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Disability justice

Glen Graham explains the aims and the story of the Baptists Together Disability Justice Hub

Glen Graham Baptist Assembly

One of the many factors that brought me to faith was listening to stories from my RE teacher about the times he met Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther-King Jnr. These heroes pointed me to a God who demonstrated generous love and justice to the poor and marginalised. This was a God I wanted to know and follow, so I did and still do.
While both these men were strong leaders, they set out to enable others to take up the fight where they lived. They didn't just do the justice, they inspired folk from the grass roots to do justice too.
But how did they understand justice? For Mandela and King, it wasn't about dominance or getting even, it was about people of colour being treated like any other human being and being given true dignity and worth. It was about building a world where everyone is equal, where everyone belongs, and where everyone can flourish and become the people they were intended to be, totally free.
Christians would call such a world "The Kingdom of God" or "The place where Abba reigns". From beginning to end, the Gospels describe such a world. The Sermon on the Mount gets down to the finer details of what true society and humanity look like.
The Church universal was always intended to be an icon or window of Abba's reign. It was to be the vehicle of bringing that reign about. A movement of all people living out God's very life for all to see as we are all made in God's image.
The Church was certainly not intended to be an institution that mirrored all other kinds of power where some have the power and others don't. We were to be a family, a community, a body with Jesus as our head and humanity being able to play our God ordained part.
The trouble is the Church simply isn't doing that. Elsewhere in this publication, you will read of congregations and individuals facing up to our failings and doing something about it. Over the last 20 years, our Union instigated three Justice Groups, the newest of these was the Disability Justice Group which first met on 8 November 2011. For the rest of this article, I want to tell you something of the story so far and what I believe the future holds.
The Disability Justice Group was birthed from the tremendous work the Baptist Union Initiative for people with Learning Disabilities (BUild) were already doing. The aim of the new group was not to replicate what had already been done; rather we wanted to broaden the scope and find ways that people with disabilities could be enabled to play our God ordained part in building God's new society through the body of Christ.
We began by recognising that the body is broken (you could say disabled) simply by the fact all people groups are not playing their God-ordained part. This isn't because we don't want to, it is because something is stopping us. So we set about finding out what was causing the damage and what could bring about the healing of the body.
Over time, it has become apparent that while many churches are doing wonderful things caring for people with disabilities, very little is being done to work with people with disabilities. Folk like me don't just want to be cared for, we want to build the Church too. People like me don't just want to be served, but to serve too.
We have discovered far too few people with disabilities are serving in the local church. Very few are in leadership in the local church. Few are being consulted about the appropriateness of the care they get. Over the years, I have heard far too many disabled people who are treated like children, who can't get access to the buildings or services we offer. I have heard far too many stories about being ignored at coffee time and feeling like objects to be ministered to rather than friends in community.
The Justice Group identified reasons for this: 
* It can be ignorance just not knowing what to do.
* It could be that we can't see past the dog or wheelchair to the real person before us.
* It could be we are too scared to ask questions for fear of offending someone.
* It could be that at the unconscious or subconscious level, we are not sure that someone with a disability is fully made in the image of God. The disability is a mark that God's image isn't fully formed so they need fixing. Many people like me believe our disability expresses or even magnifies God's image. We do serve a God who is almighty and vulnerable at the same time.
So over the years through seminars and training opportunities, the Disability Justice Group has sought to educate and incarnate another way of being Church with people at the heart of things. We have challenged our Union at all levels about where things are at and what could be done. We have directed local churches to helpful resources. We have spoken at ministers’ conferences, the Baptist Assembly, some of our training colleges and much more.
So what of the future? Well we will carry on doing what I have said above but that is a platform from which we want to build. We are now the Disability Justice Hub.
  • We long for each Association to have someone who speaks and works for Disability Justice.
  • We want to see disabled pioneers raised up.
  • We want to do more work to equip churches to be missional with people with disabilities.
  • We want the Church to help tackle the rise in disability hate crime and other societal attitudes that dehumanise people with disabilities.
  • We want the Church to know what it is missing out on not having us play our part with everyone. 

The world will not see the full extent of Abba's reign until people with disabilities like me are fully included in local and national Church without limits. We are an untapped resource waiting to be realised. We are children of God ready to bring in the Kingdom of God as it is in heaven.

The Revd Glen Graham is minister of Cullompton Baptist Church, Devon. He is a co-leader of the Baptists Together Disability Justice Hub and chairs a national network called Churches for All www.churchesforall. 

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


Image | Glen Graham at the 2013 Baptist Assembly



Baptist Times, 12/03/2020
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