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Can we be friends?

The three factors that play a part in how we exclude or include and welcome disabled people. By Martin Hobgen


Can we be friends

First impressions count 

‘We’ve got a place for people like you…’ was the greeting I received at the door. If I hadn’t been part of a church weekend away visiting another church many miles from home then I might have turned around and walked (or wheeled) away. The church building turned out to be reasonably accessible to wheelchair users, despite being a Victorian building with pews. Some pews had been removed and I could sit next to my wife. Physical access to the building was not the dominant issue: I did not feel welcomed because of the actions and attitudes of the first people I met.

There are however ways of encouraging positive first impressions and inclusive relationships that can then enable people on the margins of church communities to be welcomed and enabled to fully participate in Baptist church community life.
I want to suggest that three factors play a part in how we exclude or include and welcome disabled people: language, understanding who disabled people are; theological perspective on disability.

Language and disability

The greeting I received implied a number of things to me: the church had decided where disabled people should sit; there was an emphasis on ‘We’ and ‘you’, or ‘people like us’ and ‘people like you’ suggesting that non-disabled people and disabled people are part of two distinct groups, that they are ‘other’ to one another. This creates a distance between people that hinders the formation of meaningful relationships between disabled and non-disabled people. This in turn hinders the inclusion of disabled people, or anyone who is different, from inclusion within a church community.

The language that we use can reveal and shape our attitudes towards people who are different to the majority, in our churches and in society. It is rare for disabled people to be referred to by once common terms such as ‘handicapped’, ‘crippled’ or ‘spastic’. I would hope that these terms are never used in church or by Christians. There is some debate about whether the term ‘disabled people’ or ‘people with disabilities’ should be used but either term is preferable to ‘handicapped person’ etc. The catch-all phrase ‘the disabled’ is however not helpful as it assumes that disabled people are all the same and different to ‘the able-bodied’/’the non-disabled’. This leads to rather general and vague relationships which are unable to transform people and communities.

There are subtle ways in which language is used that can either promote or hinder a sense of inclusion of disabled people. When we assume that everyone can stand to sing, or can see words and images projected by AV equipment, or hear what is being said then we are erecting unnecessary barriers that reinforce that sense of exclusion. One of my particular bug-bears is the request ‘Please stand…’ to indicate a response to something God is doing. I do not want to police the language we use, other than language which explicitly divides and excludes others, however a greater awareness of the potential impact of the language we use has potential to foster inclusion rather than maintain exclusion. It has, for instance, become common to hear ‘Please stand if you are able to…’ when inviting a congregation to participate in sung worship.

Understanding who disabled people are

There are broadly three ways of understanding who disabled people are. Firstly disabled people can be understood to be people whose bodies or minds prevent them from performing a range of tasks which are considered to be required to live a ‘normal’ life. This suggests that disabled people need to be cured, fixed or healed in some way so that they become ‘normal’ able-bodied people, or they need to be provided with equipment and adaptions so that they can perform the tasks that a ‘normal’ able-bodied person does. In this approach the medical condition that means I use a wheelchair is seen as the cause of my disability and the solution is to cure or heal my body or provide a better wheelchair.

The second approach to understanding who disabled people are is to ignore their bodies and mind and the impact of their different embodiment. This approach understands disability purely in terms of discrimination expressed by society, through attitudes and actions, towards those it considers to be different. In this approach my medical condition and use of a wheelchair is seen as irrelevant; My disability is caused by society that refuses to adapt buildings to be accessible or change the assumptions that are made about what I cannot do.

A third way is to recognize that the experiences of disabled people are shaped both by the nature of their embodiment, the environment and by the attitudes of other people. This means that although some generalizations can be made, for instance that wheelchair users need ramps and turning space, that the most appropriate way to include people is to pay attention to particular people in particular contexts. This approach takes account of the complex web of factors that shape someone’s experience of disability and the relationships between disabled and non-disabled people. In my own experience there are some contexts, places and relationships, in which I am more disabled and others in which I am less disabled.

Theological perspectives on disability

Once again there are three broad theological perspectives that can be discerned regarding disability and relationships between disabled and non-disabled people. In reality there are many theological approaches, some of which overlap one another and others which are significantly different.

The first perspective, which might be termed historical and/or traditional, is closely related to the idea that disability is located in and arises from an individual’s embodiment. This can take two contrasting forms: disability is either linked to sin and impurity and the answer is seen to be in seeking forgiveness and healing; or disability is understood in terms of virtuous suffering, character development or as a means of non-disabled people learning about care and concern for others. These identify disabled people as other, either as sinner or saints, both of which restrict the possibility of developing relationships which foster inclusion within church communities. My personal experience of this is of a church which encouraged me to seek physical healing in order to be able to fulfill my role within the church community or remain a passive member of the congregation.

The second theological perspective is closely linked to the understanding that disability is rooted in the attitudes and actions of society. Since the publication of Nancy Eiesland’s book The Disabled God in 1994 a number of related approaches have been developed that focus on how disabled people should be welcomed and include in church community life. Eiesland’s image of the disabled God recognizes that the risen Jesus Christ still bears the marks of the crucifixion, that these are signs that God identifies with disabled people though not having a perfect body, and that Jesus overcame death and the effects of sin through weakness and suffering and not through power and authority.

Jennie Block’s Copious Hosting (2002) focuses on hospitality and how we are co-hosts with God, while Beth Creamer’s Disability and Christian Theology (2009) recognizes that all human beings have limits (she stresses these are not limitations) because we are created rather than being divine, and explores why some of these limits result in some being excluded while other limits make no difference. These, and other related approaches, have contributed towards the greater inclusion of disabled people in church communities.

There are three issues about these approaches which are of concern: they risk making God in our image seen through the perspective of disability; they tend to lead to general relationships between disabled and non-disabled people which are not transformative, despite the Liberation Theology approach utilized by some writers; they also fail to address the exclusion of people with learning disabilities because they rely on the ability of disabled people to be active in seeking inclusion.

This brings us to a third approach to disability which has its roots in the work of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities. Others, more qualified than I, are going to write about the work of Vanier and L’Arche, so I want to focus on one critical and central idea, that of friendship with God and with one another. Since the foundation of L’Arche in the early 1960’s the development of friendships has been significant in the practice and theological reflection concerning the inclusion of people with learning disabilities, however it does not seem to have been explicitly applied to people with physical disabilities. Rather than the rather vague relationships between disabled people and non-disabled people I want to suggest that friendship has the potential to enable greater participatory inclusion of disabled people within Baptist church communities. Rather than theorizing about how this might work I close by painting a picture of how I and many other people would like to be welcomed and included in church communities.

How I would like to be welcomed?

I would like to be welcomed as a friend, or at the very least to be welcomed as a potential friend. This means that I would like to be greeted and asked my name, perhaps followed by whether I am visiting or have moved to the area. I would like to be asked where I would like to sit, if there are chairs then there is considerable flexibility, if there are pews then this might be limited. If adaptions have been done properly then they will be where I would choose to sit or I may still choose to sit somewhere else. I know if I’m causing an obstruction and I also know if I can see the preacher, the AV screen etc. Other than these practical implications regarding my wheelchair I want to be treated as any other visitor or new person.

We are all friends of God through the relationship he offers us through the cross and are all united by our resulting friendship with others in covenant relationships within and beyond our local congregations.
In all but the most physically inaccessible church buildings a welcoming and friendly attitude will enable me to be included while even in the most physically accessible church building I may be excluded by the attitude of others.

I’ve often summed up this in the phrase. ‘When I am among strangers I am most disabled, when I am among friends then I am least disabled.’

Martin Hobgen is a Baptist minister who is currently engaged in doctoral research at Northern Baptist College investigating how friendships between disabled and non-disabled people can facilitate the participatory inclusion of disabled people in Baptist life

This article appears in the Spring 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine 

Baptist Times, 11/03/2020
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