In Part Three of her guest blog series, Same Lake, Different Boat Stephanie Hubach addresses the attitudes of the church toward persons with disabilities, as well as the difficulties that arise for churches as they seek to develop inclusive ministry environments. Steph’s biography may be found here, along with Part One and Part Two of the series.
C4EC: What’s the Church’s role in leveling the playing field for persons with disabilities?
SH: When addressing disability in the Church, the goal is not to convey that people with special needs are somehow God’s special people—those who are due extraordinary rights and privileges. It is to restore fair and respectful treatment of every person as a unique individual created in the image of God, including people with disabilities.
C4EC: And when the church fails to assume this role…?
SH: The antithesis of justice is oppression. It’s a harsh word for most of us, and when we hear it, we probably think of what I call “active oppression”—the intentional holding down of another through the use of power in a way that’s immoral and inequitable. But oppression can be passive as well. It involves the holding down of another through what is not done, and it’s generally a matter of neglect, which stems from ignorance or indifference. Passive oppression is more typical of what occurs in churches. For example, when a church building has half-a-dozen steps to its front door and no alternative handicap-accessible entrance, it is literally holding down anyone who might desire to worship there but needs a ramp to enter. If a Sunday school program fails to address the Christian education needs of a child with Down syndrome, and just looks the other way, it is holding back both that child and his parents from full participation in the life of the church. When adults with appropriate spiritual gifts are never even considered a position of church leadership because they’re affected by disability, they’re being held down by their congregations.
C4EC: Is ignorance or indifference more challenging to overcome?
SH: Ignorance often results in a failure to provide for basic needs because we just don’t know the problem exists, or we don’t understand how to address a specific challenge. But yes, indifference is more complex. It’s a matter of the heart. It could be characterized as, “We know there’s a problem, but we really don’t care enough to act.”
C4EC: What difficulties arise when congregations choose to be inclusive in their practices?
In Paul’s discussion on the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12: 25, he talks about showing “equal concern for each other.” When we do that, everyone has to adapt—both those with and without diagnosable disabilities. The family of a child with developmental disabilities ought not to enter the local church with a demanding and inflexible attitude, nor should the existing congregation be unwilling to make any adaptations. Our selfish natures resist making accommodations for each other, but that is what is always required of us when we love as Jesus loves. “Win-win” congregational inclusion can be created in many and varied ways when we are simply committed to finding ways to show equal concern for each other. Sometimes, this means evaluating whether certain aspects of our congregational life are really biblical or simply part of our “church culture.” Must there be complete silence during a sermon? Do you have to sing perfectly to be in the choir? Do you have to be articulate to give a personal testimony? Working through questions like these can be a painful, but healthy, evaluation process for a congregation.
Sometimes, showing equal concern for each other means rolling up our sleeves and learning how to care for a child with autism, or spina bifida, or cerebral palsy so that their parents can enjoy an uninterrupted worship experience. Sometimes adapting means that we all learn to accept “distractions” in the Sunday morning service so that a person with developmental disabilities can do what all of us were created to do: to worship God in spirit and in truth. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said that “mercy is a voluntary sorrow which enjoins itself to the suffering of another.” When we enter into the challenges of another, whether they are disability-related challenges or not, it will always cost us something. But for it to be genuine mercy, we must willingly, actively enter into their struggle in an intentional, personal way. This is the essence of the humble, righteous, sacrificial life of love that Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount.
Sunday: The conclusion of the interview with Steph
Steph’s newly released DVD series, Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability can be ordered here for the discounted price of $35.00. Her book that shares the same title as her DVD series is also available here at a discounted price of $7.50.