When I read a book, I rarely pay attention to the publisher, but in the case of Amazing Gifts I have made an exception. The Alban Institute has provided excellent resources to congregational leaders (including me) since 1976. Alban’s track record brings credibility to this newest offering, thus encouraging faith community leaders to place priority on hospitality to and engagement with people with disabilities in all aspects of ministry.
Author Mark Pinsky writes that the intended readers of this book are “ . . . people of religious faith who may have no expertise or personal experience with disability but who, as congregation members and clergy, make the congregational decisions about accessibility and inclusion.” (p. 305) In the introduction, he articulates the book’s purpose, “Making your congregation welcoming and accessible can be done because it has been done—somewhere, as you will see, by people just like you. I hope that after reading these stories you can replicate what has been successful, avoid what has failed, and most important, generate creative programs of your own.” (p. xxvi)
Pinsky fulfills his purpose by telling 64 stories of people affected by various visible and “invisible” disabilities: intellectual, sensory, and physical disabilities as well as chronic illnesses and mental illnesses. The stories also illustrate responses to people living with disabilities by communities of faith. Though many of them feature people in the Protestant Christian tradition, people from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, as well as Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish believers, tell their stories as well.
As a member of the CRC, I especially enjoyed reading stories about several CRC people featured in the book including Steve Schoon from Michigan and Elsie Vander Weit from New Jersey. Another article highlights Friendship Ministry and its director, Nella Uitvlugt.
Trouncing the stereotype that people with disabilities can only be recipients of ministry, Pinsky describes the contributions that his subjects have made to their congregations and communities. In the story about Claire Wimbush, an Episcopal priest who has cerebral palsy, her former professor Jo Bailey Wells, comments, “She’s not a priest despite her disability. Her disability doesn’t limit her priesthood. Her disability is part of God’s provision of this priest.” (p. 168)
The stories are good to read not only because they are written well, but also because they encourage and allow the people with disabilities to minister to the reader as they ministered within their own contexts. For example, Jim Schwier, a young man with Down syndrome, was so pleased to take his first communion that he called out, “Mmm, good,” when he ate the bread, and cried “Cheers!” as he held the cup high. Smiles and nods of affirmation from the congregation members comforted his embarrassed father as the two of them made their way back to their seats. This young man’s response helped the congregation appreciate the sacrament anew.
However, this is not a Chicken Soup for the Disabled Soul. Not every story ends happily or gives a rosy picture of each faith community. The subjects themselves have diverse reactions to their disabilities, some who conquer, but others who work hard just to cope. Tom Powell, adoptive father of Nick who has severe autism, wonders, “Have I done all I could to ensure that Nick has a full life? . . . Have I spent enough time and energy nurturing all aspects of his life, including his spiritual life? I hope so, but others, most importantly Nick in his own way, will be the judge of my efforts.” (p. 279)
After finishing the book, I found myself wishing that Pinsky had told a few more stories about people living with mental illnesses, considering that so many people must deal with mental illness in their lifetimes. However, considering the level of stigma surrounding mental illness, perhaps Pinsky found few subjects willing to be profiled. Telling stories about people with mental illnesses and their religious communities would make a fine future project for some writer.
For those of us who are passionate about disability and communities of faith Amazing Gifts is a gift that I hope many congregational leaders will read, process, and implement. Engaging stories and practical ideas make this book another contribution to Alban’s offerings. I hope too that Alban will consider the 20 percent of people who live with disabilities and produce more resources on disability and ministry.