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I was born with a cosmetic congenital handicap that doesn’t impede any of my normal activities (my fingers and toes are short and malformed). Since I’ve never known anything different, I don’t feel disabled. Yet I live in a gray area between the 100-percent able-bodied and the disabled.
In retrospect, the Spirit sent me to the Disability Mentorship Training. I stumbled upon the announcement on the ELCA Web site. Then I received an invitation from Lisa Thogmartin-Cleaver, ELCA director for disability ministries. But I decided to attend after my spiritual director asked: “Have you been discriminated against in the church?” and “Would it have helped you then to talk to someone in your position?”
My answer to both questions was yes. While I never faced workplace discrimination in the 15 years I spent as a computer programmer, churches and call committees have refused to interview or call me because of this minor disability. It’s disappointing that the church can be so far behind industry in integrating people with a disability.
At the training I met other pastors—men and women whose disabilities didn’t keep them from being able to minister to others. I was delighted to hear how their disabilities led them to be compassionate instead of bitter and caring instead of isolating. I heard how their reliance on God’s grace comes from an overflowing of the Spirit. I heard that they, too, had wondered if God could really call someone like them to be a pastor. Though they knew deep in their hearts that God was calling them, they still doubted. Unfortunately, much of that doubt was sown by candidacy and call committees that openly displayed prejudice or asked mean-spirited questions.
In the training’s atmosphere of openness and vulnerability, we could share our pain and discouragement. Theological discussion arose around the topic of living in the brokenness and suffering of Good Friday. Our Lutheran theology of the cross was central. God’s truest nature and heartfelt revelation is focused on Jesus’ death and suffering on the cross.
Then the discussion turned to the Resurrection and the hope of a new day. Living in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, the early church created a community where all barriers were broken down—old and young, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free. Questions emerged: How can we help the ELCA break down one more barrier to better include people with a disability on the ELCA leadership roster? How can we make this happen in our congregations? Most importantly, how can we make this happen in our community outreach?
I left Chicago with those thoughts in my head as well as questions about my previous lack of 'theological' reflection on the topic of disability. Now I’ve gone back to re-read some basic Lutheran texts and consider how my life story is reflected in the theology of the cross. How do I communicate this brokenness, vulnerability and sense of resurrection?
I also began to wonder how many people are excluded. Several participants of the training live with a disability that isn’t visually obvious (learning disability, epilepsy, etc). Others deal with disabling conditions like multiple sclerosis. After hearing their stories of trying to hide their disability or medical condition, I wondered how many of my parishioners are doing the same. How many people do we unintentionally exclude from our congregation? How many suffer in both soul and body because we aren’t open enough about including people with disabilities?
After the training I contacted the local seminary, the regional coordinator in charge of candidacy and the synodical office. I explained the disability mentorship program and asked about their efforts to include and encourage people with a disability who are worthy candidates for the ministry. I’ve also kept in touch with the other training participants—a wonderful thing because now I have a community where I can share thoughts and reflections about this part of my life.
For me the Disability Mentorship Training was a watershed event. It created an internal and external dialogue about my identity as a person and as a pastor. The Spirit knew I needed work in this area of my life. So the Spirit arranged for me to discover this training just in time to go—at a time when my heart and soul were ready to receive the wonderful mentorship training.
Check out this week's articles:
Connections up and down the church: Are we connected at all levels of the ELCA? If not, why not — and what can we do?
Also: Side by side.
Also: Growing together.
Discussion Forum Host:
July 15-22: Join journalist and pastor Charles M. Austin (right) to discuss connections and disconnections within the ELCA.
This week on our staff blog:
Julie Sevig (right) blogs about the YouTube video of Matt Harding.
Sonia Solomonson blogs about how she can relate to the story of Mary and Martha.
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