Not Pity but Love and Anger
“God has composed the body so that greater dignity is given to the parts which were without it, and so that there may not be disagreements inside the body but each part may be equally concerned for all the others.” —1 Corinthians 12:24-25, New Jerusalem Bible (emphasis added)
When Margaret Njuguna saw someone dragging himself across several lanes of traffic at a busy intersection because he could not walk, she decided that people with disabilities should not have to deal with that degree of trauma to go about their daily business. God led her to found En-gedi Children’s Home, a residential facility for children with disabilities in Kenya. My wife, Bev, and I visited En-gedi before traveling to Tanzania to teach at a Theological Education in Africa (TEA) conference sponsored by Resonate Global Mission.
During our visit, we met a child who had lived under a bed while bound tightly to a board, and we met another who had severe scarring on one wrist from being shackled to his bed.
Bev and I told these stories to our class at the TEA conference and asked participants why they thought parents might treat their own children so harshly. Their answers pointed to stigma, fear, lack of resources or knowledge to care adequately for these children, community pressure, and a belief that the child might be evil or cursed. No one suggested that these parents did not love their children.
Although the treatment of people with disabilities varies by country, in any society these persons tend to be the poorest, least employed, and most socially isolated. Many of the people with disabilities in our own neighborhoods face loneliness and isolation because no one chooses to have a relationship with them.
Many people with disabilities have tried church and found they were not welcome. Many parents of children with autism have been asked not to return to churches they have visited. Could that have been your church?
If you are feeling something right now, I hope that you are not feeling pity. Pity isolates and separates. Instead, I hope you are feeling anger that many of our neighbors with disabilities feel isolated and lonely, and that some suffer abuse. I hope you are feeling anger and love, because love mixed with anger can motivate one to action.
Just as Margaret needed to be intentional about ministering with children with disabilities in Kenya, each of us needs to be intentional about ministry with people affected by disabilities. In God’s strange way of working, our churches will become more united as a result.
In Bread for the Journey, the late theologian Henri Nouwen reflects on 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 and concludes, “We can trust that when we reach out with all our energy to the margins of our society, we will discover that petty disagreements, fruitless debates, and paralysing rivalries will recede and gradually vanish.”
As our anger and love push us to focus on people living with disabilities and their families, people living in poverty, people torn from their countries by war and violence, dissension in our churches will dissipate. We begin to see people as God sees all of us, and love for each other will grow.
Prayer: Generous God, fill my heart with courage, not fear. Help me and the people of my congregation to speak up with one voice for the people who have no voice, to proclaim the rights of all who are down-and-out, to speak out for justice! In Jesus, Amen. (based on Proverbs 31:8-9)
Rev. Mark Stephenson serves the CRC as director of Disability Concerns. He and his wife, Bev, have several children, including their oldest daughter, Nicole, who has lived joyfully with multiple disabilities for 31 years.