In a recently read article about the parents of autistic and intellectually handicapped children it was revealed that the “overwhelming majority” of parents had negative experiences in their churches and with their clergy when it came to accommodating their disabled children. Many of the parents in the study changed churches repeatedly in an effort to find a congregation that would welcome their disabled children.
Now this fact is very disturbing and it made we wonder about whether churches are welcoming to disabled people. A story came to mind and I will quote an extract to illustrate my point.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel set inAlabama during the Depression. It is a novel about prejudice of all kinds but a large part of the story is devoted to the trial of a black man – Tom Robinson- falsely accused of raping a white woman. Tom is convicted and his wife is harassed. The whole novel is written through the eyes of a six year old tomboy named Scout whose father is the lawyer who tries to defend Tom Robinson.
Tom Robinson is in jail but the lives of the white ladies ofMaycombCountygo on as normal. This afternoon they are having their missionary circle.
Mrs Merriweather’s large brown eyes always filled with tears when she considered the oppressed. ‘Living in that jungle with nobody but J. Grimes Everett,’ she said. ‘Not a white person’ll go near ‘em but J. GrimesEverett….’I said to him: “Mr Everett”, I said, “the ladies of Maycomb Alabama Methodist Episcopal Church South are behind you one hundred percent.” That’s what I said to him.’
Now these ladies would no more touch a black person or invite them into their church than they would grow wings and fly to the moon, nor could they see the enormous prejudice in their home town, but they were enthusiastic about helping J. Grimes Everett convert the Mrunas. This enthusiasm was made possible by the need to appear pious and by the large distance between the missionary circle and the black people they sought to help.
Christians inAustralia, particularly in Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, have had tithing drummed into them year after year. If we give money then we believe that we have done what God requires. We will be blessed with abundance and can give more money. So when we think of helping those with disabilities giving money springs to mind first. There are organisations who conduct research and those like Christian Blind Mission (CBM) who help disabled people oversees. Giving to these organisations is of value to many disabled people. However, when we give money it acts as a buffer between the giver and the disabled person who receives the help.
Disabled people in 2008 Australia can be like black people in Alabama in 1930. We feel the need to be pious by helping them but we would much prefer to do this at a distance. To have a person in your church who is severely autistic or intellectually disabled or brain-damaged is to face up to disruption of the church service. Many of these people have behaviours that are not within socially acceptable boundaries. They make inappropriate noises at inappropriate times; they wander around when they should be sitting; they sing the wrong words to songs and are loudly out of tune; sometimes they are aggressive or unwashed. All this makes us uncomfortable and we would prefer not to see such people in our nice orderly churches. We do not know how to respond to them or to those who care for them. No wonder the parents in the above study felt unwelcome in their churches.
I am challenged by these thoughts and I am not sure how I will react to intellectually disabled people coming into my church. There are none there right now. Perhaps there are not many such people in churches because they do not feel welcome. This is a sad reflection on churches because churches are called to be the place where the lowly, the downtrodden and the marginalised are loved, accepted and cared for.
A second aspect of the above study was the fact that the parents tried to get religious education for their children but many were told that they would have to provide this themselves without any help form their churches. A Jewish family was told that their intellectually disabled son could not be barmitzvared because he did not have what it takes to be Jewish. This attitude shows forth something which underlies some of our disturbance with the intellectually impaired. Although we speak constantly of being saved by grace, underneath this we still harbour the belief that somehow we believed correctly and this contributes to our salvation.
This belief is no doubt more prevalent in Bible Colleges but is present in churches. But if I have a person in my church who cannot believe the right things because it is beyond his or her capacity to do so then what am I to think. If I say that such a person cannot be saved then I must deny the efficacy of the cross. But if I say that such a person can be saved then I must acknowledge that I have made no contribution at all to my salvation and all my cleverness is vain. I am like the Pharisees who asked Jesus where his authority came from. He replied that he would answer their question when they told him where the authority of John the Baptist came from – from heaven or from humans. They were damned no matter which way they answered so they refused to answer.
This makes us uncomfortable so we would prefer to ignore the question. Ignoring the question means that I must keep a distance between myself and disabled people. For this reason I do not want them in my church. I prefer to help such people from a distance. My piety can remain in tact and my subtle pride in my contribution to my salvation will go unquestioned.
Let us pray that God wakes us from such pious dreaming and brings the weak, the disabled, the marginalised into our churches so that we can come to know these people and help those who care for them in real way – a relational way.