I could hear the pain and frustration in her voice as she recounted her story. Visiting a church for a pastor’s installation service, Elizabeth Schultz felt like she didn’t fully belong because of what two people didn’t do. During the Lord’s Supper, when Schultz went forward in her motorized wheelchair to receive the elements, the two servers did not speak the usual blessing to her: “The body of Christ given for you; the blood of Christ shed for you.” Instead, there was an awkward silence as they served her the elements. Schultz felt excluded; everyone else had received those blessing words. She couldn’t help but wonder if other persons with disabilities have had similar experiences there or elsewhere.
I suspect the servers were not intentionally being ungracious, but they were probably unprepared and unsure of what to do. Of course, that raises the question of why they would be unsure of how to serve a person with disabilities. Perhaps this shows how our minds default to typically abled people. When the servers mentally prepared themselves to serve Communion, they were probably not thinking about or imagining how to serve people with disabilities. For too many of us, people with disabilities are often an afterthought, and to be an afterthought is not to belong.
This year’s Disability Week (Oct. 13-20) celebrates disability advocates who “champion, advise, and bear witness to the coming reality of God’s kingdom where everybody belongs and everybody serves” (from the CRCNA Disability Concerns website). Schultz is also a Regional Disability Advocate for Disability Concerns—and she advocated. She found me and told me her story for the sake of all people with disabilities. Having a daughter with Down syndrome, I am sympathetic to their concerns.
We need to enlarge our default mindsets. When we think about serving and ministering with people, do we imagine serving people with disabilities, people from different cultures, young and old? When we write a sermon, whom do we imagine the sermon is for? Who are our intended participants when we plan a worship service?
When we think of people with disabilities, we should include those with mental illness. Mental illness can vary, from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety disorders to depression and dementia. Mental illness is often chronic and can require medication. We need to remove the stigma some Christians attach to mental illness. As with any illness, people with mental illness need help and support, not judgment. When I had depression back in my university days, I would isolate myself in my room and sit alone with my dark thoughts. If it wasn’t for God’s grace and supportive friends, I don’t know where I would be today.
Everybody needs to belong because belonging to the body of Christ helps us to grow, individually and collectively, into Christlikeness. I admit it takes time to grow and establish new default mindsets and practices in our personal and collective lives. That is why we need special focus days or weeks, like Disability Week, to bring awareness and to train our minds. And it’s why we need advocates and champions to regularly remind us to fully include people with disabilities.
I am proud of the CRC’s growing awareness of disability and mental illness issues. I think it is one of the ministries we do well relative to other denominations. Let us keep up the good work, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these as well.