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

 

Advertisements

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