It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.-Maya Angelou
I love diversity. Growing up my father was in the military so we traveled the world and at a young and impressionable age I was fortunate to experience different cultures. In addition my father was also a pastor and both he and my mother were raised in southern Georgia which contributed to the richness of our lives by placing us at the center of the black church experience. Our up bringing was the nearly the perfect blend of the celebration of African-American culture along with the love for expanding our experience by learning to love other cultures. The late Dr. Angelou would have been proud. We were taught the beauty and strength of diversity.
The pursuit of diversity and inclusion carries with it a deeply spiritual dynamic that generally cannot be experienced otherwise. Perhaps this is why American Christianity is attempting to be much more intentional about becoming diverse. Over the last several years I have watched as several new and existing houses of worship began championing the cause and calling to diversity. Perhaps we are beginning to learn the spiritual and theological implications of remaining separate, after all one of the primary images in the Bible used to describe the Christian church is a “body.” Dr. Christena Cleveland in her book Disunity in Christ writes,
“If we are a body, then we are one that is afflicted with an auto-immune disease.”
I believe that the church is beginning to realize, even after all of these centuries, that we truly are better together than we are apart. Even with all of the messiness and mistakes that come along with trying to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation, we just may be finally willing to work through it for the cause of Christ.
As a pastor I have been blessed to be a part of a church that decided to charge that hill 25 years ago when it was founded with the vision for creating a community of diversity in a county and region that was still dealing with the heavy residue of racial injustice and segregation. For those whose broad shoulders I stand on, I am grateful. Without their knowing, God used them to create a community and a platform for a young 39-year-old pastor to lead the church toward the next frontier of diversity. That next frontier, finding meaningful was to become a more diverse church by becoming a more disabled church.
In 2014, when I was finally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Aspergers) I joined the autism community and the disability community. Just one year prior to my diagnosis, I was appointed the Lead Pastor position at my church. Unbeknownst to the congregation or its leadership, our church in our little town in our little section of the world would make its own personal history because their new pastor would several months later share with that he had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 36 years old.
With all the focus of diversity in the local church I have learned through my personal experience that diversity does not stop at racial and ethnic diversity. The church in general has a long journey ahead of continually raising the banner of diversity and I am proud to be a large part of that conversation, beginning right here at the church that I call home.
I believe our church is a model, not because we have an entire program up and running exactly the way we envision, but because over the last 2 years we have deepened our understanding and committment to the disability community by building on our fundamental committment to diversity.
We are still very much a work in progress but there are three simple things that we have learned to become more intentional at doing as we seek to include disability in the discussion and pursuit of diversity.
On one occasion Jesus tells a parable about a sower who scatters seed as a way of explaining both the purpose and the process of his kingdom. He later spends time with his disciples explaining this story and it is from these few verses that I’d like to share just a few ways that we begun to approach expanding our conversation and culture of diversity to include disability and for us it begins with a simple story that Jesus shares about seeds, sowers, and soil.
18 “Now listen to the explanation of the parable about the farmer planting seeds: 19 The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts.20 The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. 21 But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. 22 The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced. 23 The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” (Matthew 13:18-23 NLT)
In this simple and short explanation of the sower story, Jesus points to three primary problems/barriers for the seed successful integration into the soil and in response I’d like to offer three suggestions on how to address those barriers to building a more diverse and more disabled congregation.
Barrier 1: Lack of understanding. One of the primary barriers to building a church of inclusion is lack of understanding. Simply put, if you want to change the communication and culture in your church to include disability in the diversity discussion focus on education.
Suggestion: Create a learning culture. Find ways to provide as much education and exposure to issues facing the disability community. When I was diagnosed with ASD in December of 2014 I was immediately confronted with how little the people around me knew about autism and disabilities in general. The church must be intentional about learning. Preach and teach about disability. Invite individuals with disabilities to share their experience and help educate the congregation. A lack of understanding will almost certainly always lead to a lack of inclusion.
Barrier 2. Life’s problems. In the original parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-8) Jesus states that the second group of seed lacks roots and subsequently falls away. In his analogy he shares that life’s problems (hot sun) is the primary cause for the wilted plants. If you want to serve the disability community help them not only be present in your church but also help them to be planted in your church.
Suggestion: Create a linking culture. Helping families and individual with disabilities connect to your church is essential. The goal shouldn’t be just to make room for them but to help make roots for them. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to help them address the areas of life where the “sun” is beating down on them. In other words create roots by addressing real issues that they may have. In this aspect I believe Jesus is pushing us past spiritual programming and toward practical problem solving community based ministry. Find out what they really need besides your prayers and well wishes. Consider surveying the disability community and ask what the needs are. Create support groups and service opportunities based on their felt needs. If you want to help them get rooted you have to be willing to deal with their reality.
Barrier 3: Limited by thorns. This one is fairly complex. Jesus notes that issue with this group of seed is its lack of fruit. He also states that there are thorns that are blocking these plants from being fruitful. This one will be the most painful one to address. In essence the plants are present and growing but they are not allowed to reach their full potential. The thorns are stopping them from bearing fruit.
Suggestion: Create a leadership culture. I have always believed that you can measure an organizations real committment to diversity by observing who it allows to lead and have influence. Having disabled people in your congregation isn’t enough if their voices and influence don’t help shape the direction of the church. This is not simply a ploy to position them for influence regarding all things disability related in your church. While that is needed, removing the thorns means deconstructing ideology and culture within your church that prevents a disabled person from being fruitful in their personal relationship with Christ, including leadership in the church. They should be encouraged and permitted to exercise the totality of their God-given gifts which includes leadership in the church. If we truly want disability to be a part of our diversity then we must do the work of removing the thorns that stop people from being fruitful and fulfilled at our churches. This will look different for every church, but a few ways that we have managed to remove the thorns is by allowing for me me to maintain an unconventional schedule, being more aware and more accommodating with my personal needs in regard to sensory input and social activities. Adjusting to more efficient means of communication to accommodate my needs. Building in staff, elder, and congregational support to assist in my areas of weakness so that I can focus on exercising my gifts rather than feeling guilty about areas where I will not excel.
As a pastor with a developmental disability I realize that have been tremendously blessed to be able to bear fruit because my current church context has willingly removed barriers that could have potentially blocked me from being my best for God. Including the disability community in our efforts to be more diverse congregations is not easy, and in reality it is never an exact science but I do believe it is one of God’s greatest desires because without the disability community present and participating in our congregations, the church is at best only at half strength.