Learning disabilities and the body of Christ
Donna Jennings and her husband were living and working in Bangladesh when their son Micah was diagnosed with Autism and severe learning disability. Returning to Northern Ireland, they had to grapple with what it meant for their church to genuinely include their son and what it means for the wider church to care for and learn from the “least of these”. Now as a member of Tio Associates (www.tioassociates.org) Donna has a challenging message for the church across the island of Ireland.
The culture of our Christian communities tends to lean towards strength, power and knowledge, and while there is a place for that, this imitates the values of the world. We need a biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God in valuing and including those the world deems “worthless.” The discussion surrounding the Referendum told me the shape of my child ‘s life was not worthwhile, that “these people” are a drain on their families and on wider society. Too often the church’s interaction, or lack thereof, emits the same message.
The church cannot say that all life holds value and it is morally wrong to terminate a child [with a learning disability] unless we are willing to demonstrate that this child has value to us over the long term. We need to seek out the image of God in that child or adult. We need to learn from that person. Can we accept and value vulnerability and brokennes
Our heart, in Tio, is to see an integrated body of Christ where people are welcome and accepted. Micah should be seen as a member of my church who can be blessed and can bless others. Churches are beginning to explore how they can minister to people with additional needs but we need to move from ministering to them to being alongside them and learning from them. That takes intention. It will take a shift in thinking to understand that these people who seem to be weak are indispensable in the body of Christ.
When Micah had his diagnosis and we came back from Bangladesh, our church gave great pastoral care for us as parents. But perhaps Micah was only seen as the cause of our grief and the source of our pain; as a little person he missed out on pastoral care. We have been on a very slow journey. It took a long time.
Micah cannot sit through a whole junior church service. He understands very little verbal communication. Yet, he needs what other children need from a church - social connection, Christian friendships, input from the word of God, prayer and a place to serve. With the help of other church members who work in this area, Micah now has his own room in our church and two buddies every week who work with him. We connect with and learn from his school to find strategies that are helpful for him. He likes singing. He will sit with his peers and sing together, share a snack with a few other children and share in a special storytelling time with them. At the heart of this time we work together to bring the person of Jesus into Micah‘s life. That might be through a short prayer or two words of a song, or the presence of his ‘friends’.
What is the place and function of the Word of God for my little boy who has no words? We need a theology for how he can encounter Jesus. Micah doesn’t understand love but he experiences it. He feels comfortable with those who demonstrate it!
There are opportunities to learn together by intentionally asking questions. In that way Micah can become a prophetic voice within the church as we grapple with the tough questions. Micah is disabled. Why has Jesus not healed him, as He healed others in the Gospel stories? What is healing and how can we bring healing? We can be Micah’s friend and help him. But how can he be a friend to us? What does it mean for Micah to be part of God’s amazing plan?
The questions raised by learning disability touch on our perception of what it means to be human; the personhood can be lost and we can struggle to see the image of God in them. So often we understand our image bearing in terms of strength and ability - we were made to be rational, relational and creative. Micah is none of those things. He struggles to relate. He loves to destroy things and I wish I could enter into his way of thinking. What does that say to me about Micah’s value?
People like Micah cannot hide their dysfunctionality. Micah is so dependent and so vulnerable. Maybe we need to think about a God who became vulnerable, a God who was broken, a God who was dependent. There is a place for being skilled but the gift that Micah brings to our church is that he doesn’t, he cannot, hide his obvious ‘brokenness’.
We need to understand what inclusion really is. It is not about everyone being in the same room at the same time as church “gathered”. Before you think about inclusion in our structures and services, inclusion begins with the church “scattered”. That might mean surrounding and befriending a family, being present with them, letting them be present with you, inviting them into our homes.
It is about building relationships and finding out what people’s needs really are. Going into a church can be really stressful, especially if your child is making a row. But if you are surrounded by friends who love, understand and can advocate for you, that helps!
One family is very intentional about engaging their children with Micah. They looked at him and rather than saying “that poor child”, they asked, “How can Micah help our children?” They came to us and said, “Our children are scared of swimming and if we go swimming together, Micah can help them overcome that fear.” This is not about writing people off because they can’t do what others can do but intentionally valuing who they are.
My training was in contextual ecclesiology and this has resulted in me seeing a gap in society where the church needs to be present. I have a huge friendship group with people who have additional needs like Micah. They have so many questions. Can my child know God? Does God know or care? Why would God give me a child that I am not able to care for? One child with additional needs in a church represents a portal into a whole community.
Huge cuts to funding (for example in special schools, adult care and respite services) reflect the de-valuing of society for those who don’t have a taxable income. In the past, the church was present, caring for people both medically and socially. Today, the church has the potential to be present with those who are affected by these cuts, seeing and responding to the needs of the whole family. These are often silent voices, exhausted voices.
We need the vision of Jesus Christ who looks towards the margins. We need to look around our churches and ask: Who is not here and why are they not here? Often churches will say, “We don’t have anybody like that in our congregation.” We say, “Why not?”
Families with additional needs children often think of churches as places where they cannot go. We think that to be holy and reverent, we need to be quiet and still, but our children don’t do quiet and still.
The Old Testament idea of holiness was to be counter-cultural and a different kind of people to the surrounding nations – in this way, God’s character was demonstrated and attracted attention. How can we reflect God’s holiness and demonstrate kingdom values by valuing the people that society de-values? When you create a church like that, it is a missional tool that demonstrates the heart of God for all people. Can we become known for what we are doing for the broken and hurting? People like Micah are so excluded in society. They are our prophets [with a powerful message for the church].
We had to fight for Micah’s respite services. As a parent you go through periods when you are so exhausted and emotionally drained that you cannot pick up the phone. How can our churches help with the practical needs of applying for funding or services or respite care? There are Christians in our midst who have skills and expertise in these areas.
I would love to see people with a legal background offering to serve on boards of organisations or special schools, as advocates in public policy. Christian businesses need to learn how they can offer employment to adults with a learning disability. Churches can offer their buildings or manpower to serve this section of our local communities, washing paint pots in a special school or doing a bag pack or bucket collection for a local charity that is supporting children or adults with autism, Down Syndrome or learning disabilities.
Often churches want to serve where they think the needs are rather than building relationships, being present with people and listening to what they themselves identify as the priorities. It is about gaining respect, genuinely befriending and valuing and learning to meet the needs of the whole person.
Genuine inclusion of these precious people into our Christian communities raises the bar of our own faith development. Rather than sitting in our churches and enjoying fantastic exposition of the Word we begin to live out God’s Word in the way we love those the world does not love. We all want to be fed by the Word of God and yet Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me”. Are we prioritising being fed over obedience? In practice, that might mean sitting in a church service beside someone who is noisy or socially inappropriate. Or it may mean going swimming with another family or campaigning against funding cuts. In these ways, we learn as a church to think of those who on the surface seem to us to be weak, as the ones we really cannot do without.