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. 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.

Three Reasons We Should Pay More Attention To Church Toilets

Think of church and you might think of a modern, open plan worship space; a stage, perhaps, and lighting rigs and a big LED screen hanging on the wall. Or you might think of Europe’s great cathedrals, high ceilings and hushed tones and holy statues lurking in corners. I’m guessing no-one thought of the toilets.

That’s a mistake. And there are three reasons why (aside from the obvious):

Justice

We need to think about the toilets because, frankly, in comfortable western societies toilets are taken for granted. The whole messy business of getting sewage in and out of places is something other people worry about. Yet 2.4 billion people don’t have a clean, safe place to go about their business, and while that’s obviously a health and hygiene issue, it’s also an issue of justice – girls around yhe world can’t go to school, or are put at risk of rape, all for the want of decent facilities. That’s why the Toilet Twinning initiative is such a good idea – it can turn your church toilets into vehicles of justice, and maybe that’s the sort of thing that Jesus would have us think about, rather than yet another upgrade to the sound system.

Dignity

There’s also the issue of dignity. Again, something that’s easy to take for granted,  but imagine being out of the house and getting caught short and genuinely being stuck without access to a toilet. That’s an everyday reality for many people with disabilities, something that organisations like Changing Places are working to, well, change. Around 1/2 million people can’t use standard toilets and there aren’t enough disabled facilities out there to grant people the dignity they deserve. Churches aren’t always as welcoming to people with disabilities as they could be; maybe you need to see whether the disabled loo in your church is fit for purpose, or whether it’s just become the place where the mop buckets are kept.

Service

But someone’s got to look after those toilets; someone’s got to fix the leaks, someone’s got to mop the floors, someone’s got to change the loo rolls. And if I know churches, the majority of people doing that are probably pensioners, often elderly women who love to serve the church but who don’t get enough recognition, many of who probably shouldn’t be lugging vacuum cleaners around in the first place but there’s no-one else to do it. Somewhere along the line we ritualised Jesus washing the feet of his disciples; maybe next Maundy Thursday the elders should quietly do a stint cleaning the toilets instead. They should certainly give thanks and recognition to the army of unacknowledged servants who make sure the church is cleaned every week. I believe Jesus honours this work; his church should too.

So this Sunday, when you walk past the church toilets, think about what they might have to teach us. Because it’s in the things we most take for granted that we are often the most challenged; it’s in the most humble of places that God often speaks the loudest.

Ability Sunday 2016

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It’s Ability Sunday 2016, a time to recognise gifts and abilities within our church, specifically gifts and abilities that may otherwise be ignored. It’s also a great opportunity to reconsider how we unleash those gifts into our communities.

This isn’t a post that aims to convince anyone that people with disabilities have gifts and talents that can find expression the Church – that’s a given, and if you need to be convinced, well, ask yourself why. No, this is a post that asks our churches to embrace this reality and stop leaving people on the margins. Because this happens far more than it should, and it needs to stop.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the church as a body, and just as a body is made up of many parts, a church is made up of many individuals, all of whom have their own gifts, talents and abilities. Those gifts all work together to build up the church, and with it the Kingdom of God – we call them gifts for a reason. And if people are prevented from using these gifts, if the doors are closed and the barriers are down, then the Church misses out.

The Church is, well, disabled.

This isn’t just about putting out pleas for volunteers and shrugging when no-one comes forward. This is about community – the sort of community that gets to know people as individuals, the sort of community that talks to people with disabilities, discovers their passions and ambitions and hobbies and interests and finds a way to bring these into the life of the congregation, not out of pity or the sense that we’re doing someone a favour, but because that person is a beloved child of God and our community will be enriched and empowered and strengthened as a result.

That may mean changing how things are done. It may mean that chairs need to be laid out differently, it may mean that someone needs to go on a course, it may mean that our church budgets need to be reprioritized, but those are just opportunities to embrace. And yeah, it’ll be messy, and we’ll make mistakes, but that doesn’t matter because it’s better to screw up than perpetuate a culture of exclusion.

But we need to be intentional about it. It’s no good thinking everything’s sorted because the church had a wheelchair ramp installed eight years ago, because that just means we’ll fail to see the barriers that are invisible to most of the congregation but that are painfully evident to those on the outside, the barriers that push people away from church. That’s why this is all about community – get over your fear of sign language or wheelchairs or someone not looking you in the eye, just make contact, make a connection, start a relationship. People with disabilities aren’t extensions of their families or carers; dignity and identity and self-determination are important. Relationships are important.

So on this Ability Sunday maybe it’s time to pray and think about who’s not represented in our church communities, about how we let ‘disability’ override ‘ability’ and shut people out in the process. Because everyone’s unique, everyone’s loved and everyone’s got something to offer. And when we discover that truth as a lived reality, our churches will start to be healed.

(There are more posts on this subject here.)