Since I’ve become legally blind, I read a lot of scripture with a different “eye.” No, not just because Siri reads it to me. There are characters in scripture who I relate to in a totally new way, like Bartimaeus the blind man. I resonate with his desperate desire to know what’s going on around him and his lack of care for tact when there’s a chance he could meet this miracle-working Jesus. Not to mention that he’s a blind person with a weird name— just like me!
In Mark 10:46-59, we hear one account of Bartimaeus’s encounter with Jesus:
Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
My attention is captured by this last verse: “Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.”
This action amazes me, because Bartimaeus was a beggar. He probably didn’t have a walk-in closet full of cloaks. And he was a blind beggar. I’ve always been pretty good at losing my stuff, but now that I have a vision impairment, I can’t “throw” anything aside if I want to have a chance of ever finding it again. In order to throw his cloak aside, Bartimaeus had to really believe that what Jesus promised was better than what Bartimaeus already possessed.
There are so many great ideas out there about starting a disability ministry. There are tools, books, and organizations like The Banquet Network that coach churches through making and executing a plan to start including people with disabilities. But unless we take these ideas and start walking, they will mean nothing. And in order to take the next steps, there are things that we’re going to have to throw off—much like Bartimaeus had to throw off his cloak to freely run to Jesus.
What is your cloak? What is the thing you need to throw aside in order to take your next step in starting a disability ministry?
I want to talk about three possible “cloaks”:
FEAR: Fear comes in all sorts of shapes, but it almost always begins with a “what if” and ends with a question mark. “What if I fail?” “What if I embarrass myself or do something wrong?” “What if I can’t handle it?” “What if they don’t like us?” “What if we don’t have enough money to do disability ministry?”
Henri Nouwen, one of the great proponents of the L’Arche community, said “If fear is the great enemy of intimacy, love is its true friend.” If we’re going to cast aside our fear, we’re going to have to love people with disabilities more than we fear these “what if’s”.
COMFORT: Comfort sounds a lot more benign than fear, but perhaps it’s even more dangerous. Comfort says, “We can’t start a disability ministry because we’ve got a great thing going here and people might leave if we change something.” Comfort says, “Disability ministry sounds complicated, and we really have a good routine down now with our volunteers.” Comfort says, “If we invite people with disabilities into our church and they start bringing their friends, the culture of our church might change, and we love our church the way it is.” Comfort resists change, even when that change is from God. It’s true—if people with disabilities start coming to your church, things probably will change, people might even leave your church. But with many things in our Christian lives, there comes a time when we have to decide, are we going to throw off the cloak that enslaves us and follow Jesus, or are we going to stay at a distance, where things are comfortable and status quo, but Jesus is walking by and leaving us behind?
IRRELEVANCE: Irrelevance might also be stated, “What does it have to do with me?” When something is irrelevant, we don’t spend time, money, or effort on it—because there are countless ways we could spend those precious resources. This was certainly my story.
For the first twenty years of my life, I spent less time thinking about Jesus’s interaction with disability than I spent thinking about if Adam had a bellybutton. I thought disability ministry was “great,” but it wasn’t my thing. Disability was “irrelevant” to me because I didn’t know anyone with a disability. I had never had a conversation with a parent of a child with autism, or read a book about the theology of disability. Unfortunately, I only began to care about disability when it became relevant to me—when I became a person with a disability.
It doesn’t have to be that way for you. You can throw aside this cloak of irrelevance. Disability is relevant to us because we follow a perfect, spotless Jesus who spent untold amounts of time on earth ministering to people with disabilities.
What is it that is keeping you from taking the next step in disability ministry? Whatever it is, I’m inviting you to throw it aside, jump up, and run to Jesus—because He will lead us faithfully. It is worth it to face our fears, deal with discomfort, grapple with insecurities, and lay down ourselves to follow Jesus and bring people with disabilities into the Banquet of the kingdom of God.
Hunter and Amberle Brown help lead an organization called The Banquet Network that is based in Baltimore, MD. The Banquet Network primarily works with church plants to inspire, equip, and resource them to reach people with disabilities who are on the margins of their communities. Hunter works full time at Goucher College and is a part-time Masters of Theology student at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore. Amberle works full-time for World Relief, an international health and development NGO, and is passionate about helping churches include and reach people with disabilities based on her own experience of becoming visually impaired and her encounters with people with disabilities in her work in developing countries.