This is part 3 of a 4 week blog series exploring how the ministry of the deacons and ministry to people with disabilities relate to one another. Part 1 was an introduction to the topic and Part 2 defined disabilities.
Last week, after defining disability for us and offering examples of different disabilities, Mark concluded his blog with some action steps for deacons. Recognizing the fact that people with disabilities are often marginalized, deacons can become a catalyst for changing this in their congregations. This often means taking intentional steps towards inclusion. Deacons must take the time to understand the needs that exist in their community and the action steps Mark gave are a great place to start!
As deacons it's important to be sensitive to the people you are serving, and that's no different for people with disabilities. We seek to recognize the gifts that different individuals offer, and create the space or opportunity for them to use their gifts to serve the church and kingdom. As Mark pointed out last week, there is quite a variety of disabilities!
I spoke with a friend this week who works in the L'Arche Community and has a family member with a disability. I asked her specifically how she would like to see the church support people with disabilities. Her answer surprised me, because so much of what she said seemed simple. The most obvious one was ensuring that the building/worship space were accessible. However, she didn't stop there. She shared about how words can mean very little to someone who is unable to understand what they mean, so symbols become important - stained glass, candles being lit, the Lord's Supper - sensory experiences of worship can help to include people with disabilities. Then she mentioned how technology can impede the service of people with disabilities! We have photocopiers that fold and staple things for us - for some people with disabilities this can remove a way that they would be able to serve! Her brother, who has Down's Syndrome, collects the cups at church each week - joyfully participating in the life of the church.
To serve with people who have disabilities requires us to think in a new way about how we live in community with one another. We need to stand in someone else's shoes, and think about things from a new perspective. He's the kicker - we can't assume to be able to do that without talking to people who have disabilities. Not only should we talk to them, but we should also talk to their families and their care-givers.
I believe, as deacons, we are responsible for leading the congregation in our ministry with people who have a disability. One very tangible way we can do this is to have a deacon become a Disability Advocate in our congregation (or have the disability advocate become a deacon). Advocates help to generate awareness of disabilities and build support for people with disabilities.
We would also do well to be cognizant of our language relating to people with disabilities. This is not an "us" and "them" situation - we are all just "us", living in community, loving each other, serving together. We need to learn how to ask the right questions. I dare say that we begin with prayer, humbling ourselves, and allowing our brothers and sisters with disabilities to teach us how to serve. Our assumptions perpetrate an injustice, so please, don't be afraid of the conversations!
How are you currently being a catalyst for change in your community when it comes to sharing life with people who have a disability?