I've seen the CBS News report shared all over social media the last couple of days. Many Christians are outraged at not only the point of the story (that Iceland has an almost 100% abortion rate, as I mentioned in my piece earlier in the month), but also how CBS worded the title:
"Why Down syndrome in Iceland has almost disappeared"
Because of course it's not Down syndrome that has disappeared—it's people with Down syndrome who have disappeared.
And we are right to be outraged and grieved by this news. But I wonder if those Christians who are speaking out against Iceland's actions look around their churches and see faces of those with disabilities, or have they disappeared from our churches as well?
My older sister has Down syndrome, and a young doctor tried to eliminate her after she was born. He took my dad into a custodial closet and said, "Your daughter has two issues: one is a life-threatening intestinal blockage and one is Down syndrome. If you don't want us to fix the blockage, we won't." She turns forty years old this year, with a life-saving scar across her stomach.
I'm so thankful my dad chose life for her that day, but wasn't the last of my parents' battles on her behalf. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act had been passed only a few years before her birth, and the application and details of what that meant were still being worked out at the school system in our small town in Oklahoma. My parents fought to give her every opportunity for growth and development through the school and therapies.
My parents also worked hard to make sure there was a place for her at the churches they attended, a mission I took on when my son was diagnosed with autism in 2010. Nearly 1 in 5 people in the US say they have a disability according to the last census, but most of our churches don't reflect that percentage of the population.
I'm thankful for all the Christians, and especially pastors, who are outraged at the news from Iceland. But if the rate of people with disabilities at your church is way less than 19%, you need to ask yourself why. And then make a plan to make a change.
First you need to have a theology of disability based on Scripture. The passages that have shaped my understanding of disability include:
- Psalm 139 – We are all fearfully and wonderfully made
- Exodus 4:11 – God allows disabilities for His purpose
- John 9 – Jesus Himself said disabilities exist so “that the works of God might be displayed … “
Then recognize all people are necessary to fulfill God’s purpose for the church. 1 Corinthians 12 teaches us church is made of many parts, and some of those parts are weaker than others but are still worthy of honor, “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (vv. 24-26).
This isn’t to imply people with disabilities are “less than” people without disabilities. But speaking from my experience of having a sister with Down syndrome and a son with level 3 autism, some have limitations that keep them from doing some things in the church, but not all. Churches don’t love and serve people who can best serve them back. They love and serve people (period).
Then you provide access to all families so they can be full, active members of our church. Access to the gospel, to community, and to worship. We make accommodations and adjustments when necessary so we don’t have to turn away families who come to our church and church events. It means every activity we do, from Sunday morning worship to small groups to sports camp to potluck lunches, are open to everyone. It can take more money and more volunteers, but we trust God to provide. As we read in 1 Corinthians 12, a church is made of many parts. I truly believe God has already placed people in churches who can meet the needs of the church members He calls there.
Let your outrage and grief fuel your desire to make a difference for families like mine. Take steps to welcome us into your church. Experience the blessings we bring. Make room for us in your pews.