Disability, the Church and the Harvest
By Paul Black
PEORIA – Ministry with persons with disabilities and not ministry to or for them represents one of the largest fields the church has not fully harvested.
Dr. Amos Yong of Fuller Theological Seminary, set a theological framework for the church’s ministry with persons with disabilities as part of the 2016 Annual Conference emphasis on disability awareness.
Fuller, who has written two books on the theology and disability became interested in the topic when his younger brother, Mark, was born with Down's Syndrome.
“As I began to look at theological materials on disability, there was a dearth in scholarly and theological reflection,” Yong said.
He noted that the church has had a long history of dealing with disability, beginning with a time of charity and paternalism. “With the advent of the Industrial Age, people went off to work so community and villages support networks broke down,” Yong said. “Institutions took over and what was woven as part of our daily lives became fragmented and less infrequent. By the 1960’s, government took over as the primary guardian and with the lack of contact, the Church adopted the attitude, “There’s just not that many disabled people in our community.”
Yong pointed out that form followed function. “When we think about church buildings, we can see how our churches were designed for persons who are already there,” he noted.
Another theological consideration is the assumption often made around charismatic healing. “God heals but doesn’t always cure,” Yong said. “The distinction is important because without it, we lead people to a place where we define things and categorize people.”
Utilizing the Gospel text of Luke 13, Yong notes that the Pharisees are worried about healing on the Sabbath. “There are six other days in which to be healed; come back and get healed then,” they say. “And yet, it is those opposed to Jesus’ healing that truly were the ‘bent over.’”
Yong suggested that a more holistic way of talking about disability is needed.
“In I Corinthians 12, Paul challenges certain notions of self-suffering,” he said. “For example, the weaker and less honorable parts as being indispensable; the unity of the body as constituted by the diversity of their members and their gifts; and the foolishness of God in shaming the world. Could it be that Paul was the first theologian of intellectual disability?”
Yong suggested that the model for the church be one of Disability Belonging – where ministry is done with persons of disability not “to” them or “for” them. It indicated that such a model requires collaboration with organizations that serve people with disabilities and their families, the that the church can also take on the role of advocate to amplify the voice of individuals and their families.