Many churches and their members will ask the question, “Why are there not more people with disabilities in our churches and communities?”
According to Amos Yong, Ph.D., a professor of theology and mission and Director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary, it is perhaps because many churches create an environment which is not welcoming to disabled persons. The question churches should be asking is how to become more welcoming.
On March 2, the Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence partnered with the Learning Enrichment Center (LEC) to host Yong’s lecture and discussion entitled “The Bible and Disability: Perspectives Then and Now” as a part of Disability Awareness week.
Yong began his talk by emphasizing the importance of gaining multiple perspectives, and his 90-minute lecture guided attendees through several Biblical texts, framed by the question of how adopting a disability perspective might challenge our ideas of normalcy.
Yong’s work in this field is inspired by his own brother, Mark, who has Down Syndrome, and he shared many of his family’s own experiences throughout the talk. One of the most common responses to disability within the church, and particularly Pentecostalism, is to pray for healing.
This comes from a firm belief in a God who wants to heal all and the idea that all human beings should be at what Yong called “100 percent according to ‘normal’ standards.” However, this can be exhausting and even painful or damaging for families when the healing which is prayed for by so many does not come.
Director of Academic Advising, Stephanie Orona, was one of the staff members present at the event.
“Having worked with children with varying levels of disability there should be celebration of their uniqueness and beauty,” Orona said. “There may be physical pains and struggles that come, and relief would be a gift, but the individual with a disability was created by God and still has much to offer the Kingdom just as they are.”
Yong shared the effect that the constant prayer for healing had on his own family.
Other audience members also noted that the very architecture of some churches is unwelcoming by nature because it does not allow differently abled people to attend services. The way that spaces and services are usually constructed is with a design for the able body, rather than recognizing and including all.
Yong led the audience in a workshop and discussion time where those in attendance broke up into small groups to answer questions about several narratives in Luke and Acts. He asked everybody to consider and share how each passage might be read from the perspective of someone with a disability, and he provided context and background for elements of the text which, once understood, might shift the way they are traditionally thought about.
It is not sufficient to just read Scripture from a ‘normalcy’ perspective, as this does not work for a large percentage of the population.
“Twenty to twenty-five percent of people have some sort of disablement,” Yong said. “How might this text read differently if someone doesn’t experience the world the way I do?”
The event, which focused on discussion and listening to others, reinforced Yong’s idea that people and churches need to work harder to consider a myriad of perspectives. Yong’s method of challenging the normative perspective and his emphasis on questioning the lens through which Scripture is traditionally read made for a thought-provoking event focused on the values of listening and understanding.
Members from the APU community as well as local churches were in attendance.
“I was impacted by the individuals who attended the event who are higher up in our APU community,” Senior Psychology major Paige Williamson said. “I loved seeing Terry Franson there and was so thankful that the people in charge of our university take time to care about things such as this.”
Williamson suggested having speakers like Dr. Yong appear in chapel to reach a wider audience.
According to Yong, it is important that we shift our framework away from thinking about a theology of disability which tries to fix or heal disability and toward developing a disability informed theology which is for the whole church and community and helps to find ways of making these places more welcoming and focused on the needs and realities of differently-abled people.
To learn more about these perspectives on how one might re-imagine the way one thinks about and treats people with different abilities, more information can be found in Yong’s book, “Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity.”