I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
"Oh, they LOVE to dance," the pastor gushed as he talked to the church about getting involved in a prom for those with disabilities and cognitive delays.
Other generalizations were made that Sunday, both to the general congregation in his sermon and to individuals who approached him afterward to talk about "those people." I sat in silence, heartbroken by what I was hearing. While those in the church were so impressed by their own noble thoughts of service, they had a huge blind spot to how their us/them talk was still alienating the very community they aimed to engage.
WHAT I WISH PASTORS KNEW
Almost since the day my son was diagnosed with a severe bleeding disorder at birth I have told people, "You are one emergency room visit away from being me." Certainly, you may not be struck by an unexpected genetic disorder in your family, but you could be like the kid in our town who has quadriplegia after a soccer goal fell on him. Your child could suffer traumatic brain injury in a car accident, losing cognition and developing behavioral difficulties. A mosquito bite could start years of treatment for Chronic Lyme Disease. I could continue ad infinitum.
Unfortunately, when we speak of people with broad generalizations that identify them as amusing or so different from us, we frankly sound condescending. We lose that sense that they ARE just like us with a different set of circumstances. In my 15 years of serving my community with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and rare diseases, I have encountered people of faith and Christian leaders using terms like, "You people," "Those kids," "I feel so sorry for them," "I don't know how you do it," "What's wrong with him," and hundreds of other alienating words that make those on the receiving end feel small. What I find most devastating as a lover of Jesus is that the Church is lagging behind the secular community in loving those with challenging circumstances, whereas it used to be just the opposite.
WHAT I WISH PASTORS WOULD DO INSTEAD
There are a number of things I wish pastors would do rather than using such condescending language and thought. First, I would like pastors to know that if you have met one person with Down Syndrome, autism, or hemophilia, then they are a unique individual. They are NOT representative of all people with that diagnosis. While people of a diagnostic group do have some irrefutable things in common, they are usually narrow. Not all people with Down Syndrome like to dance, and not all people with hemophilia avoid playing football. See each person as a one-of-a-kind gem, deeply loved by God, but also a sinner desperately in need of a Savior.
Second, I would ask that pastors entertain the thought that they or their family members could and likely will face life with a disability at some point in time. Your grandchild could unexpectedly be born with a rare genetic disorder. In your golden years, you may end up in a wheelchair. How would you want to be treated? Would you want to be demeaned or still be warmly welcomed as part of the church body?
Third, I would ask pastors to stop treating those with special needs, chronic illnesses, and disabilities like an awful inconvenience. Stop putting them off like being too needy. Instead, see yourself as the hero in an action movie who is kicking down the barriers between EVERY person and Jesus. Engage in "the fellowship of the mat," lifting others to Jesus when they can't get to Him themselves. Trust me, it is easier than you think. And the reward of enjoying that person is matchless.
WHERE THE CHURCH CAN SHINE
Jesus was renowned for welcoming the outsider. Whether it was touching the "unclean" leper, blessing little children, or extolling the virtue of a once wicked tax collector, Christ drew people in. When we begin to open our arms to others in such a way, the rest of the world stands up to take notice. That's why people like Jim Cymbala, Francis Chan, and Tim Tebow are so outstanding in a dark, hopeless culture.
Rather than being dragged begrudgingly into a world of loving all people, no matter their packaging, the Church has an opportunity to once again lead the way. Beginning with changing how we view those with disabilities and their families is a start.