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Celebrating just living with disability in the body of Christ.

This article reflects on the theme "God of life, lead us to justice and peace" from the perspective of living with disability. In the introduction I will briefly reflect on living with difference. Having impairment and living with disability means to live with difference. (1) This will be an explanation of impairment and disability that leads into a personal account of having impairment and living with disability. Then I will consider being human and what specific insights living with disability may bring to our understanding of being human. The final section will be a discussion about the church as the body of Christ, where all of us are to serve and be served thus proclaiming the good news of salvation to the world. In conclusion I will provide an illustration of justice in celebrating the resurrection.

"God of life, lead us to justice and peace" is a cry from our hearts as we seek to proclaim the gospel that every person is a member of our family and deserves to be treated with dignity. This is a radical and dangerous proposition in a world that fears difference, where we want to protect ourselves from the "other."

How Do We Live with Difference?

"The greatest challenge is to appreciate living together with difference. What divides us is smaller than what unites us, but so often it is what divides us that becomes all consuming." These comments come from my report after attending the World Council of Churches (WCC) assembly in Brazil in 2006. Embracing living together with difference has been a source of much prayer and reflection throughout my training and my early years in the ordained ministry, as I seek to be open to the Holy Spirit in proclaiming the gospel that seeks reconciliation in all spheres of life.

How we live with difference, with the "other," is a challenge for our world at this time of rapid communication and transport. The world becomes smaller with every decade. Nations are becoming more multicultural as immigration increases. Although finance, goods, and services flow freely around the world, the threat of terrorism limits people's movement. The world is getting smaller, but there is still a great fear of difference--of the "other." Examples of this fear can be seen in race riots that erupt on our streets from time to time and in discrimination against immigrants in employment. While it is natural to fear difference, this leads to distance and division among people, which in turn leads to the "other" being treated differently. As humans we like to divide and conquer, and the result is injustice and oppression.

The story of creation reminds us that all human beings are made in the image of God. Every person is unique and we all share being human. To do justice, we need to honour the uniqueness and particularity of everyone while at the same time recognizing that we are all human. The message of Christ is that every person is our brother, sister, or mother: that we are all related and are to love one another. The parable of the sheep and goats reminds us that those who are in need show us the face of Christ. These people are shunned by society and live on the margins, existing on charity and facing injustice daily.

Living with difference has been a constant theme through my life. I was born with cerebral palsy, which affects my speech and co-ordination. Growing up, I learnt very early on that having speech impairment was a challenge, not only for me but for society at large. The world does not understand speech impairment.

People living with disability are often referred to as having "special needs." These special needs are seen to set us apart from the rest of society. The emphasis by society on being special often leads to injustice. Meeting the "special needs" of people living with disability is often done with little consultation with us. At times, "special treatment" can seem as though it is for the benefit of the givers rather than the recipients. As a child and a young person, I didn't like being labelled as "special" and going to "special" events for people with impairments. I disliked being treated differently.

What does "God of love, lead us to justice and peace" mean in relation to disability. How do we ensure that justice is done in our relationships with others? What does that justice look like?

What Is Disability?

The World Health Organization describes disability as a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person's body and features of the society in which he or she lives. (2) The New Zealand Disability Strategy describes the difference between impairment and disability this way: Individuals do not have disability, but rather impairments. They may be physical, sensory, neurological, psychological, intellectual, or some other impairment. Disability is the process when one group of people designs a world solely for their way of living, taking no account of the impairments of other people, and thus creating barriers for them. (3)

Examples of impairment not classified as disability are people who may have a visual impairment that is corrected by glasses or people who have a hearing impairment that is corrected by a hearing aid. While I do have speech impairment, this is not a disability in written communication.

What Is It Like to Live with Impairment?
   Impairment: Gift and Struggle (4)

   Impairment is part of the life that God gives us.
   It does not diminish wholeness,
   Being human, fashioned in the image of God.

   Wholeness is living to the full,
   Being at peace with oneself and with God.
   Impairment is part of the life God gives us.

   It is a challenge to live with it.
   Attitudes of others and inaccessible buildings

   Do disable and make life difficult.

   However we share this world with others.
   Impairment is part of the life that God gives us.

   We discover the gift in different ways.

   Come let us share this gift together.
   Partners in the struggle of being human
   Rejoicing in the diverse experience of life.

As with any human characteristic, having impairment brings gifts and struggles. Unfortunately, society gives the message that all impairment is disability and that disability is abnormal and something to be avoided at all costs. This demeans and damages not only people with impairments but our whole society. It labels people as not having any worth and it wastes a valuable human resource.

While it would be wrong to deny the struggle of impairment, it is equally wrong to deny that there are gifts to be found in impairment. People will often say to me, "You have done so much to overcome your disability," or, "You are so capable despite your disability." Although these are compliments, they come from a perspective of impairment/disability as simply a struggle, as being of no value in shaping the person I am. Who we are is shaped by the characteristics given to us by God. For example, along with impairment, my being a New Zealand pakeha (5) woman with university-educated parents has shaped who I am.

Having lived with impairment I know well the struggle of coping with people who do not understand, as well as coping with the limitations of muscles that do not work properly. But I also know the gift of impairment in the joy of working with others to discover ways around obstacles. An example is creating liturgy and having others participate in it, and realizing that sharing the experience of impairment is appreciated by others. It is often in the struggle of impairment that the gifts of God's grace are found.

I have found great strength and passion in working together with other people with impairment. We get on with the work, disagree, have fun. Our particular needs are catered for in a way that is respectful and they do not dominate our agenda. Far from being limited, a meeting of people with various impairments is an education in good communication. At times non-disabled people do help facilitate communication: for example, between a person who is blind and another who is non-verbal.

Thomas Reynolds reinforces this in his books Vulnerable Communion, in which he writes about three characteristics of being made in the image of God: creativity, interdependence, and availability to others and God. (6) In my experience, interdependence and making space for others are present when working in the disability sector--sometimes more so than in the church. Through necessity, interdependence, and making room for each other--for example, allowing space for wheelchairs and reading out printed information--become second nature to people with impairments working together. These actions are seen as a matter of justice to ensure people can fully participate, rather than being a matter of special concessions.

As Christians we often refer to the time we live in--between the first coming and second coming of Christ--as the "in between." Christ has come and the liberating work of the reign of God has started, but it is far from complete. We catch glimpses of the peace and justice of the reign of God in the church and in society while we pray and work for the fullness of reign of God to come on earth. In the church, we struggle with prejudice and discrimination. As a person living with disability, I have experienced the church being "in between." I have experienced God's amazing love and grace through my sisters and brothers, while at other times their actions and attitudes have, through ignorance, caused great pain.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

In his book Beyond Accessibility Brett Webb-Mitchell quotes Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, who argues that people who are disabled remind those without disability what it is to be human] One of the gifts of the disability and spiritual movements is the deep reflection on what it is to be human, coping with the joys and the pain of living in our real bodies. Where is God in the midst of struggle and pain? Few places allow the time and space to truly consider what it is like to live in our bodies and our spirit, to cry and celebrate the reality of being human.

In Genesis 1 we read that humankind is made from the dust of the earth and in the image of God. Several years ago I wrote a chant for Ash Wednesday that reflected this understanding of humankind: "From dust we come and to dust we shall return for we are God's people, creatures of the earth, made in the image of our God, made in the image of our God." Being human means having two distinct natures: we are made from dust like other creatures of the earth, and we are made in the image of God. From the very beginning of our Judeo Christian tradition, we have a clear statement of where the whole of humanity fits in to God's creation. This keeps us grounded in the reality of living on the earth and also encourages us to know that we are partners with God in creation.

Human Limitation

As human beings and creatures of the earth we are finite and have limitations. The infinite power of God is limited in us. We do not have infinite power; our existence depends on God. From the moment we are born until we die, we are dependent on God.

Throughout our lives most of us experience a variety of levels of dependency on other human beings. When we are born we are totally dependent on others for all our needs, and gradually we become more independent. In adulthood we are at our most independent, able to raise the next generation. At the end of our lives we may become less able to care for ourselves and become more dependent on others again to meet our basic needs. Even at our most independent, however, we are still interdependent on each other for the production of food, other essential services, and for relationship.

This view of humanity being dependent on God and on each other challenges the ideal of independence that pervades much of Western thinking. The idea that we are self-sufficient, autonomous, and rational beings is a myth created to suit the capitalist economic system. This does not serve most of humanity well and leads to exploitation and injustice. Anyone who is not independent is considered of lesser value.

The church is not immune from this thinking, particularly for people in ministry. Some experiences of people with disability and other marginalized groups in ordained ministry, where particular needs are not met, are not always focused on justice. Inadequate support can lead to disempowerment in ministry. However, at other times in ministry particular needs are met with graciousness. Through our interdependence, the Spirit works in the most amazing ways, proclaiming the reign of God's justice is among us!

Image of God

Traditional formulations of humans being made in the image of God have emphasized individual characteristics such as intelligence, rationality, and control of emotions, disregarding the nature of God to be in relationship. These formulations exclude many people living with disability, along with women and people of colour. More recently, the emphasis of what it means to be made in the image of God has shifted from individualistic characteristics to our capacity in relationships.

Being made in the image of God refers to the ability of humanity to relate to God, one another, and creation. For example, Thomas Reynolds speaks of three dimensions of the image of God: creativity with others; relations to others; and availability for others. (8) These dimensions reveal that all people are made in the image of God, whatever our level of consciousness. When we are in relationship and open to God's Spirit, an infant, a homeless person, or a person with dementia are just as likely as a spiritual teacher to reveal the image of God to us.

Disability: Is It Part of Being Human?

Having a disability is often portrayed as being alien to being human and something to be feared. The person who experiences disability is seen as an individual with an impairment that needs to be eliminated, or at least treated, so they can fit in with society. This often forces people living with disability to the edges of society, where cries for justice are poorly understood and ignored. The response to disability is often charity: the parable of Lazarus and the rich man comes to mind.

An alternative view is that impairment is a natural part of being human. It is part of the diversity and limitation we all experience. People who live with disability are a minority, but we all experience limitations. Impairment should not be viewed as alien, but rather as on the continuum of limitation that all humans share. To say that impairment is natural in no way minimizes its challenges. Rather, it affirms the basic humanity of people living with disability. Viewing impairment and disability as being part of human experience leads us to recognize those living with disability as people, creatures of the earth made in the image of God. The need for physical access is understood as a matter of justice for all, enabling participation rather than provision for "those people with special needs."

The biblical narrative contains many references to the treatment of people with impairments, from not reviling the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind (Lev. 19:14) to making straight paths so what is lame may not be put out of joint (Heb.12:12-13). It is a matter of justice that the environment needs to be accessible so people with impairments can participate in community life. The healing narratives in gospels are about people being restored to the community as much as physical healing for the individual. (9) My heart leapt when I read Tom Reynolds's statement, "Healing is the effect of inclusion," (10) because this has been my experience. In an environment where I can contribute in all my strength and vulnerability I find wholeness and holiness. There is no struggle and embarrassment; there is a deep sense of justice and peace!

In the biblical story, there are many examples of people's impairments being crucial in the service of God's purposes: Moses with his speech impairment, Jacob's hip being put out of joint, and Paul's thorn in the flesh--as well as the barren women! In the midst of the challenge of impairment, we find much to learn about being human as individuals and as society.

What Are the Gifts of Impairment?

Many nations now have legislation to make the physical environment more accessible for people with disabilities. People still regard these as provisions for those with special needs. This mind-set is still with us in many churches that are not accessible to people with mobility impairments. When challenged, people will say they haven't got anyone in a wheelchair and they cannot afford it. Similar comments are made with regard to improving sound systems and lighting. Sometimes these comments are made even though congregations are elderly and would benefit from increased accessibility.

Making the environment more accessible is better for everyone. Having buildings accessible for people using wheelchairs particularly helps people caring for young children using pushchairs, young adults setting up for music performance, and pall bearers. Having an effective sound system helps people who are not confident at public speaking to be heard, including young people.

As a priest with speech impairment, I appreciated going to a church where the readings were displayed on PowerPoint as a normal part of the worship service. I did not have to make particular provision in reading the gospel, fearing people could not understand me. It also helped those who were hearing impaired or for other reasons had difficulty understanding the reader. And it gave extra opportunity for people to see as well as hear the scripture as it is being read. While having the text of the readings available is inclusive of many people, it also was good not to have special provision made for me. At times particular provisions for speech impairment can distract from the intention of the ministry I offer.

But maybe the special provisions do speak of the power and the grace of God in the midst of impairment, despite my embarrassment. Paul refers to our having treasure in clay jars so that the extraordinary power of God may be clearly shown in us. Clay jars made of shells are brittle, easily broken, and liable to decay (2 Cor. 4:7). Our bodies, like clay pots, are weak, fragile, and easily broken. While they are not perfect and at times are hard to live with, our bodies like clay pots are part of God's good creation. God entrusts the treasure of the gospel to us, with our fragile bodies that are easily marred.

Rest, Activity, and Creation

The refrain "and there was evening and there was morning" six times throughout Genesis 1 symbolizes that both rest and activity are needed for creation. The pattern of rest and activity is repeated again and again in natural processes: In gardening, there are times of activity and times when the soil lies fallow and is at rest; making bread, the dough must be worked and then left alone to rise. Our bodies are parts of creation and need the pattern of creation: of rest and activity. After creation, God rested on the seventh day, and thus commanded us to honour the Sabbath.

With the relentless demands of our world it is easy for us to forget the pattern of rest along with activity. People with disability are compelled to live life at a slower rate, because often our bodies do not work like those of the majority of people. Society often does not take account of our particular needs in a way that allow us full participation, particularly in employment. This prevents many people with disability from reaching their potential and making a full contribution to society. Although I have a university education, I have spent considerable time on a benefit because I was not able to find suitable employment. It feels like one is consigned to the scrap heap on the margins of society--a situation of injustice that many people with disability share.

Yet, people with disability remind society that we, as parts of creation, need rest. This message is not popular in the world of business, where time is money and the goal is to maximize profits. People who cannot keep up fall by the wayside, and this is considered just an unfortunate consequence of life. This does a disservice to human beings, reducing people from being partners with God in creation to cogs in an economic system serving capital. The prophets of Israel and Jesus were critical of the economic system, putting profits before people and neglecting those it oppressed.

Making Room for the Other

There is a connection between being at rest and hearing the voice of God. There are many references in the Psalms to being still and waiting on God. God was revealed to Elijah not in wind, earthquake, or fire, but in silence. In Kings 19:11-12 Jesus often withdrew from activity to pray. We are called out of our preoccupation with our activity to be open to God.

Part of being creative is making room for the other. When people with disability gather to work together, there is a high degree of interdependence and "making room for the other." Few of us can be completely independent of other people because of our impairments. When particular needs are met in a respectful matter impairments do not become barriers and people can fully contribute. Being interdependent we discover that we all have a part to play in creating paths of reconciliation and new life.

It is a joy and grace when others make room for my particular needs: for example, when people slow down enough for me to join in responses in worship. There was grace at my ordination both as deacon and priest when all of us said our vows together. Several people in the congregation commented on how they could clearly hear the vows because they were said slowly! There was a sense of justice in saying the vows together, honouring the particular need of one of the group.

Hope in the Dark Times

Many people testify to discovering a new sense of the power and grace of God through times of desolation and pain. Faith is strengthened and we know deep within our bones the truth of Christian faith. These times call deeply on the roots of our faith. Disability can lead us into a deep experience of God as we struggle with very poignant questions of the meaning of life.

Like many other experiences in life, there are times when impairment and disability are a struggle. Here, where there is little else to distract us from the rawness of life, we can meet God. With the psalmists we cry out to God: "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you" (Ps. 73.25); "Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!" (Ps. 130:1-2). The wilderness is neither pretty nor romantic. However experience has taught me that out of the depths of despair, new and surprising life can emerge in grace.

The relationship between pain, struggle, and justice is difficult. Unjust actions often cause distress and heartache. Yet there can be redemption through it all: the great motivator to work for justice. The story of the life, death and resurrection of Christ reveals that pain and struggle are part of life, but through these there is hope of resurrection. This challenges our society, which sees no hope in pain and disability, viewing these experiences as without value.

In times of struggle we need companions with us to listen, cry, and remind us that we are made in God's image, and in this way help us see the hope. At times of dark despair in my life, my sisters and brothers in Christ have given me hope to go on. When secular society saw me as a person of little value, the body of Christ gave me an alternative reality, affirming my humanity and offering hope.

What Can We Learn from Being the Body of Christ?

In John's gospel, the new commandment to love one another just as Jesus loved the disciples was given in the midst of talk of betrayal and denial among friends (John 13:21-38). Jesus was signalling a new way of operating in this world. Living in justice in our relationships with each other, the church was to show the world a new way of living together: loving rather than fighting one another.

From the earliest times, the church has been referred to as the body of Christ. In Rom. 12:4-8, Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ; all members are part of the body with different functions, and we are members of one another. 1 Cor. 12:14-27 speaks of recognizing, honouring, and caring for the different parts of the body, all of which are necessary to a healthy body. Both passages remind us that we are interdependent and that it is by God's grace we are given gifts for the building up of the whole body of Christ. It seems that the church sometimes forgets this and only wants people who can do everything (and more)!

The church is itself disabled in its mission if it does not include people living with disability, who offer the church the opportunity to learn more deeply what it is to be the body of Christ. We will discover more gifts among us as we make space for each other and do justice by attending to all our particular needs. The presence and ministry of people living with disability remind the church that no one person should be expected to minister alone; rather, all members are called to do their part in the body.

Working together as a body in the church is both a challenge and gift. While doing a group task, we sometimes think it would be easier to do ourselves. However being made in the image of God, we are called to be in relationship and make space for others. In spite of the frustration, there is also joy and wonder when working together: God is present in a very tangible way.

"To be members one of another" we need a mutuality of relationship, where people both give and receive. All members in the body of Christ are to serve and be served. People living with disability need to discover and exercise their gift just as other people.

The church as the body of Christ has the opportunity to model relationship of respectful mutuality between all people, where people living with disability are partners with others in the ministry and mission of the church. The church can offer a place for marginalized people living with disability where our gifts are valued. In supporting each other, people can use these gifts to build the body of Christ.

The common view in society that people with disability are only recipients of care leads to huge frustration: we are seen as dependent and having nothing to contribute. While it is vital to affirm and encourage the gifts of people with disability, it is also important for us all to be served in a spirit of mutual respect. The emphasis in the church is on servant hood: we all want to be like Jesus and wash the feet of the disciples (John 13:1-20). But at times we need to have our feet washed too: Jesus said to Peter that unless he, Jesus, washed Peter's feet, Peter could have no share with him (John 13:8). We all need the graciousness to be served as well as to serve.

Recently, I was talking to a friend and colleague who had been my support person at an international meeting. He commented that he needed to be a servant to me and not to take over. I felt uncomfortable because I didn't want him to feel like my servant. A few days later, a friend (and mentor) who uses a wheelchair came up to Auckland to attend the women's conference at St John's Theological College. Her motel was not quite as accessible it needed to be, so I altered things to make it easier for her. During the conference, I kept an eye out for her in case she needed assistance. I gladly did this for her. After reflecting on these incidents, I realised that in the body of Christ, we are all called to be servants to each other, our brothers and sisters. In the church, people living with disability are no longer seen as dependent: rather we are interdependent sisters and brothers in Christ. In doing justice in honouring one another may we learn to pray with our hearts: "Brother, sister let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you, Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too. " (11)

A Story of Justice Celebrating the Resurrection

In 2012, after serving as an assistant priest in the parish of Otahuhu for three years, I found myself without employment. For the first six months, I worshipped and was in ministry as a non-stipendiary priest in parish of Pakuranga. I was very involved in the parish community for Lent and Easter. The vicar, Lucy Nguyen, invited me to co-preside with her at several services, including the Easter Eve vigil. After the drama of Holy Week and Good Friday, it was very poignant to share in guiding the community of faith through the Easter vigil, to proclaim Christ is risen and celebrate the eucharist, and in community to re-member the broken body of Christ. It was tremendous affirmation of priesthood at a difficult time. I love to celebrate the eucharist; however, with speech impairment I find it a challenge to say the whole eucharistic prayer on my own. It was such a privilege to concelebrate with Lucy. The experience acknowledged to the community my role as a priest, taking into account my particular impairment. I did not feel awkward or conspicuous: Lucy and I were priests sharing the load of presiding together over the community. This was justice in action!

DOI: 10.1111/erev.12012

(1) In this article I will refer to people with impairments or people living with disability instead of referring to disabled people. Terminology is very contentious. The term "disabled people" is a political term, which can cause confusion for a predominantly non-disabled audience when distinguishing between "impairment" and "disability." People who are disabled need to be able to define themselves. In some countries, terms such as "differently abled" and "special needs" are rejected by the disability community, although the latter is used for Disability Network in the Christian Conference of Asia.

(2) "Disabilities," World Health Organization website,


(4) Terrell, Vicki, "Impairment: Gift and Struggle," in Oh Light. An Anthology of Writings and Reflections to Enrich the Spirit, ed. Anna Gilkison (Lower Hutt, N.Z.: Disability, Spirituality and Faith Network with Whitireia Publishing, 2008), 107.

(5) Pakeha New Zealander is a person whose ethnic origin is European. My ancestors came to Aotearoa New Zealand in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

(6) Reynolds, Thomas, Vulnerable Communion. A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, Mich., Brazos Press: 2008), 177.

(7) Webb-Mitchell, Brett, Beyond Accessibility." Toward Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Faith Communities (New York, N.Y.: Church Publishing, 2010), 100.

(8) Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 177.

(9) Ecumenical Disability Advocate Network, A Church of All and for All: An Interim Theological Statement (Geneva; World Council of Churches, 2003), 21.

(10) Reynold, Vulnerable Communion, 224.

(11) Gillard, Richard, "Brother, Sister, Let Me Serve You," in Alleluia Aotearoa Hymns and Songs for All Churche (Christchurch, N. Z.: Hymnbook Trust, 1992), 8.
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Author:Terrell, Vicki
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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