“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”
Jean Vanier, Community And Growth
This leads us to the central importance of community in the Church, a community which embraces people of all abilities/disabilities in one joint common participation in the body of Christ.
The concept of belonging, of being with one another, is key to the achievement of inclusion. All too often what is called inclusion is in fact merely accommodation or tolerance, these things have nothing whatsoever to do with community.
It is not for disabled people to have to justify belonging to our churches. On the contrary our churches should have to justify why disabled people are being excluded. Ask many a church leader where are the disabled people in their congregation and watch them get defensive if not downright hostile, this is something we have encountered time and again.
We often find ourselves in conversations with churches that proudly tell us that there are no disabled people in their church so matters of disability are not things they need to concern themselves with. We have to then ask them to look at themselves more closely and with a critical eye and ask themselves why there are no disabled people in their church. So often the issue has to to do with problems of attitude rather than access.
Therefore we need to be a people who practice radical community, radical inclusion, radical hospitality, radical welcome, etc, people who are not afraid of the “heritcal imperative”. We have come to see these as Gospel imperatives. Jesus did this, and so must we. This is fundamental to human flourishing – we cannot flourish independently, only communally, interdependently. I cannot flourish properly unless you do.
Dave will tell you that there is a popular misconception about guide dog ownership, it is usually seen as an entirely one way relationship, that Dave is guided by Jarvis and Jarvis receives nothing in return.
Nothing could be further from the truth, when you are given a guide dog it is the guide dog owner themselves that must feed the dog, spend the dog, administer any medication and be responsible for it’s welfare. More importantly although Jarvis will guide Dave to a kerb and sit to let Dave know they are at a kerb yet it is Dave who will make the decision when to cross and give Jarvis the command forward, then if Jarvis decides it is unsafe he will simply over rule Dave. GDBA refer to this as intelligent obedience.
Dave will go on to tell you that the bond that forms between dog and owner is deep and profound, this is because of the mutuality of care they show for each other. Jarvis works for Dave not out of simple obedience but out of love, a love that is mutual and deeply heartfelt.
This is the kind of mutuality and interdependence that Jesus is calling us to in relationship between disabled and none disabled, this is the true meaning of “mutual flourishing”. If you ever meet Dave and Jarvis ask if you can follow behind a while as they work together, it is a very hard hearted person who can fail to be moved by the way their partnership works, the way they rely on each other for instruction, care, reassurance and confidence, a real demonstration of true mutuality. Being a guide dog owner has taught Dave so much about this idea of mutual flourishing.
The Imago Dei contains all of this – Jesus took woundedness, disfigurement and disability into the heart of God’s being, into the kingdom of God, when he was resurrected and ascended with his wounds, his disabilities.
Look at the parable of the prodigal son. When the father rushed out to meet him he brought him in and cleaned him up and dressed him in fine clothes. He did not send him away to get cleaned up before he was allowed back in but was brought in as he was.
Just because the secular world worships an unattainable ideal of physical (and mental) perfection, this does not make it how God sees things. We may look at an image of a beautiful sunset, and then see an image taken from the same spot during daylight which reveals a scarred and ‘ugly’ industrial landscape. Which is beautiful to God?
We cannot simply photoshop God’s creation! We have to stare right at the monster and search for it’s inner beauty.
The Church is a community of disciples on pilgrimage – and among the requirements for the pilgrimage group to enjoy a fruitful journey, are communality, interdependence, and corporate flourishing. The strong must carry the bags of the weak, there will be times when someone needs to be carried, we must do so, there will be other times where someone becomes excited and wants to run on ahead, we must also let them do so.
We can never assume that the entire range of human experience can be neatly divided into two camps: the "able-bodied" and the "disabled." Whilst such divisions can give the appearance of making the world more manageable and understandable, they can obscure other important truths. In reality, human beings are all differently-abled, we are all somewhere on Bills spectrum. We do not all have the same intelligence, athletic ability, flexibility, vision, or mobility… We mean , you can’t all be called Bill, Dave or Katie, or even Jarvis for that matter, it’s sad but it’s true.
Moreover, we are all dependent on each other in varying and complex ways; none of us can live without our relationships with others. Yet by dividing the world into the "able-bodied" and the "disabled," those who see themselves as "able-bodied" may be tempted to reassure themselves of their "normalcy," and obscure from themselves their deep dependency upon others in society as a whole, and even more importantly, within the body of Christ. To do this is to fail to understand the nature of the Body of Christ.
In reality, both "wholeness" and "disability" acquire their full meaning only within the shared contexts of communities of persons. People sometimes only recognise and identify a "disability" in comparison to others whose experience differs from theirs. But at a deeper and more important level, people with disabilities find wholeness in the shared experience of community. We experience wholeness, ultimately, when we find a place in community marked by contentment, acceptance, mutual caring, and love. These communities are always diverse and dynamic, made up of people with changing experiences, people on the spectrum, people who’s position on that spectrum is in a constant state of flux. A flux which inevitably will have a knock on effect on our place in the community, and as a result our relationships within the community are constantly changing.
We must adopt the approach of welcoming the stranger. Of course, almost every congregation has members with disabilities--members who are not "strangers" at all to the rest of the congregation, but rather people who are known and loved. But at another level, persons with disabilities are indeed strangers to their more able-bodied neighbours.
People with disabilities often awaken feelings of loss discomfort or awkwardness in other, more able-bodied people. In this more particular sense, people with disabilities are "strangers" to more able-bodied people. Their experience of the world is different and alien in profound ways.
People with disabilities often do not "fit" into the normal patterns of social life. They are often marginalised, excluded, made to feel inferior and unwelcome simply on the basis of their disability. They are often treated as "strangers" in the midst of the church, often a church which they have been part of for years. There is a powerful gospel mandate to welcome such strangers. This is a challenge, not to persons with disabilities, but to the church that often struggles to recognise and welcome them as full members of the body of Christ...In Jesus' gripping account of the final judgment narrated in Matthew 25:31f., all the nations are judged on whether, in caring for the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the stranger, they cared for Jesus himself. Jesus declares, "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me" (Matthew 25:35).
Dave often talks about life before and then after a guide dog. As Dave’s sight grew worse he began a gradual process of falling away from church, no one came to see where he was, it was not until he got a guide dog and began to re-emerge that people began to ask where he had been. Sometimes it is the church it’s self that causes us to become strangers.
The more the church grows in its capacity to welcome such people who are strangers, the more deeply the church will welcome and serve Jesus. It must therefore follow, the more people we cause to feel excluded, the more we exclude Jesus.