Book Review – At The Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches by Naomi Lawson Jacobs and Emily Richardson

•August 5, 2022 • 1 Comment

I first met Naomi several years ago when she was holding group discussions as part of her PhD research in the church and disabled people. This was probably the first point at which I realised there was a different way to think about my chronic illness and how the church dealt with it. So I have waited with great interest for this book to come out. Spoiler – I am not disappointed.

At the Gates is published by DLT. I got my ebook copy here.

This is a book that should be read not just by disabled people and their allies and supporters, but more importantly by anyone involved in the life of the church.

I encourage you to read it for yourself, but this give a bit of the flavour and I hope I have done Naomi and Emily justice.

(Note that I haven’t included page numbers as I read an electronic version that changes the page numbers depending on the font size and line spacing.)

This book is about real people with real stories embedded in theology (of both church and disability).

The starting point of the book is that disabled people are, and feel, outside the gates. We are waiting and trying to get in – really in. If we can’t get through the gates we can’t participate in the church community.

Much that can be done to help begins with hearing people’s stories, not abled people making decisions, however well meaning. There are too many stories in the church of disabled people being left on the edge, even if unintentional or just not being thought about. This book sets out many stories, the call to the church is to hear them.

A major point that is made is that physical access is only first step in accessibility. Full accessibility is about being able to participate in the whole life of the community – including leadership and decision making. Disabled people do not want or need to sit on the edge being ‘ministered to’ but have much to offer in ministering.

Un-healed bodies do not fit in the narrative of some churches… Other churches welcome not just what you are, but how you are – not just the disability, but how you are feeling that day.

The important question of this book is asked in Chapter 3 “Disabled people may be invited to the banquet, but has the table been designed for us?”

We are reminded that accessibility is also about things that people don’t always think about, like noisy heating. This highlights the importance of making all decisions with us. Access = justice. It says a lot about whether we are inviting or including

It so often seems that disabled people are an inconvenience. For us, toilets are theology! Church buildings not designed for us to get in or join in say we do not belong. Requests for access, sometimes very simple things, are not taken seriously. This raises the question of ‘Who holds the power?’ – whether they realise it or not?

We are reminded that accessible culture benefits more than the disabled! Information about what is there, where it is and what will happen helps anyone new to a church.

There is a call for understanding of those who can’t always join in church in the expected way – being there every Sunday, active in church and joining in socially. It is not just disabled people that can’t reach that model.

This book is not just a sharing of horror stories and moans, there are some wonderful examples of great care, thoughtfulness and inclusion.

Disabled people are often seen as those to be served, not those who can serve others. We are reminded that we are not just targets of care, but participation. Churches can see themselves as the answer without realising they may be part of the problem – failing to see the need for justice and the disabled person’s need for their own role in justice (chapter 4) There is a gap between rhetoric of welcome and accessibility (and justice).

The book shares examples to barriers to priestly ministry, that I personally have never experienced (I have been enabled to sit down to preach and celebrate communion, using others to do the bits I can’t do. I have been encouraged to record offerings at my pace and timing. My ministry has continued to be welcomed in whatever way I can best offer it, and I am aware of how fortunate I am) – but I hear those who have. Perhaps disabled people sharing their ministry can lead to finding a new way to do things that might just enhance us all.

There are rich examples of how to use the gifts disabled people have honed through their disabled life. The visible presence of disabled leaders allows others to feel comfortable showing their disability and vulnerability. There is a valuable gift of showing limits and needing help. “Where you cannot go, I will not go either” – what a maxim for justice and profound care and empathy.

Chapter 5 takes us to Telling Our Own Stories – and the call that “Theology must not be left to the fit and strong” Donald Eadie. Disabled people can do theology for themselves, speak from the edges and bring it to the church, not have it done for them by, however well meaning, people at the centre. A theology coming from only one place, speaks for only that people. A way of being needs to be found and rooted in personal experience. “Crip Theology” reimagines disability not as a problem to be fixed, but as part of God’s good creation.” Lived experience needs a voice of its own – not spoken for.

Real examples of difficulty of accessibility of books, conferences etc are shared, reinforcing the pastoral model of care being done to, not by or with are highlighted. This excludes disabled people from the places theology is discussed and shaped. This is a call to the church at large. Do not exclude us from places we have a lot to offer.

The important call of longing for other Christians to ‘sit with’ in the pain and distress rather than trying to sort it is expressed. “There has always been a disabled God at the centre of Christianity. But the church refuses to look to closely at Christ’s wounded and disfigured body.” A penny that dropped with me one morning several years ago during a communion service – Jesus was broken. Broken for me, broken like me. The resurrected Christ still had the scars, they weren’t blanked out.

Chapter 6 focusses on disability and the place of healing in a society obsessed by health and wellbeing. Disabled people easily become seen in need of ‘fixing’. As I have explored many times on this blog healing is not the same as what many understand as cure. Twenty-first century life seems to struggle so much with anything that is not deemed to be ‘perfect’. There are important reminders in the book that disability has nothing to do with sin or lack of faith, and attitude still embraced by some. But disability can be made much worse by injustice and a society, including churches, built (literally) around those without disabilities. Naomi and Emily share the stories of many who have had painful stories of bad praying for healing. These need to be heard by the church and the world. The question is asked about how much of healing prayer is the agenda of the pray-er and not the prayed for. Even, is praying felt to be ‘doing their bit’ rather than creating accessibility?

The reality of disabled finding new ways to be church together, often online from where we are is celebrated in chapter 7. A place that is accessible perfectly to our individual needs and where disabilities do not need to be explained or overcome, where we minister to one another. The caveat being that if disabled people worship ‘over there’ the church can carry on doing what it always has ‘here’ (Krysia Emily Waldock). We have the opportunity to inform ‘doing church differently’.

The book explores the COVID-19 pandemic and how suddenly the whole church found itself locked out of its buildings (chapter 9). What disabled people had to share with the church from its lived experience of having to find another way to worship. Followed by re-marginalisation in the clamour to open church buildings quickly, excluding those who were medically (extremely) vulnerable and in large parts leaving online church, and those newly included, behind. Some church gates have been slammed shut again.

Through The Gates concludes with what is sometimes the only thing to conclude, “when the Church shuts disabled people outside the gates, it shuts Christ outside with us”. This is the important thing for the church to realise. Is the church ready to hear us – and God in and through us?

As ever, the constant reminder of this book is that disabled people are their own experts – listen. This is a powerful book with powerful stories that the church needs to hear.

Thanks to all those who shared their stories and to Naomi and Emily for weaving them together with good theology and a really helpful narrative – as well as a challenge to justice.

Please don’t think that if you are not disabled this book is not for you. If you have any position of decision making, or just welcoming others in to your church, on or off line, do read it and see what it has to say to your church about those left waiting at the gates.

Disability, Chronic Illness, and Church

•June 7, 2022 • Leave a Comment
This is the best image I could find! Other disabilities are available – including invisible ones.

I was invited to take part in a discussion panel on Disability and the Church at a recent Methodist conference for Superintendents. We, the panel, appeared via Zoom. The Methodist Church is currently working towards a fully inclusive church with a strategy for justice, dignity and solidarity. Disability is one of those strands and some hard work is being done on noticing disabled experiences.

As ever, in order to be able to share in this panel, I pre-recorded what I wanted to say to start with. Interesting conversations followed. My answer to pretty much all the questions is “ask the person, hear their story”. Any disabled person is an expert in their needs, and has probably worked out what is most helpful for them and a way you can facilitate their participation in church life. And don’t assume everyone will have the same answer to the apparently same need!

Other people on the panel spoke powerfully from their perspective of their disability, but that is their story to tell. The recording of my offering is available here:

Here is the text:

“Hello, I am Pam, a Presbyter retired on ill health in 2007.

Mine is a story of not just disability, but also chronic illness which adds another dimension.  My story is a progressive one.  Most days I can do very little – some days less!

When I first became ill my symptoms quickly affected my whole life, including my ability to continue working.  I have a chronic illness that affects every part of my body that should have any fluid in it, from my eyes and mouth to my joints and everything in between.  It most noticeably effects my breathing and talking, hence why I’m speaking to you recorded, but also my balance, my walking, my concentration, my energy, my vision, eating and sitting for very long.  So many of which are so necessary for Methodist church life!  It is hard work to be at church for worship, anything extra is virtually impossible.  Of course thrown in to that has been the need to Shield during The Pandemic.

My personal accessibility questions are:  Can I get in the building, on days when I am well enough to?  Is there available parking at the entrance?  Can I get through the door wobbling on my crutches or if I have to come in on my mobility scooter?  Is the threshold level?  Is the way in to the worship area an obstacle course to someone with mobility problems or is it uncluttered, with a plain coloured floor and no steps.

Is the “right” seat available – height, space around, near enough the door etc?  When we moved to our current Circuit, my first question was, “Which church has the comfiest seats?”, which sounds ridiculous, but is really important.  Is written material available in the right font, the right size, with the correct colour contrast (and that applies to social media too!).  I need the lighting to be just the right dimness for me where I am.  Do those leading worship speak slowly enough for me to process and respond?  I do sometimes wonder if there is a competition to see how quickly the Lord’s Prayer can be said – and I can never keep up!

They are my questions and my needs.  Unfortunately, people with even the same disabilities as me may need different solutions to the same questions.  My Top Tip is always ask someone what would help them.  Never assume what they need, even if it looks just like what someone else needs.  We understand that it is a balancing act of the needs of everyone.

I have been in three different churches since becoming ill as my disabilities have increased and we have needed to move to accommodate them (and a big shout out to MMHS who have been so helpful).  Experiences have been varied.  Some are willing to listen to what would help and do what they can (as my current church emphatically is), for some it has seemed impossible for them to understand or react, which ultimately meant I had to move on.

There are many issues of accessibility, but also of visibility, or perhaps invisibility.  When you are chronically ill  there are often times when you are not around, and it is not always noticed, quite reasonably, that you are “even more unwell than usual”, so may need some support, pastoral or practical, unless you shout – and you’re not always well enough to do that.  Sometimes I just long for someone to check on me.  Chronic illness is a very lonely life.

Zoom and hybrid worship has been a brilliant tool for those of us who find physical church difficult, and we are fortunate that we have formed quite a community amongst those of us who watch online, rather than being in the building, but that doesn’t always translate into those who are in the building knowing wat is happening in our lives.  I think there is a lot of work to be done with hybrid worship on how those watching online can add to worship and not just be consumers of what those in the building offer.  We have things to offer too.

My ministry has been supported, encouraged, and enabled during lockdown.  It has presented new opportunities.  I have been able to record some devotional videos in small chunks and edit them together and to write written sermons which have gone out in mailings to those not connected via the internet.  For that I am very grateful, because for several years I have not been able to offer anything.  The thing we can all best do for those who are disabled is help and encourage them to use their gifts.  We still have a ministry, even if it might look very different to what it once looked like, or how we imagined.

My hope for the Methodist Church is that in love accessibility can be taken on board.  If it is not, it seems as though I don’t matter to the Church, my presence and inclusion isn’t worthwhile enough to make simple adaptations for me.  And sadly the reading of that for some can be if I don’t matter to the church, I don’t matter to God.  So I am grateful for the opportunity to share in this conversation this afternoon, because it matters.”

~~~~~~

I thought it might be helpful to share my answers to a couple of the questions that came up in the panel conversation afterwards.

The conversation, as it often does, included language and being careful about language that we automatically say, sing or write without us thinking. Things that are difficult to hear for those of us with disabilities.

One of my bugbears is “Please stand to sing/pray/receive the offering” or even worse “stand if you are able”. I *could* stand, but it would not be safe or good for my wellbeing – and I would probably sway so much it would make others panic. But because everyday is a school day, and because there is no one right answer for “disabled people”, I hear that some people need clear instruction to feel safe that they are doing the right thing. I was asked what was better. My response is that a clear explanation at the beginning of the service suggesting people worship God how works best for them, their body and their worship of God should be all that’s needed. This allows for those who need to to move, sit, stand or whatever is right for them. Like all things accessibility it needs to be done in conversation understanding, and making space for, everyone’s story.

In our particular Methodist context, it was suggested that the Local Preacher’s Meeting would be a useful place to start with awareness of what could be done in worship, and how I long for that. But the wider accessibility issues need to be the business of the whole church. Any of us may find ourselves greeting or sitting next to someone who has some kind of need and we need to be aware of how we could help.

An interesting question that was asked was “what would spiritual flourishing look like?” Again, I can only answer for myself.

My first instinct is for the church, at every level, not to forget me (us). To remember that we exist and should be included and cared for.

My second is encourage and use our gifts. Help us to discover what they are and how the church can be enhanced by them. (I think this is something the church could be much better at generally, lots of people have gifts their churches don’t know about or use.) Perhaps they might be different to “normal”, but all the better. For myself, in my hybrid from home circumstance, I could pre-record prayers, reading or testimony that could be played in the service even if its difficult to live stream into the building. We could send prayer requests via the live chat that could be fed into the intercessions led from the building. What I would really love is if the zoom screen was shown in church. We can see them, but they can’t see us. Other people will have what they can offer – ask them, let God work through them and perhaps teach us something new.

I have written at greater length on these things, this was just a short introduction in a particular context. More of what I’ve previously said can be found here.

My Body Is Not A Prayer Request

•May 19, 2022 • Leave a Comment

This is the title of a new book by Amy Kenny.

I wish I had the wherewithal to write an eloquent review of this book. But right now I don’t I’m afraid.

But, it is a book that anyone who cares about disabled people and the church should read – and probably most especially those that don’t think there is an issue!

An honest, open and real look at how disability can be treated by those in the church, and giving an account of how disability can be. It shines a light on assumptions, misusing scripture, ableism and the sometimes just crass comments. All in the context of God and what God is and is doing. It shares a vision, celebrates gifts and offers hope. It finishes with two beautiful “benecriptions”.

You can probably sum my thoughts up in “yes!”.

If you get a chance, do read it. It is available in the UK in whatever your preferred method of “reading” is. I have it on my e-reader, it is available as an audio book and as a paperback, or see if you can get it from your library.

Thank you Amy Kenny for this book.

 
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