably find his identification of market capital enterprise and the rise of eighteenth century reason as the locus of continued marginalization untenable, as persons with disability were not privileged prior to that time either. Yet his point resonates within the lower echelons of society and is vital in his juxtaposition of the powers of this world with the frailty of humanity.

    While Reynolds navigates deep theological and philosophical threads through the majority of the book, the transition towards a hospitable communion of love seemed ragged. It was here that he turned away from a reasoned arguments towards a narrative approach derived from his personal experience, classic Dostoevsky literature and both Lukan and Pauline biblical theology to explain how love transforms perceived deficits into welcoming hospitality. His return to the idea of a new economy within the body of Christ that had been introduced earlier could have been explored further. He briefly touches on the impact that vulnerability could have on the Christian response to the alien, stranger, and others in the margins but never completely develops those thoughts in this work. His conclusions, though valid, appeared to be underdeveloped as compared to the rest of the book. Perhaps that is where the role moves from the theologian to the pastor.

    Vulnerable Communion is an important foundation for local church leaders. Rather than explaining why disability ministry should occur, it successfully remembers the fact that all are disabled and all have gifts. Only in the mutuality of shared vulnerability can the household of God affect the world. If the concepts illustrated in this book are implemented in the local church, all modes of ministry will look radically different.

    Saturday, June 08, 2013

    Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities


     Persons with disability have co-existed within culture in a parallel universe – only recently have these two domains collided with each other. Normalization and inclusion have slowly advanced in many social and education settings, but grind to a mere crawl for many persons by early adulthood. A crucial bridge is needed to anchor the transition into adulthood to guarantee full participation in the community. The answer which Erik W. Carter posits in Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities may lie in the one social institution even more resistant to change – congregational communities. This work develops a prophetic picture of the ideal – a mutual interchange between social service providers and the church as community. Seeing this book as a practical guide, Carter drifts from his role as a recognized special educator and emerges as an aspiring practical theologian.

    This Best Special Needs Title 2007 awarded by Exceptional Parent Magazine, captures the essence of Carter’s desire to integrate traditional special education transitional services alongside faith communities. Carter, (Wheaton College, PhD-Vanderbilt), a former high school transitional specialist and now Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at Peabody College/Vanderbilt University approaches this 236 page volume from the perspective of one who was brought into a faith community through the witness of a person with intellectual disability. His approach, therefore, immediately places social valuation on the effectiveness of the contributions of persons with disability in the larger dominant domain and never looks back. He examines the symbiotic roles both religious institutions and social service providers can mutually undertake and highlights the changes each institution will need to undergo in order to exponentially expand the integration of persons with disability into the larger community.

    Carter intends for this book to be used as guide map for a congregational journey towards full inclusion. He clearly states the problem – only an insignificant percentage of people with disabilities are active in faith communities. The following seven chapters and two in depth appendixes of resources provide clear markers on where to go and what to do.

    For those unfamiliar with the developments in recent disability history, Carter offers a brief recap of the rise of disability rights and education in the 20th century and the remaining barriers persons with disability have to gain full inclusion. He then turns his attention to what signals a welcoming congregation through the lens of a person with a disability. In a convicting taxonomy, he establishes a metric for congregations to measure their progress in developing an inclusive church and then suggests systems and procedures that can propel a congregation in forward movement through critical reflection and response.

    Not content to just challenge a congregation, Carter spends the next three chapters developing resources, questions, and proposing solutions for the three main arenas of church life: corporate worship services, personal religious education, and daily fellowship and support. He asserts that congregations who think they are welcoming may not be perceived in that manner. He advocates that deliberate and targeted intentionality be added to mission statements, greeting programs and outreach events. Multiple sample surveys and vignettes are provided in order to help develop a vision team which assesses the congregation’s readiness and willingness as well as examining what potential partnership resources already exist in the larger local community. Lest participants think everything can be program driven, he issues a key admonition – focus on prayer and people. An important reminder is also given – as congregations tend to change over every five years, successful implementation of cultural change will need to take place over the long term during several cycles for positive integration.

    Carter moves his focus from the facility and corporate culture of the church to that of individualized personal religious action programs and plans with a focus on equipping lay volunteers. He cautions that a program which merely segregates students at ability level does not take advantage of the mutuality of the richness of community – the most important faith lessons, he asserts, occurs in the relationships that develop between teacher and student. He suggests that religious education workers receive professional development and insight from public school and social service professionals on appropriate curricular accommodations and modifications within the faith goals of the congregation. Inversely, he recommends that the separate domains of Sunday school and public school be bridged – inviting religious workers to request observation time of the student in a daily educational setting.

    Recognizing that people’s faith journeys do not occur only on the Sabbath, Carter spends extensive time looking at how the church can help during the other six days. Many families and adults touched by disabilities live in a realm of artificial paid supports and services. Carter asserts that natural lifelong supports already existing in the congregation have the potential to develop enduring relationships and real friendships within the community. For this to happen, however, requires an intentional effort on the part of the congregation and a change in visitation polices in pastoral care guidelines. He further recommends that congregations seek ways to develop vocation – meaningful work and service – in the lives of people with disabilities and urges them to lead by example. He advises a congregational review of every weekday ministry the church sponsors through the lens of disability. He offers numerous ideas on how congregations can develop spiritual and emotional support at major life transition times as well as through common respite events. After systematically tearing down objections to potential ministry, Carter concludes with a final prophetic injunction – the congregation must respond personally in some way.

    Carter, writing from within the social service tradition, does not lay all the blame for lack on inclusion at the foyer of the church. He knows all too well that the service provider industry has not traditionally taken steps to facilitate the appropriate spiritual growth of its clients. He takes to task and then challenges those within the profession to invest the time with their clients to find out their desire. He liberates providers and addresses their reluctance head on by pointing to research that indicates persons with disabilities with spiritual supports have more meaningful expressions and relationships in the other domains for their lives. He provides numerous resources: surveys, person center planning approaches, revisited policy statements and new best practices guidelines that can aid service providers in crafting a different support approach.
    Carter concludes his book by melding both sectors together. He recognizes clearly that future success at true inclusion and integration will only come about through established partnerships between the social service sector and the local congregation within a broader community network. He recommends a process of strengths based community mapping which identifies current assets and focuses on networking them together. He also recommends that congregations create mutual disability gatherings – working together to transform the community. It is through these collaborative efforts, Carter believes, that persons with disabilities will be able to become fully integrated and included in the local community.

    In authoring this book, Carter brought an important witness to bear in the larger Christian community. Without question, he appropriately identified one of the largest hidden social justice issues in the contemporary Christian community today; moreover, he offered a practical solution. The author accomplished his stated intention – providing numerous reproducible resources and a flexible framework to assist any local congregation in developing a collaborative effort for mutual integration.

    Furthermore, it was written in an easily understandable fashion without falling into the trap of over using either theological jargon or clinical language. That asset, however, may have been one of its weaknesses. While it is clear Carter writes from a Christian religious perspective, it is also evident that he approaches this interfaith textbook from a clinical lay persons eye; he remains an outsider without inclusive access to clergy. While service provider and educational institutions are required to implement and often embrace best practices fairly quickly, congregational dynamics make change tediously slow. His arguments resound within the disability and service provider community, but they do not tend to convict congregations whom remain convinced they already do too much. Unless one is already attuned, his prophetic notes fall flat without a deeper exposition into contemporary expressions of theology. The Christian community becomes moved through narrative and testimony, connecting a daily spiritual experience within the larger scope of covenant history and redemption, yet very few connecting vignettes appeared outside of the introduction. This approach is undoubtedly due to the editorial requirement of the publisher rather than the actual experience of the author.

    After grappling with the issue and solution presented in this book, pastor leaders should be able to rethink their role and must let it affect their life prior to proclamation and presentation. This is not a task to be entered into lightly, as it will serve as a cultural shift in a congregation’s missional strategy. Nevertheless, it remains a critical book for church leaders to comprehend as the onus of deciphering this into the language of faith lies squarely upon the local church pastor.

    Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families,& Congregations. Erik W. Carter. (Baltimore, Md.: Paul H. Brookes Pub. Co., 2007). 236 pp. Paperback, $28.00, ISBN: 978-1-55766-743-4

    Thursday, March 21, 2013

    Thank you, Nella

    I first met Nella in an elevator at the Adams Mark Hotel in Indianapolis for a Disability Ministry Conference in  April of 2004.  Dedicated to serving people with disabilities, encouraging pastors to change their congregations, and bringing hope to the life's of parents, she was always smiling.  As the Executive Director for Friendship Ministries, she was busy changing the world through mentoring and special needs curriculum in several languages and across multiple continents.

    As I transitioned from being just a parent with a child with DS to someone actively involved in disability ministry, our paths crossed more often.  We laughed often about the Washington DC conference  in 2005 when her budget hotel complex had a SWAT team visit in the dead of night. She encouraged me to submit a presentation for the AAIDD Conference in Atlanta in 2007.  Again in Washington DC in 2008, four of us - her in sandals -decided to walk from the convention hotel to the Washington National Cathedral via the National Zoo - not realizing the subway map wasn't to scale.

    When Friendship Ministries asked me to join their board of directors, I did so in part because I wanted to share in her vision.  I will miss that warm smile, the welcoming hug, and that hint of a Dutch Canadian accent.  Over the years, she introduced me to the sculpture gardens, pointed out the changes to Calvin since when I attended in 1990, and gave a mini lecture on Gerald Ford.   Our last phone conversation was about a month ago, when I was stranded in the Grand Rapids Airport due to snow.  Until next time, she said,  when it won't be snowing.

    Until next time.

    Saturday, February 16, 2013

    Amplifying Our Witness

    As my daughter prepares for middle school, I've been waiting for the childrens ministry discussions to make it into youth ministry hot topics.  Thanks to Ben Conner, here is an important first work.  It's on my next book to review list, but it looks good!  Eerdmans' snapshot is below.

    Nearly twenty percent of adolescents have developmental disabilities, yet far too often they are marginalized within churches. Amplifying Our Witness challenges congregations to adopt a new, practice-centered approach to congregational ministry — one that includes and amplifies the witness of adolescents with developmental disabilities. Replete with stories taken from Benjamin Conner's own extensive experience with befriending and discipling adolescents with developmental disabilities, Amplifying Our Witness
    • Shows how churches exclude the mentally disabled in various structural and even theological ways
    • Stresses the intrinsic value of kids with developmental disabilities
    • Reconceptualizes evangelism to adolescents with developmental disabilities, emphasizing hospitality and friendship.

    Thursday, February 07, 2013


    Bob Perske has been a tireless advocate for people with disabilities.  This is a recent article he penned.  Thanks to Rev. Bill Gaventa from the Boggs Center in New Jersey for sending this to me.

    By Robert Perske

                I know how hard you worked at getting others to see people with disabilities as PERSONS FIRST!  What I learned from you makes me want to tell you about a woman named Emma Wolverton.  Her good name was being smashed down like a tractor driving over a flower. 

                Emma's complete story can now be found in a new book entitled GOOD BLOOD, BAD BLOOD: Science, Nature, and the Myth of the Kallikaks (AAIDD, 2012).  It was written by David Smith and Michael Weymeyer, two researchers who worked like detectives on the case since 1976.  Here are a few of the many things they discovered about Emma.

    *     *     *     *     *
                Emma Wolverton lived in an earlier time when there were no self-advocates.  As a tiny girl she stayed in an "almshouse," a home for poor people.  When she became 8 years old, she was taken to live in an institution called The Training School for Feeble-Minded Boys and Girls in Vineland, New Jersey.  After her arrival, a psychologist named Dr. Henry Goddard tested her and claimed that she was a "feeble-minded girl."  She lived in the institution for 81 years.  She died with the whole world never knowing her real name.
                Goddard hired field workers to study Emma's relatives who lived before her.  In doing so, they found that Emma's great-great-grandfather was a Revolutionary War soldier who "dallied" with a feeble-minded girl in a tavern -- leading to the birth of a "feeble-minded son."

                The workers reported that 480 relatives were found after the tavern affair -- and 143 were "feeble-minded."  Then the workers traced the lineage of the soldier after he "straightened up and married a respectable girl of good family."  This time the workers found 469 direct descendants and all of them were "normal."

                Then Goddard wrote a book called THE KALLIKAK FAMILY: A Study in The Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness (Macmillan, 1912)In his book, he used the fake name "Kallikak" to hide the real names of all of the relatives in the two sets of families.  It was derived from two Greek words:  Kallos (beauty) and Kakos (bad).  The first word was used mostly to emphasize the beauty in the soldier's family after he shaped up.  Then Emma became the "poster child" for all the bad in the descendants of the illegitimate, feeble-minded infant.

                After his book came out, Goddard saw to it that Emma was always to be addressed as Deborah Kallikak -- and never be called Emma Wolverton again. 

               Smith and Weymeyer found numerous negative statements by leaders in high places: President Theodore Roosevelt saw Emma's kind as leading us all to "Race Suicide" . . . U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called people like her "a sap on the strength" of the country . . . Many states voted laws that ordered the sterilization of thousands of persons with disabilities . . . Every state began building institutions to house the so-called "bad" Kallikaks.  After all, Goddard got many to believe that if we didn't stop them, they would outbreed us.

                Now, for the first time that I know of, Smith and Weymeyer had the guts to print Emma Wolverton's real name and to describe all the good things they found in her existence.

                Smith and Weymeyer uncovered a number of reports showing Emma to be most caring and talented:  She was a handsome woman at 25 . . . She excelled in embroidery, woodcraft and basketry . . . she played the cornet beautifully . . . took star roles in plays and pageants . . . she was well-trained in fine laundry work and dining room service . . . she used a power sewing machine and made clothes . . . she became a valued helper with children living in "the cottages" . . . she worked as a nurse's aide in the institution's hospital . . . and still later, she filled a nanny-housemaid role in the superintendent's home . . . Still later, she wrote warm and newsy letters to the children after they grew up and left the superintendent's home.

                It is also interesting to know that as a mature woman she fell in love with a maintenance worker.  She developed a system for crawling out her window to be with him.  When they were discovered, the man was fired and regulations were tightened on Emma (Smith, David: Minds Made Feeble. Pro-Ed 1985).

                For me, the turning point in the story came when Smith and Weyermeyer discovered a scholarly 860-page book on the Wolvertons by geneologists David MacDonald and Nancy McAdams (The Wolverton Family 1693-1850 and Beyond, Penobsot Press, 2001).  Their findings did not mesh with the ones created by Goddard and his field workers.

                I write the same conclusion that readers will find in Smith's and Weymeyer's book.  It is about respecting the good names of persons with disabilities.  I could never improve on what they wrote.  So I have decided to print it here:
                When we strip people of their names, we strip them of their dignity, their value, their selfhood.  It allows us to talk about "them" in anonymity, referring to our perjoritive name for them or the number we've tattooed on them, as if they were not people, not human.  We can refer to them as morons, criminal imbeciles, or degenerates as if they were not really sentient beings.  We can lock them away for the rest of their lives or sterilize them without their knowledge.  We -- we humans -- can march them into gas chambers by telling them that they are going to take a shower.
                Her name was Emma, not Deborah.
                Emma Wolverton.
                We at least owe her the respect of calling her by her name.

    Saturday, January 19, 2013

    El Autismo y Tu Iglesia / Autism and Your Church


    After serving many years in Southern California and listening to my wife speak to me in Spanish, I knew there was a large under served population of Spanish speaking Christians who wanted to minister to people with disabilities.

    I've been fortunate to have been part of Friendship Ministries the past few years and know first hand their commitment to making resources available in Africa, Central America, as well as the US and other English speaking countries.

    Barb Newman's groundbreaking Friendship imprint publication - Autism and Your Church -- has been translated into Spanish !  The English version has been a great resource for hundreds of churches the last few years -- this will help many in our Spanish speaking churches as well.  I first met Barb when she spoke at a NACSPED conference in Southern California years ago.  This book continues her tradition of helping churches integrate persons with disabilities.

    For my Spanish pastor friends -- you may find disability resources like this already translated available at the Friendship / Amistad bookstore.  For my English speaking friends -- check out the English site to order a copy.  If you are in the Assemblies of God, GPH carries some Friendship materials as well as some of Barb's books -- or you may order them through Faith Alive Publishing.

    Friday, January 11, 2013

    Attention Korean Churches in Southern California

    Do you pastor in a Korean church?  Do you have friends that do?  An upcoming conference in Anaheim will be dedicated to disability ministry and is being presented in Korean and translated into English.  These conference brings several of the leading experts in disability ministry into one place for one day.  If you would like to learn more, please download these flyers:

    English version
    Korean version

    or visit