The Church and Disability History

disability history

Persons with disabilities have a history, but it is too often an untold history. Especially in the church, disability history is silenced, just as many people with disabilities are silenced. Despite this, I believe the church provides the resources necessary for their inclusion and valuation as essential members – if only their history criticizes and challenges the history of the church. 

When my wife and I moved from Ohio to California we only brought with us what we could fit in our (small) car. This required that we leave behind most of what we owned. Only the most essential items could come with us. I usually relish any opportunity to purge, like to do so frequently, and try to convince others to do the same. Lately, however, I’ve been starting to reconsider my position on the subject.

I believe my desire to rid myself of my possessions is directly connected to a feeling that I don’t really have a history. There isn’t really a narrative (religious or otherwise) that I find myself within, or have ever found myself within.

Of course, in reality, I do have a history – everyone does. But I have always felt cut-off from it. This is probably why I resist, and have resisted, being a part of “the church.” The history and traditions of the church seem foreign to me and to my sense of identity. It feels disingenuous accepting and inheriting the long tradition of the church, and, dare I say, irrelevant.

So now that I’m truly cut-off from my history, living in a foreign place among strangers, I find myself longing for those relics which help me to locate myself, which help me to remember who I am and where I come from. Perhaps history actually begins in exodus.

What does this have to do with persons with disabilities?

Every theory of the church must therefore raise the question, and allow it to be raised: who is it intended to benefit, and for whom and in whose interest is it designed?
– Jürgen Moltmann

First, whether we like it or not, the church has not always treated persons with disabilities with love, dignity, and respect. This is part of my resistance in fully embracing being a part of the church. I have witnessed the ways in which the church either remains silent or perpetuates negative beliefs about people with disabilities, as well as the exclusionary practices of the church towards people with disabilities. Why would I want to be a part of a tradition that continues to exclude and marginalize people like my brother? Inheriting the tradition and history of the church means, in some way, taking on the failures of the past, and I’m uncomfortable with that.

Yet, despite this, I believe that only the church can correct these mistakes. Only by acknowledging the sins of our fathers, and, in some sense, taking them on as our own, can we ever hope to redeem our past and welcome those we’ve sinned against back from the exodus we’ve sent them on. We must allow those whom history has forgotten to criticize those who write history. Persons with disabilities have a history in the church, but it is too often an untold history because to tell it is to criticize “the church in its existing form.”

If theology were to lose its freedom to criticize, it would turn into the ideology of the church in its existing form.
– Jürgen Moltmann

Hopefully, as I continue my journey at the Hatchery, I can not only find my place within the church and its history and tradition, but work to carve out a place for those persons with disabilities who have been denied a place within the church’s history.

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5 thoughts on “The Church and Disability History

  1. Kevin Kang ·

    Thanks for your vulnerability! Love how this connects to some stuff you said in some discussions last week. It seems like you’ve done even more reflection and moved forward in the short time since then.

    Totally makes me think. I kinda have that too sometimes. I throw stuff away all the time because I they link to things in the past, some of which link to past dissapointments and shame. I guess, sometimes, keeping certain relics force me to own my past, whether it’s owning up to mistakes or even fighting to own things that have happened instead of them owning me.

    Looking forward to get deeper tomorrow!

  2. Susan ·

    I’m so glad you’re writing about this. In my experience over the last 14 years of being in a wheelchair, the church generally sucks at accommodating the disabled. The ADA doesn’t apply to churches, so if you’ve got an older building with stairs or steps, narrow doorways, and inaccessible bathrooms, why spend the church’s money on fixing that when you could be using it to tell people about Jesus? I’ve heard more than one pastor express frustration with their building, the city’s unwillingness to cooperate with them in their (feeble) efforts to change things, etc., and the only thing it’s taught me is that the church building is most important in the long run. And Jehovah Rapha is your healer, sister, so just keep asking Jesus and don’t give up.

    I know you’re not talking about physical structures, so sorry if I went off on a tangent.

    1. Nathanael Welch ·

      No need to be sorry, and it isn’t a tangent at all! In my experience, you are absolutely right: the church building is the most important thing. Most people are shocked when they learn that the ADA doesn’t apply to churches. The very presence of someone with a disability is itself a criticism of the way things are, whether in the physical building itself or the community itself.

      I was talking with someone the other day about those times when someone is “disruptive” (either a baby crying, or in my experience, my brother getting upset or having a seizure) and how the church handles that. The solution (more often than not): move that person out of the service so they don’t bother anyone else. But what message is that really sending? The same message as not being willing to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, I think.

      1. Susan ·

        I think you’re right. And I think that brings up a broader issue. The church, at least in my experience, doesn’t like disruptions of any kind. “God is a god of order, not chaos.”

        I’d sit by your brother.

        1. Nathanael Welch ·

          Exactly! In the aforementioned conversation, the issue of the disruption made me ask what exactly was being interrupted? The sermon? The liturgy? The music? To which my response is: is that really the sole purpose of our gathering? There are a lot of issues here, but one of them is that our spirituality is now only understand in an individual context, so the reason I go to church is for myself. No wonder we don’t like disruptions! Anyway, this will be in the post for next week, I think, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself 🙂

          And thank you for saying that about my brother.

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