"At the Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches" - Book extract

Naomi Lawson Jacobs and Emily Richardson share an extract from chapter 3 of their new book  - about disabled people accessing church buildings.

Our [church] cultures grow out of the stories we tell. As churches tell stories—or stay silent—about access, participation and the sins of ableism, they tell disabled people whether or not we are imagined and wanted among their communities… Whenever church communities say that disability access is too expensive or unnecessary, they tell disabled people that our bodies, minds, and ways of being are not loved in these churches. And when the Body of Christ devalues us, some of us may come to believe that God does not value us.

The Gospels tell us a different story…

Whenever churches set out to create accessible cultures, they are practising hospitality... From allowing himself to be challenged by Bartimaeus, to celebrating his Last Supper in a borrowed room, and even perhaps in being offered another’s tomb at the end of his life, we see in the person of Jesus one who welcomes and is made welcome. But this radical notion of two-way hospitality has been somewhat lost in many churches, as hospitality has become a watered-down notion of politeness, of niceties, of offering tea and biscuits, rather than modelling Jesus’ dynamic example as host and guest.[1] Influenced by their history as care providers, many churches remain places of pastoral power, where church leaders and communities define the conditions under which disabled people may participate. For disabled people, a one-sided model of hospitality can involve a conditional welcome that leaves us as permanent guests in churches…[2]  

Disabled people are praying for far more than an invitation to join in with churches’ old, inaccessible ways of doing things. Unless the underpinning structures of power in churches are firmly addressed, a vision of inclusion will not result in communities transformed into places of justice for disabled people… We will only find what [Stephanie] Spellers calls a radical welcome in communities that are rooted in their identity in Jesus, and his example of mutual hospitality and justice.

If churches cannot transform to become places of radical access and mutual hospitality, they fail in their mission.[3] Churches must show that they are ready to be challenged on inaccessibility, ableism and injustice. Storytellers asked churches to create cultures of openness to disability, where mutual listening is welcomed… [They] did not want churches to pretend disability does not exist, or that we are all the same. That only erases our experiences of difference and marginalisation. Instead, they were longing for disability-affirming churches that celebrate difference and condemn ableism. This may mean change at all levels of church culture: rooting out ableist cultural practices, such as lyrics of hymns that use disability as a negative spiritual metaphor; being honest about how Christian discourses may alienate disabled people; consciously working to create disability-affirming liturgy and community life.[4] For those with power and privilege in churches, hearing that their churches are institutionally ableist is likely to be challenging, especially when that prophetic truth is told from the edge... But when disabled people resist Christian ableism, it is ministry to our churches. We are showing them how to transform into Kingdom communities of justice.

What would a transformed table look like for disabled Christians?… Disabled people may be invited to the Banquet, but has the table been designed for us? Are there bean bag chairs and wheelchair spaces at the table? Is anyone thinking about what time the Banquet will be held, or whether the language spoken around the table is British Sign Language? Instead of inviting us to a table we cannot access and a Banquet we cannot participate in, transformation would build a new table, a table built around justice, as churches reimagine all their physical, social and cultural ways of ‘doing church’…

Storyteller Rhona told us a Gospel story of another religious institution transformed, where disabled people found radical access where they had once only found exclusion [Matthew 21:14]. Rhona found hope for a transformed Church in this story of Jesus [clearing the Temple], angry at injustice in holy spaces. Who tears down the powerful religious strongholds that dishonour God and God’s people as they push disposable bodies to the edge. Who forms a new community, together with the disabled people who once waited outside the Temple gates. As Rhona concluded:

Jesus cleared out the Temple so the disabled could come in. I liked that a lot!

If the ways Christians ‘do church’ are disempowering and harmful for disabled people, it is time we changed those ways.[5] As disabled people share in the ministry of hospitality, challenging power and playing a full part in the life of the Church, the ‘us/them’ divide collapses. Storytellers called for churches where they could come and worship as they are, becoming part of the ‘us.’ In radically accessible churches, disabled people will no longer just be invited to the table. We will shape a new table together with the rest of the Church. This is incarnational hospitality. This is justice. This is metanoia—repentance that leads to change, “for the sake of the just, whole, loving reign of God.”[6]

That’s when disabled people will no longer be expected to leave any part of ourselves at the church door.

[1] Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
[2] Stephanie Spellers, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other and Spirit of Transformation (New York: Church Publishing, 2006, 69.
[3] Weiss Block, Copious Hosting, 141.
[4] See Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 287.
[5] Pattison, Shame, 292.
[6] Spellers, Radical Welcome, 45.

For a copy of 'At the Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches', by Naomi Lawson Jacobs and Emily Richardson, visit here.