What is the church doing to reach out to people with disabilities?

Jesus gathered all sheep into his fold.

Jesus gathered all sheep into his fold.

I’ve been a church-goer all my life, belonging to congregations of various Protestant traditions. And I have to wonder why I so rarely see people with disabilities when I attend services.

I often encounter older folks on walkers and I take my aging mother in a wheelchair to the church we attend. I occasionally see a young person with a service dog.  But for the most part, I have almost never seen people with intellectual disabilities or any severe physical handicaps when I go to houses of worship.

My Uncle Melrose, who had an intellectual disability, attended services at a Baptist church when he lived in a group home. When he lived at a state institution, he was a regular at weekly worship on the campus.

Ostracized again

From the lack of visibility of people with disabilities in church, it appears that this is one more venue where this population is still kept separate from the mainstream of society. You would think it would be different, given that church communities are where unconditional love and acceptance are supposed to be the norm.

That’s why I was delighted when I saw that the Dallas Theological Seminary had published a number of web articles on the subject of welcoming people with disabilities into the church community.

Years ago, I was a member of a church that was also the spiritual home of a man who was visually impaired and who had schizophrenia. He had been abandoned by his family and was virtually alone in the world.

He was a very bright and curious man and he wanted to work, but had difficulty finding employment. He had his own apartment and used public transportation as well as hitched rides with fellow members of the congregation, including me, from time to time. Occasionally, he would have psychotic episodes at church or on group outings.

I was never around when these episodes occurred, but apparently they frightened the church staff.  I’ll never forget one of the ministers told me that it wasn’t appropriate for the church to help this man. We weren’t equipped to do so.

We’re all in this together

I understand what he was saying. I certainly was not trained to deal with a person experiencing psychosis. But at the same time, I had to wonder, if the church couldn’t help him, then who could?  He was a fellow traveler on the human journey. Aren’t we all in this together?

The apostle Paul wrote something that I think is apropos to this situation. In I Corinthians, he said, “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible.”

Indeed, in God’s eyes, the man from my church and my uncle were both indispensible, regardless of the limited gifts they had to offer or the deficits they endured.  I think the key here is that people like my uncle and the man at church require us to slow down and pay very close attention. They spur us to compassion and challenge us to abandon our selfish preoccupations.

If we can rise to the occasion, we’ll probably learn something about ourselves. We might even change a little bit. After all, isn’t that what going to church is about – opening ourselves up to the transformative power of the Divine?