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

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.

~ by pamjw on August 5, 2022.

One Response to “Book Review – At The Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches by Naomi Lawson Jacobs and Emily Richardson”

  1. […] another, very comprehensive review from Pam Webster – this one will give you a real taster of the […]

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