So Jesus and the disciples are heading out onto the pilgrim road to Jerusalem. They’ve fallen in with a large crowd, because you don’t go from Jericho to Jerusalem without expecting to go toe-to-toe with bandits, and this crowd attracts the attention of a beggar sitting by the road. He’s a blind man, by the name of Bartimaeus, and when he hears that Jesus Is coming, he starts shouting out to the Son of David. Of course, people tell him to shut up, because that’s what people do when tramps start shouting and embarrassing everyone.
Bartimaeus has been pushed to the margins. He’s living out on the edge of town, and when he tries to speak out, he’s immediately silenced. Maybe that’s due to his social status, maybe his disability, maybe both, but no-one expects him to have anything useful to say. No-one, that is, except Jesus.
Jesus immediately gives Bartimaeus the chance to speak – “What do you want me to do for you?” Now, some would think the answer to that is obvious: surely he wants to see again, right? And yes, that turns out to be the right answer, but notice that Jesus doesn’t assume the easy answer and he certainly doesn’t take Bartimaeus’s voice from him. That’s a lesson for churches to learn when facing disability – my son is deaf, and if Jesus asked a representative sample of the deaf community what he could do for them, they wouldn’t necessarily say they wanted to hear. They’d be offended at the very suggestion, because deafness is a part of their very identity, not something that needs fixing. Agree with that or not, the church isn’t here to take the voices away from those around us; churchsplaining isn’t a great prologue to the good news of Jesus.
There’s more to being welcoming communities than simply meeting whatever accessibility legislation happens to affect our local church. True accessibility begins with listening for all the voices in our community, giving everyone the opportunity to articulate their needs and difficulties, their hopes and their dreams. I’m not convinced the church as a whole has yet figured out how to make all the diverse voices around us heard.
Maybe that starts with refusing to wait for people to turn up before trying to make accessibility a reality. Make an effort. Take a leap of faith. Invest in a couple of braille Bibles, subtitle those video clips you’re using, give some thought to the impact of our services on those with sensory needs. These are first steps and the beginning of a journey, but if our churches are to be truly accessible, it’s a journey that needs to be made.
Jesus made sure Bartimaeus’s voice was heard. As his disciples, should we be doing anything less?
(If you’re interested in starting this journey, it’s worth checking out Disability and Jesus for user-led insight into these issues. I’ve also touched on these themes in a post about autism and the church.)