Recently I was invited to give a talk at LaGrave Ave CRC on the ministry that God has called to do on the campus of Grand Rapids Community College to students with disabilities.
I include that talk here for two reasons:
- The first is that it has served as a platform for further conversation and support from the church as it details two students and one college staff person who are examples of the workings of the spirit on campus
- And second, it fully fleshes out the wonderful direction in Mississippi that God has driven this ministry.
It should be added that I’m currently adapting this as a article for the banner.
Disabilities and Discipleship
As many of you know, I’m a campus pastor at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC).
In my work I’ve focused a great deal on ministering to students with disabilities, primarily those with cognitive and learning issues. The ministry that God has called me to do at GRCC with those students with disabilities is discipleship, discipling them as a fellow disciple of Christ as they become fully equipped disciples to disciple others.
Let’s begin with this basic, but difficult, question:
“If you had a son or daughter (etc.) who had a significant disability and they asked: ‘why did God make me this way?’
How would you answer?
Consider this question as you read the faith stories of some of the students that I’ve come to know in my time at GRCC.
The first student is Hailey (Hailey is her real name, in this article all the students names are their actual given names. I’ve obtained their permission to use their real names so that they can be kept in your prayers).
The first student who has a story to tell is Hailey.
Hailey is a student with visual impairments as well as learning and related issues. In her first year of attending GRCC, she wrote a paper for one of her English classes. The scope of the paper was for Haley to be reflecting on something about herself and to articulate that on paper for the benefit of others.
Hailey is also a huge Bible nerd and extremely curious about everything and anything.
Hailey has found a word found the Hebrew Bible, early on her new faith, and that word is “Hevel”. The word means, among other meanings: mist, vapor, futility. Something that is temporary and fleeting like breath. It’s the word in Ecclesiastes for “meaningless”
This word have become very meaningful to Hailey and towards her spiritual growth.
“And yet, I experienced plenty of growth. Through this hevel, I learned to keep walking forward, even with the ever-thickening fog. I learned to push myself further when I felt like collapsing. I learned to see the bigger picture amidst all the chaos, that everything would be okay, despite it not looking so then, and even now as I still continue to process everything.”
Hailey had chosen to describe a time of uprooting and family upheaval that was, as anyone would expect, emotionally distressing
Living with significant disabilties is a daily exercise of adaptation in a world doesn’t always see a different manifestation of strength in certain areas of life. We could ask if she has these gifts because of or in spite of her disabilities. Both are probably true to one extent or another, and both are missing the point to degree.The point is is that she has a gift that she wants to share with others as a disciple of Christ, and she wants to answer his call to make disciples of others.
How do we disciple someone like Hailey?
This leads to an important aspect of discipling: Mentoring.
Jesus’ ministry to his disciples showed the importance of mentoring and walking along side
The next person I’ll talk about is a first year student named Shaphan.
Shaphan has Asperger’s syndrome.
Shaphan was homeschooled until high school. When he began attending Tri-Unity Christian High School he realized he needed mentors, and he is now being mentored by a member of this congregation in accounting and learning to discover his gifts and talents and also to have something to put on his resume that will be worthy and a career booster. He is well adjusted to his disability and wants to live a life worthy of being known as a Christian.
Shaphan is a living example of 1 Corinthians 1:26-28 NIV:
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,”
Lastly, but by no means least, I’ll mention Brian.
Brian is a person who happens to have Downs Syndrome.
He works in the kitchen of The Raider Grille, the main campus cafe’, as a dishwasher, a position he has held for twelve years. When we met he told me: “People tell me I’m a good listener”
The first thing Brian will often say to me “How’s your day going? Are you still working too hard? The next things he says is: “what do we need to pray for today?”
He is my minister on the campus of GRCC.
That’s his gift and he exercises it very well.
The best way to define the importance my relationship with Brian is this quote from Joni Eareckson Tada: “Disability ministry is not disability ministry until the disabled are ministering.”
Most of us are familiar with this account from the Gospel of John.:
John 9:1-12 NIV
“ … As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.  While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.  “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.  His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?”  Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”  “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.  He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”  “Where is this man?” they asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. …’ “
This was a moment I tend to call “a moment of Siloam”, of Jesus commanding us “go” and be a “sent” people after we have been washed into seeing the One who is the Light of the World.
Many of us are like those disciples. We see the disability and look for a reason that puts the disability and the person at safe distance emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Should the focus always be about the disabilities? Questions about someone’s disabilities are good questions but are not always the right questions to ask, certainly not the only questions worth asking.
Sometimes we consider disabilities so broken that we rarely consider the gift that is that person. Like the disciples we tend to see struggle and suffering, or rather we assume struggle and suffering, when we see people with some kind of disability. That is, if it’s visible enough. Often, it is not. In such cases we are often conclude out of our own expectations and merely think the said person is being rude, inconsiderate, stupid, or any number of other ways of innocently misunderstanding our fellow humans.
Prevailing attitudes, however perceived as enlightened, are often not much help
Much of the literature written and studies done concerning disabilities in general bring up the subject as being both being immensely diverse and relative. It’s a often a question of perspective.
Disabilities have always been seen as something to be avoided, improved or prevented.
The most commonly used categories are: (1) the Medical Model, which asserts the physical and emotional brokenness of persons with disabilities is something to be repaired or prevented. And (2) the Social Model which claims that a person with disability’s brokenness can be helped by a community through inclusion. The main concern with either of these ways of thinking is that it starts with the subjective assumption that the person with a disability is something abnormal in an otherwise normal world.
But, as followers of Christ we should know there is another way of looking the conditions of this world.
If we accept that this is a world that has fallen into sin and not the way of things God had first intended for us, then what is normal and abnormal? If this is an existence that has gone awry, not the original planned, created order, wouldn’t it then follow that this world, in general, is hardly “normal” by God’s standards?
Then who are we to judge, as instigators of the fall, what is a “normal” world
The writer, Stephanie Hubach, in her book: Same Lake, Different Boat puts in more direct terms: “Disability Is a Normal Part of Life in an Abnormal World”
The three persons that I had written about in this article each have different disabilities and also have different ways of dealing and adapting to life. None of them the are in the kind of distress or have needs many of us would assume as a disability. They are, as the rest of humanity is, normal things in an abnormal world.
This should raise some questions as to how we should view and work with those with disabilities in our churches and communities. In my mind, the question of inclusion comes up. Including anyone into our churches particularly is important and necessary, but inclusion is only the beginning of a life long process of discipleship, not the goal.
With that all in mind let’s now revisit the question we started with: “If you had a son or daughter (etc.) who had a significant disability and they asked: ‘why did God make me this way?’ Perhaps the answer lies in another question: “What gift has God given you?” Then we only can begin to really understand why God made us in whatever way He allows.
It should be noted that we’ve received a leadership grant from CRCNA for Hailey, mentioned above, to serve as a student intern next semester. More on that in future reports!