On Disability and Inclusion in the Church

What follows is an edited transcript from a short session I ran at the recent “TASH conference” in Nashville:

As I said at the beginning of this panel, my name is Matt Curcio. The capital letter “C” church has been a part of my life since I was about eleven years old. I have worked in churches, volunteered with ministries, gone to seminary and surrounded myself with Christian fellowship.

While I have been active in many different churches over the years, I have more often than not felt like I was on the outside looking in. But then again y’all are aware that there are still many obstacles and barriers to inclusion, which is why we are gathered here today.

One of the questions I pondered when writing this all down is, what exactly would it look like to be meaningfully included in a faith community?

I want to start with what it does not look like. It doesn’t look like people avoiding eye contact. It doesn’t look like being forgotten about or minimized to just the state of my physical body.

Not being meaningfully included is like the scene in Mark 2. Many of you here know the story of the paralyzed man who was lowered through a roof to meet Jesus.

Something I didn’t realize until recently is that it wasn’t steps blocking the man from meeting Jesus and being a part of something world changing. In fact, scripture clearly states it was a crowd blocking him. A crowd of people, unaware and uninterested blocking this man from a potential that was unimaginable.

For me to feel accepted and welcomed and desired is when a few of those people in that crowd become a community. They stop standing in the way and work with me to get into that house to see what all the commotion is about.

To be meaningfully included means ultimately for others to see my potential when I only see my brokenness. It is to have my name asked and to have my story heard. To be meaningfully included is to be treated like a human.

While for me there are still many instances where stairs are a major obstacle to me being meaningfully included, to me the complacent and disinterested attitudes are the biggest barriers.

It is a rare occasion wherein programs, lessons and buildings are planned with disabilities in mind. Stages are even more rarely designed with the thought that someone with a disability would ever lead or speak on it.

In fact even when I was ministering to students, it was an afterthought to me! I’d plan the lesson, write the illustration and map out the activity just to realize I didn’t even take into consideration my own limitations. How backwards is that? I don’t think that is what Paul meant by being everything to everyone.

But, its not all bad, because if there wasn’t hope I probably wouldn’t be up here speaking. I have been meaningfully included. One instance was so powerful it is still shaking up my life even though it occurred over two years ago

I was working at a church in San Antonio doing full time college ministry. I knew my wheelhouse. College kids were easy. They liked video games, coffee and long talks about Jesus. No problem, I excel at all those things. But there was a Youth Director at this church that became a fast friend. We’d grill and watch every sport under the sun. It wasn’t long, maybe a few weeks after my arrival that he began inviting me to come spend time with him and the middle schoolers.

I was sick to my stomach when he first invited me. I smiled and in my most gracious voice declined. On the inside I was screaming “Dude are you out of your mind? Me, with a bunch of wild middle schoolers, running around being hyper and active and fun? You DO realize I use a scooter right? I don’t play sports, I can’t do this, I can’t do that. This is a disaster waiting to happen.”

The Youth Director then proceeded to invite me every single week for the next month. He promised food and fellowship. Finally after a month of invitations I caved in to his persistence. Nerves a wreck, I showed up and ate hot dogs and talked about Maundy Thursday with ten eighth grade boys.

I thought I would just have to make it through those two hours and then never have to hear his offer again once I explained how I’m not a fit to work with youth.

If y’all could have seen his smug grin when he watched me fall in love with working with those kids. Two years later I’m obviously no longer at that church, but I still get weekly texts from the many high school and middle schoolers. I had no idea that potential was in me.

I had no idea that there was a gifting and strength to my story that could connect to kids that I had grown up unable to connect with.

Side note: Kids, no matter the age, love sitting in rollie chairs and holding onto the back of scooters like a train. Extra side note: get a parent’s permission and have the kids sign a waiver before you do something like that.

But a faith community saw it in me when I didn’t see it. And in this scenario once I got inside the house and saw what the crowd was staring at, it changed my world.

What I want to leave you with today is just a few pieces of advice:

  1. Invitation is at the heart of faith communities, do not be afraid to invite those with disabilities to serve, and to share their strengths. Which of course means you need to invite them into your life so that you may get to see their potential yourself.
  2. This is off topic, but I feel like it needs to be shared. Disability is draining. It consumes energy, health and finances, goodness is it expensive to be disabled. I will be the first to say that I do not want to be seen as a charity case, but those I trust, who know me authentically and intimately and not just as someone to be served. I am grateful to share my struggles and needs with them. It is not easy to support and invest in someone with a disability. But the best things in life are never easy. Get to know people’s needs, but first get to know them.
  3. Finally, become a community. Lay down the simplicity of being a crowd. Make your plans with an array of abilities in mind. If you work with youth, you already know not EVERY kid likes dodgeball. If you are preaching, hopefully it’s not news to you that it doesn’t take having a disability or learning difference to lose focus on what is being said. Every obstacle has an accommodation. And

Maybe accommodations shouldn’t be an overwhelming word, maybe it shouldn’t be such a dirty word.

But an opportunity to let your creativity run wild, to try something new (I know new can be scary), but what if by accommodating for a few you give way to something more potent, and more world changing than ever before?
Thank you.

Much Love

BGTF

 

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Who do I become?

I wish the title of this post was the question asked of graduating seniors. Who do you plan on becoming? While an acceptable answer is Chuck Norris, its not entirely what I am trying to get at

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This question is less about meeting your potential and more about coming to terms with who you were created to be, a cherished child of God.

As sweet and heart-warming as that sentiment may be, though, I wonder if we all know what exactly that entails? When I was in undergrad, the world seemed like a bad place, but my campus was seemingly safe. I am sad to admit that I resided in a bubble of sorts, well most of my friends did too.

Maybe you were a commuter or maybe you did everything in your power spend time off campus and involve yourself with the community at large. Either way, after graduating your peer group experiences a mass exodus. Some stay nearby, some move back to their homes and still some move out of state or to other countries. Your community tends to have a few drastic changes after college and if the people in the community does not change, limits of time and energy will surely be a new reality.

For me after graduation, it was shocking how quickly relationships went from being the easiest thing for me to manage to the hardest to cultivate in a matter of months.

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Maintaining friendships became hard and making new friendships in new cities felt near impossible at first, for me. I remember being in a bit of a tizzy for a while. I didn’t understand how being Christian (a supremely relational existence) and being lonely could be reconciled. I knew it was part of following Christ to be in community, but between work and cooking for myself I didn’t know how to maintain healthy relationships all that well. And relationships were only one part of becoming an adult! How could I ever do the other parts?

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Our culture and this world has put a lot of emphasis on being adults. And we seem to function in a society that teaches us how to learn and go to school well, but not always how to live well. And becoming an adult sometimes feels like this, also this is one of my favorite videos ever so I have no choice but to include it:

What I would like to argue is that who you become has little to do with what you actually do. Titles come and go. As I mentioned in my last post you might decide in your fifties to go for a Master’s degree in theology, who really knows. But who you are really doesn’t change. Maybe what you are passionate about changes, but who you are at your essence as a child of God does not alter. And if you are leaning into that identity you will desire to grow into that adopted child more and more. So what does it look like to lean into an identity formed by God? In a child you can often see the best parts of their parents, its not so different with God as your parent. Here are three aspects of who God is that can inform you of the type of adult you plan on becoming. God is:

RELATIONAL

God is three persons in one. The Godhead, Holy Spirit and Christ. In nature God is relational and God asks His children to take part in the same. While I mentioned above about how hard community gets after college, that doesn’t mean it gets worse, sometimes you just have to work harder for it. Be the type of friend you desire to be in relationship with. It took me a bit to realize that I didn’t have to wait for friends to be vulnerable or deep with me, I realized that no matter how scary I can be the one to initiate a trusting and intimate relationship. Check this article for more on the subject.

JUST

God is just. Justice is on God’s heart always. So as a full-fledged adult out of college now, you are fully participating in society and culture (I know its silly because you totally were participating in culture before you graduated). Now is the time to think about what breaks your heart and better yet what breaks God’s heart. Is it Human Trafficking? Disabilities? Prisoners? Racism? The list sadly goes on and on and hopefully more than one of these topics do break your heart. Now out of college, how will you participate (if you aren’t already) in healing the wounds from the sin in this world? God does not settle for a status quo of pain, will you speak for the voiceless (Proverbs 31:8-10)?

PATIENT & FORGIVING

I put these two together because I personally believe they are inseparable. I think true forgiveness is not rushed, but is patient. Think briefly on the patience and forgiveness that God extends to us. I wonder if God’s forgiveness would dry up without patience for us to be redeemed, to draw nearer to Our Creator. The human existence is a marathon, not a sprint and God is in for the long haul as we must aspire to be for the world around us.

If you were to ask me the question, who do I want to become? I would say a man after God’s own heart in every way. A man with the conviction to look evil in its eyes and say, “not in God’s Kingdom!”

Some practical suggestions on how to become a person after God’s heart:

  1. Don’t spend too much time church shopping. Choose one, settle down and begin seeing the brokenness just within those walls. One of the best places to practice patience and forgiveness is within the walls of a church. And allow others to be patient and forgive you.
  2. Try new things. I know, I know you have heard this before, but I have seen my heart ignited in ways I counted imagine because I tried something uncomfortable since I graduated college. I thought I had it all planned out, thats a story for another time though.
  3. Find “adultier” adults that you admire. Those you believe are leaning into their identity designed by a loving God. Learn from them and also, teach those younger than you.

P.S. Check out this awesome resource on life after college from InterVasity.

Much Love

BGTF

Capitalization Makes a Difference

Paul’s journey in Acts has always intrigued me. If you do not know what the book of Acts is, that is entirely okay. It is the first book in the New Testament after the four Gospels. It is a book about the journeys of Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection. It is all about how they converted individuals, were persecuted to death, and built a new foundation for the understanding of community and how to follow God. These are the stories of the innovators of the Christian faith. These were the first followers of Christ. These individuals led no life of comfort. There was no real middle ground of being lukewarm. Early in the book a few people who claim to be followers of “The Way” (original Christians) are struck down by God because they were lukewarm and halfhearted, still more consumed with their own gain and profit than the calling of God.

A lot of modern Christians look around at the Church today and yearn for something different. They ache for change in a culture that is consumed with self-gain and prosperity. I am one of these individuals. Well these people are often found saying, “I just want to be the Acts Church” I’ve said it before. So if you ever hear someone say that, they probably have good intentions, but do not entirely comprehend what their vocal chords are producing.

I often struggle with this concept of not knowing how to embody true community and a true body of believers in a cultural like what I live in, in the grand ole U S of A. I am not sure anymore that I want to be the Acts church.

I tell myself that if I was persecuted, doubt wouldn’t be an issue. There would be no half-hearted believers. No luke warm participants giving Christ a bad name. Sounds a little morbid. I mean I am not jumping for joy at the idea of being hung upside down on a cross, but I mean that’s what I thought I was signing up for when I committed my life to Christ. A life of sacrifice and temporary pain for eternal gain. But there isnt much suffering found in an air conditioned sanctuary with unnaturally comfortable pews. There isnt much struggle wearing a different suit every week while my savior hangs in a loin clothe above my head.

But that is a church building right. That’s not THE Church. How many times have you heard (even if you arent a Christian) that a church is just a building, but the Church of God is universal and extends beyond those walls. Preachers exclaim this with a thrust of their fist into the air. Then the preacher receives a chorus of Amens and Yeah, thats good, or maybe just a bunch of head nods like the room is shaking and the congregation is trying to adjust their sight.

But then it ends there. A church building stands perilously at the end of every street corner in America like a stable for crazy people. Us Christians, we love to be fed. mmmmhmmm. Feed me some of that trough slop every Sunday morning. And then I will go out and make the world a better place. Church is like a fix. But now I am bullying something that I am very much a part of, so I need to be careful. I do not hate churches in the US, do not misunderstand my words. I dislike that Christians subscribe to an understanding of what culture says church is and then do nothing to change those preconceived notions.

So I have said a lot of things but not followed a specified direction, but now I have one. So what is a church. Well a church is a building. That is what culture says it is. It is a place Christians go on Sunday or sometimes Wednesdays to hear a word from a Pastor or Preacher or Priest. Its a building with walls and sort of like a holding pen for religiosity. Anyone can join a church. (Well except for sinners but, hell why would you want to join one of those anyway?)

Now what is that other thing? The Church. With a capital C. What is that thing? Well its a cult. Well, its a collaboration of different people from different walks of life who are all racing head first towards a prize that is Jesus Christ. The Church suffers. The Church suffers together. The Church bears each others burdens. The Church bears the burdens of sinners and saints.

Again I say the Church suffers. If you are not suffering I question whether you are part of the Church. If your heart does not break for the outsider, the undesirable, the poor of SPIRIT, the lame, the confused. If you do not share their sufferings you cannot join the Church. I may not be persecuted in the way that Paul and Peter were in Acts. But if my fellow humans are being persecuted and oppressed, than I better be calling their suffering my own.

If you are walking out of a church building any day of the week and not feeling persecuted I think you need to turn around and walk back in. Because there are millions of people outside of those walls suffering. Go and suffer with them. Show them they are not alone. Show them what love really means. Maybe you do not actually know what love really looks like? Maybe you have gone to church every week for years. Maybe you go to a Christian college and still do not know what love means. True life died for you a long time ago. True love hung on a cross and poured out its blood for every sin, burden, pain, shame, and struggle. True love is Christ.

The first step in becoming a member of the Church is to suffer. If it is something you are not willing to be part of, but are more concerned with having a two car garage there are plenty of church buildings that will encourage and instruct you on how to prayer for financial blessings. But if you have been saved by Christ and are ready to become a part of something far greater than you, get ready to suffer. And get ready to experience love far greater than you could have ever imagined.

I do not want to be the Acts church specifically, but I want to be a part of the Church that suffers.

Step outside of the cultural narrative. Step out of what everyone else says a churchgoer is. Toss aside that image. And pick up your cross and follow Christ. The path is a narrow one. It is not easy. But oh, is it worth it. Why is it worth it? Why. Well because God said YOU were worth it.

Much Love

BGTF