The great German reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann once declared that any religious community that doesn't include disabled people is in some way itself disabled.
I think of that quote almost each Sunday when I push my stepson's wheelchair into the sanctuary in our church building and park him next to me in a specifically cut-out row that makes room for wheelchairs. (My wife was largely responsible for getting those cut-out rows in our sanctuary.) Chris is a special needs adult who loves to go to church and give people hugs.
I also thought of it when I read this article from The Week about ways in which the article's author thinks churches are failing disabled people.
"It may come as a shock to you," writes Heather Avis, "that churches are unable or unwilling to meet the needs of kids with developmental delays and learning disabilities — especially if you're a parent of children without any significant differences. But for people like me — a parent of three adopted children and two who have Down syndrome — these revelations barely induce a yawn. This is a situation we've been wrestling with and tirelessly trying to improve for years."
And, of course, she and her family are not alone. There is considerable room for religious communities to improve the way they welcome people with various kinds of disabilities.
But it's not all a terrible story. Not only can many congregations tell stories about how they've welcomed other people like our Chris, but this past December I wrote this Presbyterian Outlook column about how a church in Michigan has intentionally created a culture of welcome for all kinds of people with disabilities.
Because you have to be a subscriber to read the online version of that column, let me tell you that it contains a story I heard from my friend Brian O'Connor of Detroit, who, like me, is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Brian told me how and why he and his wife, Jodi Noding, and son, Casey, had joined the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Michigan.
As I wrote in that column, Brian explained that Casey is “a late talker with a language delay.” Someone suggested that some help might be available for Casey at FAR Therapeutic Arts and Recreation. That organization, it turns out, is housed at First Presbyterian, so Brian, Jodi and Casey began showing up there a few years ago, first for Casey’s therapy and eventually to check out the whole church.
“We were sort of unchurched at that point,” Brian told me. “I grew up Catholic. My wife was a member of a very conservative Presbyterian denomination. It seemed like a good idea for my son to have that kind of community and upbringing. So we started looking around and one of the things we learned was that First Presbyterian emphasizes inclusion. They call themselves ‘everybody’s church.’
“Inclusion is a really basic concept there. I work with my son in a lot of other activities, where he’s accommodated. Like school and Boy Scouts and summer camps. But accommodated is not the same as inclusion. Accommodated sort of suggests we’ll make room for you and won’t be bothered by your differences or quirks.”
In addition to our experience with Chris and Brian's and Jodi's experience with Casey, I have close friends who have a son with Down syndrome, and that young man has been welcomed and included in many ways in his Catholic parish in Kansas City.
At any rate, I'm glad that Heather Avis has raised this issue in the column she wrote. And I hope faith communities will pay attention and do what they should be doing anyway to include everyone. But I want you to know that the picture in that regard is not entirely bleak.
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THE DEATH OF A DEATH EXPERT
Here is a lovely essay about the death of a man who devoted himself to helping others understand death. Rob Moll, author of The Art of Dying, was just 41 when he died recently in a hiking accident on Mount Rainer. His friend Bob Smietana of Religion News Service writes this of Moll: "He wrote about how death has disappeared in modern life. Or at least, any conversation about our own mortality and the fleeting nature of life. Death has moved from the home into the hospital, and medical professionals have taken over much of the care of the deathly ill. And we have lost track of it." Our failure to understand our own death means we often don't understand our own life. That needs to change.