Autistic Pride Day: Yield Your Church’s Mic

My kids are both autistic. Youngest in particular struggles with confidence and self-esteem. After all, we don’t live in a world that’s overly tolerant of ‘difference’. But my kids have a right to be secure in who they are, proud of their individuality and their abilities. Their lives are about them, right?

I’ve seen a lot of discussion lately, particularly on Twitter, that points out that much of the conversation about autism privileges carers and parents more thanews those with autism themselves. I’ve written a lot here about autism and the Church but I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing. I jump in feet first and don’t often pass the mic – or the keyboard in this case. And yet as my kids get older, they’re more definite in their opinions, more clear about their individuality. We’ll always have to advocate for them, offer our support, but they need their own voices to be heard, to be proud in what they have to say, in what they have to offer.

And yet this week, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Fire, politicians were described as ‘austic’ as a lazy shorthand for a lack of empathy. That’s not a conducive environment to embracing neurodiversity, and it’s one that’s formed by language. And the use of language is often determined by those who have a platform.

There’s a phrase used a lot by the organisation Disability and Jesus, “nothing for us without us”. That’s why many of us need to yield the mic – advocate for autism appreciation in our churches, yes, but surrender our platforms so that things aren’t done to people or for people but with them. We throw around the phrase ‘be a voice for the voiceless’, but that assumes some people don’t have a voice – likes, dislikes, needs, desires – and that can deny someone’s personhood, their humanity.

The Church is a body, made up of many parts, and that body will benefit from embracing neurodiversity. And there’s not a one-size-fits-all picture of what that looks like, because every congregation is different and is formed by the Spirit working in and through each individual. We’re already meant to be a diverse body; sometimes the best way we support that is by shutting up, yielding the floor, passing the mic and listening.

Not a Problem: A post for Autism Awareness Week

My kids are not problems.

They both fall on the autistic spectrum, they both have their own difficulties. Life isn’t always easy for them, but they are not problems.

I think it’s important to keep stating this, because sometimes it feels like autism is seen as a threat to the status quo, that someone on the spectrum is going to cause disruption somehow. And when those attitudes prevail, you can see the portcullis fall; people rush to protect the “norm”, and that’s when the exclusion kicks in.

I mean, often everything’s okay until adjustments need to be made. But suggest that things might need to be done differently, that a different level of support might be needed to help people participate on an equal footing… That’s when truths are sometimes revealed. That’s when a call for equality and inclusion are portrayed as being unfair to everyone else. That’s when we find out just how welcome our kids are. That’s when we find out the on-the-ground truth behind claims towards inclusively.

And when this is true of the Church, well… I’d be willing to bet that many people with disabilities and their families have some horror stories. And sometimes, heartbreakingly, it feels that autistic kids are made to feel more welcome by Big Bird and the Cookie Monster than by God’s people on Earth.

And still my children are not problems.

My children are made in the Image of God, they are fearfully and wonderfully made. They are loved by their Creator and they are welcomed by their Saviour and the Holy Spirit dances through their lives. This I believe, even when institutions try to shackle them and dismiss them, even when we’re trying to extinguish flaming arrows while pulling knives from our backs. Faith under these circumstances requires an element of badassery.

My 12 year old loves going to church. He keeps asking to go. And that’s fantastic and I hope it’s an indication that God is whispering to him, meeting him where he is because that’s what God does. But it means we have to protect him from our cynicism, our history, our experience; he’s unaware of the stories that weave around his joy at being able to put chairs away. I kinda hope it stays that way. He doesn’t need to bear our scars.

Because he isn’t a problem.

There are families out there who are nursing wounds, and sadly those are often inflicted by friendly fire, eccesiastical collateral damage. And that can’t help but affect how we feel towards God, and so we have to hold on to the One who welcomed the weak and the humble, who stood alongside them, who blessed children when his disciples wanted to send them away.

And the Church needs to pray for healing, not for disabilities but for the way in which we’ve pushed people away, for the gossip and the ableism and the looks. We need to repent in the most literal sense – we need to change our minds and live differently. Because that’s what God call us to do.

And my children are not problems.

(There are a lot more posts on this subject here.)

Launchpad: Autism, Disability and the Church

do-not-be-afraid.jpgI have two sons with autism, and our experiences of church life have not always been straight-forward or even supportive. Inclusion for people with disabilities within the church is an issue that isn’t talked about as often as it should, and that silence leaves many families and individuals feeling like they’re on the outskirts of the faith, outsiders in the Kingdom of God. This should not be the case.

Because of this, I’ve written a number of posts on disability and the church, mainly from the perspective of a parent, and I’ve made an attempt to catalogue them all here.

Some posts outline what it’s like to go to church when your children have autism, the positives and the challenges; often, at it’s worst, it can feel like we’re in exile. That’s why it’s so important for carers to try and observe a Sabbath rest, and to try not to be afraid; that last one applies equally to the wider congregation, who need to recognise and celebrate the gifts of those with disabilities in our churches, and who need to look at ways in which we need to rediscover Pentecost when looking at inclusion. Hopefully then we can move from awareness, to acceptance, and finally through to appreciation; that’s when we can acknowledge that my kids are not a problem. Always remember that the great banquet of God has wheelchair access, and that there are times when the church needs to be a prophetic voice, and that sometimes we’ve got to meet with people on the roof.

Meanwhile, other posts aimed to put things into a wider context, both positive – like this post for Ability Sunday 2016 – or in trying to raise awareness of an increased level of violence aimed at people with disabilities, as shown through the horrific events in Sagamihara, and the way in which mockery seems to be becoming more ‘acceptable’, sadly.

Other posts touch on how these sort of issues are tackled within the Bible itself: in how Jesus makes sure blind Bartimaeus is given the dignity of using his own voice, for instance, or how Jesus clearing the Temple had a direct impact on people with disabilities. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s an Old Testament law that states we should never put stumbling blocks in the way of those with disabilities; that’s a lesson our churches need to rediscover before they can truly be called inclusive. We also need to get better at looking after our church toilets.

The blog also includes a few posts on mental illness: about how Elijah finds himself in what sounds like a depressive state at the top of Mount Horeb, about how art can be healing, about how the church needs to get better at talking about mental health, and about how, sometimes, the greatest ministry we have is simply the sacred ministry of giving a damn.

Meryl Streep, Golden Globes, Disability and the Church

I have two children with autism. They’re great kids and I love them and my wife and I want nothing but the best for them. And so it’s difficult watching their struggles, because we want them to have a full and fulfilling life and yet the barriers keep coming down and sometimes we have to just put our foot down and smash through the roadblocks that are put in place by schools, by churches, by governments, by random people in the supermarket. We try to shield and insulate our kids from that as much as possible. It’s not an easy task, it leaves you battered and bruised, and even though we’re still standing, sometimes it feels less like a great sword-wielding victory and more like the last fight in Rocky

So when Meryl Streep won a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes last night, and used her acceptable speech to attack the way in which political rhetoric legitimises bullying, particularly of people with disabilities, I’m with her all the way. Regardless of what you think of his platform, Donald Trump shouldn’t have mocked a disabled reporter last year.

Others aren’t quite so supportive. Many think she should have kept her mouth shut, not used the occasion to make what they see as a political point. Some of those people speaking out have been pastors.

 But look, this isn’t about partisan politics; I’m British, I have a whole different bunch of uninspiring political choices to make. No, this is about normalising a level of discourse in which criticising the mockery of people with disabilities has suddenly become controversial. And while that may seem to be an academic issue in the rarefied atmosphere of Twitter or Hollywood, on the ground it just continues to poison a culture that already gives less of a damn about disabilities than it likes to think it does.

That’s why it’s difficult to watch the Church cave into this sort of thinking. It’s already a struggle for many people with disabilities, and their families, to be part of church communities for a whole range of issues, many of which I’ve blogged about here. This can be a failure to offer the necessary practical and emotional support that’s needed, or a failure to communicate effectively, or criticism and infantilising of those with learning difficulties. That’s within the church: outside the church, things aren’t pretty either. PWD face regular assaults on their dignity, their fundamental worth as human beings is underappreciated. Trump’s mockery of Serge Kovaleski is part of that culture; yes, it’s horrifying to see this take place as part of a political rally, but let’s not kid ourselves, this happens every day.

So the Church needs to take a stand here, and as the public faces of our congregations, we need pastors to lead on this. Because it’s easy to dismiss Meryl Streep’s comments as the privileged voice of rich and successful Hollywood, but if you, as pastor, have a book deal and a megachurch and a regular invitation to the offices of political representatives, then you too are privileged, you too have a voice. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, provided the voice you use sounds like Jesus.

That’s the thing about the Church. It’s not here to sound like Democrats or Republicans, it’s not here to sound like Meryl Streep or Donald Trump. It’s here to sound like Jesus, it’s here to act like Jesus, and that means treating people with disabilities – and yes, everyone else – with compassion and grace. You want to discuss policy? Fine. You want to disagree? That’s okay. But don’t punch down, never punch down, never hold the coats while others are bullying, because that’s when our mission on Earth becomes fatally compromised. Normalise the indefensible and your church dies, even if the pews are still packed, even if the bank account’s still healthy. The Spirit moves somewhere else; the Glory departs the Temple; Jesus hangs out on the outside with the tax collectors and the disabled people.

Many people with disabilities find church difficult. It’s as simple with that. But if you have authority in a congregation, then you have the ability to do something about that. Your words can build up someone spiritual life and their inclusion in the wider Body of Christ, or they can just add to the impression that disabled people aren’t respected, aren’t valued, aren’t important. You have the ability to change and influence that culture. And I’m not asking you to agree with Meryl Streep’s politics, I’m asking you to hear her words about how people are treated, how people may feel, and think about how that impacts those under your pastoral care, or those who don’t come to your church because the light you give out doesn’t reach as far as people with disabilities.

Your choice. Your call. Go for it.

Disability and the Church: Prophesy in a Dangerous Time

The United Nations has recently released a report stating that welfare reforms in the UK have led to “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people. Along with the implementation of the reforms, one of the areas the report criticises is the portrayal of people with disabilities as lazy, scroungers, burdens on society. And that portrayal is the most insidious, because it allows all the other violations of rights to be rubber-stamped by those who buy into the negative depiction of, say, someone with ‘invisible’ disabilities, or who doesn’t need to use a wheelchair 24/7 (and who therefore gets criticised for walking when they can).

All of this is horrifying, and while some may quibble with the wording or the findings, research has found that attacks on disabled people are increasing, and while some of that may be down to increased reporting, it’s sobering to note that in the same period, violent crime in general has actually reduced.

All of which makes me worry about the future for my kids.

Now, I’ve posted here before about the need for the church to better engage those with disabilities. Inclusion is something that every church thinks it does well, but in reality there are a lot of things we can do better, a lot of things that need to change – buildings, yes, but also language, structures, attitudes… So many people feel exiled from the wider church community, so many people struggle to find acceptance within a congregation, so many have to fight every step of the way to be treated as an equal, for their kids to be respected like everyone else.

I’ve argued here before how the church needs to get past this, to recognise the Image of God in everyone and to make our sacred spaces more accessible and inclusive. All of this remains true.

But at the same time churches are meant to be outposts of the Kingdom of God. And they’re supposed to reflect the heart of Christ for those around them. And in a society where some of the most vulnerable are being treated terribly, where people are being scapegoated by the media and opportunistic politicians, the church has to decide whose side it’s on. In a sense it faces similar temptations to Jesus in the wilderness – keep quiet and bow the knee for earthly power, or take a stand. And that might be costly. We might offend some people who give generously when the collection plate comes round. We might have to divert some of our church budgets away from cosmetic enhancements in order to make sure we’re accessible to all. But people are becoming the victim of hate crimes, they’re being crushed in the gears of our political systems, and we can’t ignore that without fatally compromising who we’re meant to be.

The church needs to reclaim its prophetic voice. We need to speak the words of the God who has a heart for the poor and the marginalised. And some of that will mean challenging the entrenched views of some members of our congregations, and putting our own house in order first, but at the same time we need to show some leadership here. Because the world has the potential to go into some dark places here – we’re already on the way – and if we’re going to be the light of the world then we need to flick the lightswitch. Salt’s no good if it’s lost its saltiness, just something else to be walked all over.

We live in interesting times. We live in dangerous times. And those are the times at which the rubber needs to meet the road; those are the times we need to unleash the prophets and fling open the gates and declare that we’re not going to look like the world around us, instead we’re going to look, however imperfectly, like Jesus.

He’s waiting for us to join him.