The Paralympics start today!
I have two children with disabilities, becoming their dad in 2012. That was around the time of the London Olympics, with its mythic opening ceremony, and the first time I remember the Paralympics really entering the public consciousness. Or maybe it was just my perspective that had been broadened; maybe I was seeing the world with new eyes and a different perspective and a glimmer of awareness of my own privilege. A lot of that has been worked out on this blog.
Four years later and the Paralympics have come round again. There have been concerns about their viability due to poor ticket sales, and that might be telling, but ultimately the Paralympics allow us to celebrate sporting excellence, and that’s great. I hope Team GB win lots of medals, and I’ll be cheering on Team Refugees too. I’m not a sporty person – you want me to get competitive, you better break out the Trivial Pursuit – but I can appreciate the dedication and passion and determination within those who get to represent their country. And yes, people with disabilities face more challenges than most in navigating the world. Often that’s because other people are busy throwing up barriers.
See, at the same time that I’m watching the TV coverage from Rio, I want my own kids to be recognised for their gifts and their character and their potential, be that in art or design or taking things apart and putting them back together – even though they’re not Olympians. I want their struggles to be acknowledged, and I want services, be they community or statutory to treat them with dignity and compassion and as individuals. I don’t want them to be treated as icons of inspiration, I don’t want them to be infantilised all their lives, I don’t want them to be seen as a nuisance. I want them to be allowed to have a life. And I want that life to include spirituality, and so I want them to have access to churches and congregations and communities of faith.
Sometimes that’s a challenge. Sometimes that’s just not possible. Sometimes people don’t realise how difficult they make things. Sometimes people don’t care. And that discrepancy, the tension between the joy and the celebrations of Rio and the lived experience of people with disabilities within the Church can be a source of great difficulty and disappointment.
So here’s a request to pastors and elders and worship leaders and anyone else who stands at the front – please don’t use the Paralympics as a sermon illustration if your church isn’t engaging with people with disabilities on a day-to-day basis. Please don’t use the Paralympics as a sermon illustration if, when drawing attention to the ‘superhumans’ you also ignore the humanity – the dignity, the individuality, the gifts and the struggles – of those with disabilities in our churches. Because our societies have a bad habit of letting our heroes fall by the wayside, and the church is no exception to this. We can deny the fundamental Image of God in people, even when we’re being inspired by them.
Because while we’re celebrating the Games in Rio, there are people in our pews who are suffering under political austerity, who are falling into poverty, who are having their independence removed along with their cars. Some people are dying. Some people are being killed.
While we’re jumping up and down when our team wins a gold, there are people who can’t join in with our worship songs because the words are printed too small, there are people who can’t see the speaker because the only wheelchair access is stuck at the back, there are people who can’t come to church because their additional-needs children are rejected by their congregation.
Let’s celebrate our Paralympians. But let’s also welcome those with disabilities into our congregations, not as mascots, not as inspirations, but as individuals. We worship a Saviour who does that already, not just once every four years, but every second of every day. We can’t claim to be disciples if we’re not willing to do the same.