What We Believe
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Reflecting on Disability in the Church

Judith M. Dinsmore

New Horizons: January 2022

Coming Alongside in a Crisis

Also in this issue

Coming Alongside in a Crisis

Loving a Hurting Neighbor

Reflecting on Disability in the Church

Judith M. Dinsmore

As supper guests a few weeks ago, my family played a mind-bending conversational game with our hosts and their kids, the objective of which was not to play by the rules but to discover the rules—to the delight of the initiated and the slow-dawning satisfaction of those puzzling it out.

I had that same sense at the August MTIOPC training on disability in the church, where unlearning an old way and absorbing a new one was at the heart of the course.

There is an “old” way to consider disability—the old way of the flesh, recalled OP pastor Ben Snodgrass, a participant in the course that was held at Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine. But according to 2 Corinthians 5:16–17, we have been given a new one.

By the old valuation, Snodgrass explained, when a family with a disability begins to regularly visit a church, they might be seen as a drain, as a burden, a family that must be helped. But those who are indwelt by the Spirit are able to think differently: “When we regard people according to the Spirit, we say, ‘Oh great! Here comes a family! How can we bless them? What gifts are they bringing to the church?’”

Indispensable

In June 2019, Snodgrass had given a seminar on caring for caregivers at the church he pastors, Falls Church in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. The seminar came about simply because he and his session were seeking to respond to the needs that were before them. Afterward, Snodgrass began to pray—What next? Another seminar? Then he saw the email about the 2021 MTIOPC course.

The topic of disability in the church is so important because it displays whether we are thinking according to the flesh or according to the Spirit, Snodgrass observed.

Donna Hammond agrees. She and her husband, OP pastor George Hammond, were participants in the course and also spoke from personal experience as parents of a daughter with cognitive disabilities. Donna pointed out that church members can be tired, leading them to regard church attendees, or even potential church attendees, who have disabilities through eyes of exhaustion: “We can be resentful of people who will put a drain on resources or on our peace and comfort,” she said.

For George Hammond, thinking according to the Spirit about disabilities must come back to 1 Corinthians 12, especially verse 22: “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

“It’s a nice sound bite,” he said, “but I found myself asking, do I really believe that? There are a lot of rational reasons why it would really be better for the church to have a lot of impeccably able people.” But—the parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable. The church needs those with hearing, visual, cognitive, and ambulatory disabilities.

Hammond, pastor of Bethel Presbyterian in Leesburg, Virginia, wrestled with these questions, eventually writing It Has Not Yet Appeared What We Shall Be: Considering the Imago Dei in Light of Those with Cognitive Disabilities. In it, he considers the church’s need for those with cognitive disabilities. His words can be widened to include all those with disabilities: “[Their] presence … is a rebuke to our self-defined worth, and a reminder that God’s salvation is by grace alone.”

Thanks to a Reformed understanding of life in a fallen world, we can expect to attend church alongside those with disabilities. We can expect to meet those who cannot sit still for the service and those who must remain seated in a wheelchair; kids who only ever wear soft sweatpants due to an overload of sensory input and adults who have trouble looking you in the eye.

It is not a problem when those with disabilities change the habits or budget or look of a church. What is a problem is when they are not in church at all.

Their absence is a loss, and leaves the church vulnerable to the incongruity of an able group talking about a sin-ravaged world—and vulnerable as well to a worldly confidence in the flesh.

Removing Barriers to Worship and Fellowship

In the MTIOPC class, instructor Stephen Tracey, pastor of Lakeview OPC, gently challenged a common assumption: that ministry to those with disabilities requires adding special events or committees. Rather, it may simply mean subtracting what shouldn’t be there: physical barriers, lack of understanding, and snap judgments.

Steps, hard pews, narrow doorways: all can be barriers. They can even be spotted in online photos and keep a potential visitor away. Instead of lecturing on accessibility, Tracey gave a tour of Lakeview OPC as an example of a church constantly reevaluating its facility. He pointed out the chairs with arms and cushions interspersed among the pews; the lift down to the basement; and the wheelchair ramp in the parking lot. For parents of children with autism, there’s a small bin of sensory toys in the room in the back of the sanctuary (someone washes them each week); and in the basement, a Sunday school room was converted to a sensory room with a beanbag chair, weighted blankets, and more sensory toys.

Understanding what someone in front of you needs might be impossible until they tell you. Dr. Sonja de Boer, John Galbraith’s granddaughter and a recognized expert in the field of autism who presented to the MTIOPC participants, shared a wealth of examples of what a typical person in church might misunderstand about someone with autism. For an adult with autism, Sunday morning small talk might be uninteresting or exhausting. For a family with a child with autism, coming into church clothed and clean might have taken hours of preparation. The ten-year-old sibling helping his autistic brother up the stairs might be feeling waves of guilt for wanting to play with his friends instead.

A third obstacle to ministry is that snap reaction of judgment so easily deployed when someone seems “off.” A pastor at the MTIOPC training explained that once members in his church realized that a certain adult had autism, the members’ attitude changed and became warmer. That’s good, de Boer replied. But what would it take for us to “react with kindness before we knew?” Snap reactions can include, perhaps especially include, the parents of children with special needs. Those families may be struggling because they have been made to feel shame, Donna Hammond observed. “People judge the parents more than the kids … when they find out what their life is like, or what the coping mechanisms are that they have in their family.”

Not an Expert

Disability and the church is a topic that may only become more relevant: one in every fifty-four children today, for example, is diagnosed with autism. And tempting as it might be to think the answer lies in knowing more about disability—about the autism spectrum, about learning disabilities, about accessibility and the surrounding government regulations—that’s not quite the goal. As George Hammond commented during the training, “You don’t need to be an expert on people with disabilities; you just need to be an expert on the people in your church.”

The MTIOPC training did not spiral into ever-more-specific details of care that placed a burden of specialized knowledge on shoulders already heavy with responsibility. Instead, “for me,” Snodgrass said, “it was the affirmation that I didn’t need to build a formal program, known as disability ministry, within our church. Disability ministry is not some wing of ministry. It is ministry.”

To be in the room was to witness ministers and members exhibit an otherworldly love that focused on details only inasmuch as they served actual people—stories of whom they had aplenty. Hope truly attends a conversation that regards church attendees as first made in the image of God and only second as people beset with sundry sorrows and weaknesses. As George Hammond writes:

The latent potential of man to be the most God-like of all creatures, which was never realized in Adam, and having now been realized in Christ, the God-man, will be realized in all those who are vitally united to him. (161)

The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, January 2022.

New Horizons: January 2022

Coming Alongside in a Crisis

Also in this issue

Coming Alongside in a Crisis

Loving a Hurting Neighbor

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