Changing attitudes about differences

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Changing attitudes about differences

The email was to the point. “The student services department at Crown Point Christian is putting on a chapel on March 21. The theme is friendship and accepting those who are different.”

They wanted a speaker to help them spread the message. However, I would only have 10 minutes, and I knew a thorough presentation of The 5 Stages would be too much for that time. So I decided to do my fallback: talk about Ephesians 2:10.

This verse has proven to my failsafe way to Biblically ground attitudes toward people who have disabilities. Ephesians 2:10 says:

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Usually I tell people about four things I notice, and that one of the things I notice is not even there.

What are they?

Well, the three things I notice are:

  1. If we are God’s handwork, that means We were made on purpose.
  2. If we were made in Christ Jesus to do good works, then We were made for a purpose.
  3. And if those good works were prepared by God in advance for us to do, then Our purpose is not optional.

But then there’s one more thing that I notice that’s not there.

There is no asterisk. There’s no asterisk that exempts or absolves people with disabilities from the calling God has placed on their lives.

He has created each of us on purpose, for a purpose, and that purpose is not optional, whether we are disabled, poor, the same as others, different from others, rich, ethnically different, powerful, weak, old, young, sick, healthy, living in a poor mountain village in Peru, or living in Abu Dhabi.

I told the Crown Point middle schoolers that whether or not they were the same as others, or different from others, didn’t really matter. What mattered was how we treated others: like image-bearers of God each created to answer His call.

Crown Point Christian School, in Crown Point Indiana, is a ministry partner of Elim Christian Services, birthplace and inspiration for The 5 Stages.

 

 


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The 5 Stages Goes to El Salvador

The following is an account of how Rev. Gerry and Laura Koning utilized The 5 Stages to support conversations and assist fellow believers in El Salvador in changing attitudes about disabilities. Rev. and Mrs. Koning visited El Salvador in June, and used the Spanish translation of The 5 Stages as developed by Paul Blas, Church Relationship Coordinator for Tesoros de Dios.

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Our activities in El Salvador during the month of June were due to a request made to us in the fall of 2013 by some of the reformed pastors in that country. Many of them were Gerry’s students back in the mid-eighties when we lived there. We were contacted in the fall of 2013 to consider coming back to El Salvador to visit the work the reformed pastors had been engaged in during the years of our absence (24 years later). Our daughter, Leslie, was born in El Salvador, and due to her seizure disorder and developmental delay, we were led to return to the United States for medical reasons…and family support. It was a vary painful time of our lives since our calling to serve in CRC World Missions was our guiding thought throughout seminary and the early years of our marriage.

When we were asked to consider returning to El Salvador for two weeks, Gerry responded with a concern that we have two children with disabilities that require a lot of care, and, we would pray about the request and get back to them. Immediately following that email to our contact person, Ivan Montes, wrote again and prevailed on the opportunity to invite us to speak on the subject of ministry among the disabled population of El Salvador. Many people live with injury and disability as a result of the Civil War of the 1980’s. Since Ivan serves on a government appointed committee that serves the population of individuals living with disabilities, he set about convening groups of people that would benefit from our experience as parents of children with differences.

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A Perfect Tool for Presentations

We discussed what material we would use and reproduce for these presentations and naturally The 5 Stages came to mind. We also used the CRC/RCA publication “Inclusion Handbook: Everybody Belongs, Everybody Serves” (first edition). We discovered that these were already translated into Spanish so we sent the material down to Ivan who began to review it and got very excited about it. We had 100 copies of Las Cinco Etapas and the Inclusion Handbook reproduced to use at our presentations. Both were well-received as new resources for the leadership of the Church in El Salvador.

  1. Our first presentation was to approximately 30 church leaders and government officials who were convened to assist civic agencies in complying with the laws established in 1993 regarding the rights of the population of individuals with disabilities. CONAIPD is the acronym for El Consejo Nacional de Atención Integral a la Persona con Discapacidad. This government-appointed committee is assigned the work of assessing, promoting, educating, and monitoring the application of the law concerning rights for the disabled in all of El Salvador. Ivan, our contact person (and a reformed pastor), asked that we speak to this very ecumenical group of church leaders, not to teach the reformed perspective, rather to prompt a response to Christ’s call to assist “the weak and vulnerable” in our societies. The churches represented were from Roman Catholic, Jewish, Reformed, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Pentecostal congregations. The 5 Stages document and Inclusion Handbook now have a very broad exposure in the country of El Salvador through the lives and ministries of these conference participants.
  2. Another presentation was made to about 50 members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal which has the government mandate of creating models of participation for those living with disabilities in becoming educated on voting ballot issues and candidates running for office, as well as providing opportunities for those with disabilities to participate in federal and local elections. A lively discussion of assisting the population who live with disabilities in the voting process from a bi-partisan perspective ensued, which included discussion of the difficulties of giving a voice to the most vulnerable in society. The 5 Stages document provided a springboard to a discussion of what attitude we have in allowing someone with differing political opinions to express them publicly. The task of educating children with special needs in El Salvador requires that these students be included in the general education classroom without the luxury of classroom aides or paraprofessionals.
  3. A third opportunity to use Las Cinco Etapas was at a teacher training at the headquarters of “Marcos 2:  Ministerio a Personas con Discapacidad.” Approximately 25 men and women involved in ministry among the disabled population in local churches gathered to discuss changing attitudes toward those living with disabilities. When asked where we locate ourselves in the journey of Las Cinco Etapas, there were many testimonies of inclusion from the participants, but also tears of repentance and grief for misunderstanding the needs of the marginalized population.
  4. Fourth, Gerry and Ivan led a discussion of The 5 Stages with a group of public school teachers who are given the task of classroom instruction for the general education population and the special education population in one classroom without the luxury of paraprofessionals or other interventionists. Special education classrooms are diminishing due to funding limitations, so the general education teachers are expected to instruct children with special needs without any formal training themselves. The need for developing compassion in the teachers and in the homes from which the special needs students come is profound and The 5 Stages document raises that compassion level by addressing the attitudes towards those who live with challenges. Several participants expressed new energy, hope and ideas for inclusion as a result of that particular presentation.

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I believe that God blessed a great many Salvadoran church leaders and schools with Las Cinco Etapas journey document. One pastor responded by saying that his copy would be the basis for his sermon on Sunday…projected on the screen for all to see. Our contact person was thrilled by the reaction of many of the church leaders and their response to Las Cinco Etapas journey. Our prayer is that it will reach into the lives of many so that hope is rekindled in their hearts and lives.

LauraKoningheadshotLaura Koning has been involved in disability ministry for about 26 years.  She is the mother of four children, two of which live with distinctive disabilities.  One daughter has severe and multiple disabilities and a son who has Down Syndrome. Recently Laura and her husband, Rev. Gerry A. Koning, were invited back to San Salvador, El Salvador, where they served briefly as missionaries working in church development and theological education in the late 1980’s.  Since Laura’s daughter with severe disabilities was born in El Salvador, she was asked to speak on the topic of including individuals with disabilities in church, school and society. Laura is also a member of the Advisory Committee to the Disability Concerns office of the Christian Reformed Church of North America.


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Disability is Not a Blessing, But it Also is Not a Curse

I cringed when I heard him say it.

“I think of my child’s disability as a blessing. He is truly a blessing from God.”

How can you argue with that? Of course, children are a blessing from God. Every Christian ever has agreed with that sentiment, except for those occasions when we’re just not that particularly grateful for the child.

But this man was speaking about his son who was born with Down Syndrome. You don’t expect the parent of a child with special needs to say that about their child. You expect to hear things like:

  • I’m so depressed that my child is not normal.
  • Why would God do this to us?

These sentiments, after all, make sense to us who live in a normal world where disability is simply an anomaly, an abnormality. Disability is not normal, to our thinking. It is wrong.

Stephanie Hubach talks about this in her wonderful book “Same Lake, Different Boat.” She calls this point of view the ‘disability is an abnormal part of an abnormal world’ perspective. People who think of disability this way are no different from the disciples of Jesus Christ who asked “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

But Jesus replies that this did not happen because of a sin. It was not a curse.

But neither was it a blessing. But some folks think it is. They will say that God has blessed parents of a child with special needs with a very special gift, that God must love them indeed. Parents themselves will conclude that their child comes from God, and if God doesn’t make mistakes, then this must be another blessing.

Hubach refers to this mindset as the ‘disability is a normal part of a normal world’ perspective. It’s a sensible approach to the reality of life with a disability. Let’s look at the glass as half-full, and see God’s blessings in everything.

But life with a disability is far different. It is not a blessing, it is difficult. It is challenging and frustrating. It is a source of bitterness, sadness, and depression for many people.

So if disabilities are not a curse, and they are not a blessing, then what are they?

Reality in a Broken World

Disabilities are a reality in a broken world. Disability, to paraphrase Hubach one more time, is an abnormal part of an abnormal world. The world is not as it is supposed to be. It is broken, fractured, in pain. It is mired in sin, it is abnormal.

Disability reflects this abnormality. Disability includes weakness, difficulty, pain, isolation, and sadness. It is a natural part of a broken world, not a result of particular sin, but a symptom of its general existence.

Disability is all these things and it is a real part of a broken world, not a curse or a blessing from God.

But it does present an opportunity, an opportunity to bless or to curse.

You can curse people with disabilities by using words that isolate them, by maintaining an attitude of avoidance or pity.

Or you can bless. You can bless people who have been affected by disabilities: parents, friends, siblings, the persons themselves. You can participate in God’s real work, which is not to curse people with disabilities, or to “bless” someone with disabling conditions or mental illnesses.

No, God’s work is to redeem, and we are invited to participate in that work today. We can redeem our attitudes, we can redeem relationships, we can redeem situations and we can start today.

What You Can Do

So what can you do to participate in redemptive work in the lives of people affected by disabilities?

You can introduce yourself to someone who is affected by disability, whether it’s a man in a wheelchair, a woman who struggles with depression, or a family member of that person.

Today, that’s the only step we’re asking you to take. It’s a huge step, though – not just for you, but for the person you are reaching out to. Just remember, your job is not to see the disability as a blessing or a curse, but as another opportunity for God to redeem and to build His kingdom.


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Struggling to Stand Up for Others

I don’t always remember to stand up for others, even though I myself have a disability.

I was standing in line at the local hardware store. The mom in front of me had her pre-teen boy in tow, and it seemed pretty obvious to me that he was somewhere on the autism spectrum. He was not very communicative, nor was he behaving in a socially appropriate manner.

But he also wasn’t being rude or bothering anyone either, he was being a young man who had autism – that’s all. I watched and kind of smiled as the woman tried to work with her son and pay for her wares at the same time.

When she finished her purchase, she and the young man walked out the door, and I smiled after them, always happy to see parents who aren’t afraid to take their children with disabilities and integrate them into community life.

“That just annoys me,” the lady behind the counter said.

I didn’t acknowledge her comment, but she continued anyway. “People with kids like that should just leave them at home.”

In that moment, I knew it was wrong to let her comments pass without saying anything. I knew I was being a complete hypocrite.

But my worry –my insecurities and fear – they paralyzed me. I did not know what to say in response, and even if I had, my first inclination was actually to sympathize, to conform to the pattern of this woman”s life, and to actually agree with her comments.

Instead, I said nothing. I knew it was wrong; I knew that had been my chance to stand up and do something. But I failed. I could have advanced the cause of people with disabilities, but it was easier not to do that. A friend assured me today that perhaps my saying nothing (instead of actually agreeing), was in itself a statement of dissension. Perhaps the sales clerk somehow got the drift that I did not share her assessment.

I kind of doubt it, though. I know I should have done more – actually said something. At the very least, I could have made a much more effective response than I did. For example, one of my other friends mentioned, I could have said “Thirty years ago, that was me. I’m glad my parents didn’t keep me at home.”

I could have asked her to explain herself. I could have told her I worked at Elim, where we have the exact opposite view of people with disabilities. I could have done any number of things, but I did nothing.

I paid for my stuff, walked out to my car, and sat down. I knew I should have said something, but now I couldn’t, not anymore. The moment had passed and would from that point on be marked with regret.

I share this not to get it off my chest, but because few things bother me more than pretense. Even for someone who is always exposed to disability, and is often reminded of his own disability, it is not easy to equip others. It is not easy to always be an advocate, to keep advancing the cause of disabilities. Despite being committed to this cause, I could not even speak up in one small situation where I could have prompted someone’s heart-change toward people with disabilities.

But a moment like that can also serve to harden resolve, that constant sense of regret is also a reminder. God is restoring this world, and He has called us to advance the cause of people with disabilities as part of that restoration. We are called to do this not just by serving people with disabilities, but by also equipping them to serve – to fully participate in God’s restoration of the kingdom.

Have you ever had the opportunity to speak up, to stand up on behalf of people with disabilities? How did you succeed in doing so, or how did you fall short? Share your stories in the comments below.