“But, how do we help people with disabilities?” Christine asks.
I know what she means. I’ve been asked this question many times by pastors like Christine. She’s been struggling to help a young man with autism in her church. Other congregants have complained that he is distracting during services, and that his blunt conversation style makes them uncomfortable. She called me for tools to help him change his behavior and about starting a separate service for people with disabilities.
To begin, I emphasize the importance of a theology of belonging, embracing neurodiversity, and resisting the impulse to prescribe change on people with disabilities.
I know this is not the answer she is expecting. I am a social worker, and she’s looking for tools that would help this young man fit in better, so her congregants can feel more at ease. However, I have learned that clinical tools, while valuable, can actually perpetuate discrimination against people with disabilities if they are not used in a context of belonging and deep acceptance.
If a church begins from a place of trying to help someone fit in with the “norm,” or by creating separate spaces for people with disabilities, they miss out on the messy and beautiful work of vulnerability. They miss the opportunity to embrace others, and themselves, exactly as they are, and to understand belonging in a transformative way.
Our culture has planted a destructive idea in our communal subconscious: that productivity and achievement directly correlate to a person’s value: The CEO is more valuable than the janitor, the quarterback more valuable than the equipment manager. This idea has even distorted our vision of what it means to belong.
We often believe that belonging is earned or worked toward; that there are necessary steps or tools that allow someone to belong to a community. Scripture tells us a different story, though: That our very existence as created beings comes from the overflow of perfect belonging that exists between the persons of the Trinity: Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Belonging is what we are created out of. It is our deepest and truest identity.
The question is not “What do we do to help this person belong?” but rather, “How can this community better reveal to this person that they already belong?”
So, “how do we help people with disabilities?”
The first step in a Christian community is doing the messy and often uncomfortable work of embracing people exactly as they are. When a community starts with this practice, kinship and mutuality flourish. It is a beautiful act of resistance against the ethic of productivity and achievement. It gives everyone permission to know their worth is not based on their abilities or polished personality; rather, their worth is based on the unconditional love and grace of God.
Embracing vulnerability in ourselves and others reminds us that we need not strive to improve in order to belong, but that by our very nature, we belong to God and one another.
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From Everybody Belongs, Serving Together
Explore the full guide to inclusive ministry with people who have disabilities
Allison Waters is the former clinical director of Reality Ministries, a faith-based community where people of all abilities share life together in Durham, North Carolina. She studied theology and social work at Duke Divinity School and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and her career is focused on empowering faith-based communities to embrace neurodiversity.