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Disabilities and Our Spiritual Practices

Who Is Included In The Spiritual Fabric

of Your Community?

All May Enter Now

Exerpts From - The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Directorship Program, Final Project Paper - Personal Spiritual Deepening -

by Marie Lewis

Snowflakes are uniquely different. No two are alike. Each of them contribute it’s uniqueness to a bigger community. The results are powerful forces and stunning beauty.

People are very similar to snowflakes. Each of us brings our unique gifts to the Community of Christ. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in ALL men. (I Corinthians 12: 4-6)

Jesus addressed inclusion in a radical manner. He actively and overtly included those who were different, weak, outcast, voiceless and those considered outsiders. He based his inclusion on compassion and justice not just physical ability, cognitive ability or social status. It is through proactive inclusion that we can show Christ’s compassion and love.

Christ like inclusion exposes us to ideas which propose fairness - not equality - and the creation of new radical community and participation systems to replace biased and unfair exclusion. Exclusion is demonstrated not just by the obvious acts of discrimination related to race, age, ethnicity, gender, physical ability or sexual orientation that we’ve all hopefully learned to overtly and legally avoid today. Discrimination also includes the covert acts of exclusion by individuals and organizations that continue to be socially acceptable and tolerated like:

• Shutting others out socially or from the work of the community or church,

• Segregating and ostracizing

• Using rules or preferences to prevent equal participation,

• Using declarations that there are no exceptions,

• Creating images or stories about inferiority or lack of importance of a person or group,

• Believing that one’s cognitive ability or mental health is directly related to one’s value ,

• Believing that diversity inclusion is affirmative action in disguise,

• Believing that meeting legal requirements is all that is required,

• Believing that the internal measures that go beyond demographics are unimportant,

• Assessing diversity issues using only ones personal feelings, assumptions, and experiences as a guide,

• Believing that representation alone guarantees that we're creating a community where everyone feels valued and is empowered to contribute,

• Not understanding that the only report card that matters is the one generated by people other than themselves,

• Judging other’s gifts as not good enough when they are offered,

• Judging if an individual looks the part or qualifies to be part of “us”,

• Allowing powerful and influential members of an organization to determine or decree what “us” looks like and acts like,

• Refusing to actively talk about diversity issues and how we actively and passively exclude,

• Supporting unbalanced systems designed to advance those powerful enough to sustain the illusion of their own superiority, while restricting the advancement of those held in far less esteem

• Talking about exclusion but denying that there is any HERE- thus seeing diversity work and goals as a waste of time,

• Using “diversity professionals” who do not understand the issues or who promote diversity awareness vs. inclusion, hospitality and community. They have thus not educated their audiences in a process capable of achieving significant and long lasting outcomes for ALL - instead of a select or special group. (i.e. racism and diversity awareness training vs. inclusion and hospitality training)

• Claiming to be the only "true victims" in a world trying to promote respect for diversity

• Refusing to solicit participation or develop programs for those who are marginalized - like the socially and cognitively disabled.

• Reacting to events vs. thinking strategically about the level of competence and understanding required to achieve and articulate diversity and inclusion goals and strategies,

• Not agreeing that the diversity and inclusion goals will not take a back seat to anyone's personal comfort.

• Unwillingness to take the responsibility to understand the depth and complexity of the issues, and develop a diversity and inclusion plan that has accountability

More than one time I have heard, “we don’t need to address these people's needs since we don’t have anyone who is like “that” (disabled) in our congregation.” Could it be that we don’t have anyone who like “that” in our community because they have never been welcomed or invited in? Could it be that the disabled within our community become invisible in an attempt to avoid being victimized again in their religious communities? Could it be that a room or accommodations are not available for them in our spiritual community? Could it be that we are more concerned about our linguistical political correctness and we have forgotten to take the action of hospitality, community and proactive acts of inclusion?

Within the disability communities there is a high level of competition for funding, acceptance, services and recognition. It can look like vicious discrimination, just as horrific as the racial discrimination of the 60’s. Those with a voice get heard and those more profoundly disabled, socially, cognitively or mentally, often are voiceless and invisible. That is why advocates must lend their voices to those communities that are misrepresented, not well organized and not vocal.

No other group would put up with the levels of discrimination and put down that our disability communities endure by supposed caregivers and advocates. Discrimination in this community, of people without a voice, often goes unchecked. We assume that if a family has a child with a disability, they must be experts. We assume that religious leaders understand the concepts of authentic inclusion. All of these are grossly false assumptions. Persons in our community that have actively promoted the most active socially acceptable discrimination and disrespect to the disabled have been religious leaders and religious leaders with children with disabilities. Very counter intuitive.

None of us, who are able-bodied, no matter what our education or social background, would tolerate the behaviors exhibited toward the disabled and their families today. I was physically disabled for 2 ½ years - (on crutches for 2 years and a cane for ½ year). I experienced inconvenience and exclusion at times but I never experienced the levels of vicious intentional discrimination that I have watched my son and his peers experience.

I have a profound sense of empathy for those marginalized. I see injustice and I am brought to tears. I watched my son grow up and be beaten up by the “normal kids”. They shattered his arm one year , broke his eye orbit and punctured his eye another year and beat him 17 times in another year, and all documented in school communications. The school never disciplined the aggressors not even once. I don’t live in a poor center city neighborhood. I live in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the USA where most public school children go to college. I live on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia. I remember angrily asking my son, who has autism, why he didn’t ever raise his hand to defend himself - not even once! I was projecting my anger toward the abusers onto him for not defending himself. He had advance belts in karate and was extremely strong. He could take down a large grown man in competition. “Mom!”, he said - stunned by my question, “I could have hurt them and I would never do that!”

Once, I was called by a physically disabled mother who has two disabled children, one with Tourette's syndrome. She had been told by her church and its diocesan leadership that they could not confirm her children due to the lack of physical access and trained personal to teach. She was told to find, “another denomination.” I called the diocesan office, assuming that she had misunderstood, and was shocked to confirm that she was told this. I was so outraged at the Church (with a capital C - the universal church) as well as my church. How do you think Christ would have responded? I set up volunteers, an MD and a teacher, to teach her sons. I went and modified the curriculum for each child based on their needs and bought bibles at appropriate reading levels for each of them. It did not take a brain surgeon to figure this one out! I received no response from the dioceses related to transporting the family to church.

I am aware of a profound sadness as to the state of humanity. I know I am being lead to profess truths and I am fearful of that. Most truth speakers in history were not liked and many died terrible deaths. I sense a separation and a belonging. A separation from where socially acceptable intolerance and discrimination occur. Where no one sits with my son or his friends, when he brings them to church, no one would train him to be an acolyte or chalice bearer and where he wasn’t allowed to be a lector. He is all those things now! When we were looking for a church we were turned away from 6 churches, either when I called them or when I attended due to the fact that they felt that my son, “didn’t fit in”. The director of Christian education once made my son hold a balloon while 100% of his class read scriptures during the service. My husband and I asked her why and she said, “Well, I didn’t know if he could read.”. I asked if she had asked him and she said no. I took my son aside and asked how he felt about being left out. He said, “Mom, I really really want to read and have been dreaming about doing it, but Mrs. ____ said SHE needed help with the balloon. I am willing to give it up my dream if it will help others. I went right back to the director and said, “Aaron reads at a 5th grade level and will not be holding a balloon and will read! Even if he didn’t read he should have been accommodated respectfully to participate like the rest of his class!”

My son now wants to become an ordained Deacon in the church - a church that has never ordained anyone with a mental/ cognitive disability (handicap yes - disability no) It is amusing to me that he wants this since I named him after the first priest in the bible. In my eyes he already is a Deacon. He advocates for those less fortunate than himself, he is always of service and serves the Christ in all persons, he respects the dignity of every human being (except of course - at this stage of his life - his parents) , and just gets - at the core of his very being - the liturgy and word of God - in a way most of us strive all our lives to experience. He is, even with his cognitive and social disabilities/ "brokenness", shalem, the Hebrew for whole and lives from his lev shalem - his whole heart. I am blessed to been given him as my spiritual teacher and director.

I feel a belonging to and a calling toward those without a voice. It is overwhelming at times! My son has taught me to remember that an injustice to one is an injustice to all. I am aware of being pulled and guided to a different level of service on my spiritual journey – to be an example of acceptance of those marginalized and lend them my voice no matter how inarticulate I feel I am. My prayer is, “Lord, Your will be done - just show me the way. ” I find that my anger toward others who abuse and discriminate, in socially acceptable ways, against those marginalized, has changed to self reflection and asking for forgiveness for myself first!, for judging them - then reconciliation and then asking for their enrollment into support of those without a voice.

My spiritual vision is becoming more transparent. Gerald May, psychiatrist and author of, “The Dark Night of the Soul”, and I sat at lunch, one day on retreat, talking about the lack of a veil for many children with autism and how they experience God in the here and now without the confusion of the physical world. We discussed how they experience the physical world so differently and how profoundly spiritually connected many of them are. I expressed that many are without a linear view of time and have the ability to see the transparency of relatedness and are thus set apart from others. We discussed that how they see the world reminded us both as to how Christ might have seen the world! Gerry told me to continue to remember to be. He said it was just an act of remembering and that I did not need to learn anything new. “Just remember what it was like to be in God’s presence consciously, like your son does.”

We are judged as individuals, as communities, as a species, and spiritually as to how we take care of the least of us. The following is a blessing for those who see those with mental and cognitive delays and take compassionate action.



Author unknown

BLESSED ARE YOU who take time to listen to difficult speech, for you help us to know that if we persevere we can be understood.

BLESSED ARE YOU who walk with us in public places, and ignore the stares of strangers, for in your friendship we feel good to be ourselves.

BLESSED ARE YOU who never bid us to "hurry up" and, more blessed, you who do not snatch our tasks from our hands to do them for us, for often we need time rather than help.

BLESSED ARE YOU who stand beside us as we enter new and untried ventures, for our unsureness will be outweighed by the times when we surprise ourselves and you.

BLESSED ARE YOU who ask for our help and realize our giftedness, for our greatest need is to be needed.

BLESSED ARE YOU who help us with the graciousness of Christ, for often we need the help we cannot ask for.

BLESSED ARE YOU when, by all things, you assure us that what makes us individuals is not our particular disability or difficulty but our beautiful God-given personhood which no handicapping condition can confine.

REJOICE AND BE EXCEEDINGLY GLAD for your understanding and love have opened doors for us to enjoy life to its full and you have helped us believe in ourselves as valued and gifted people.


Understanding, respecting and promoting diversity in our social, political, financial, business and spiritually communities needs to be a high priority. We need to make it clear that we want a community in which we do more than just acknowledge our different talents, ideas and backgrounds. That is patronization. RADICAL AND PROACTIVE HOSPITALITY, RADICAL INCLUSION AND RADICAL COMMUNITY - NOT JUST DIVERSITY AWARENESS - IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS.

I look at it clinically;

Preventative care (disability awareness) is easy

Identification and labeling of the disease (prejudice, discrimination, and entitilement) is socially hard, and

Treatment (teaching of radical inclusion and hospitality) with best practices is challenging.

We have the opportunities to be like snowflakes molding our differences into strong integrated powerful forces in communities, relationships and lives, focusing on opportunities to demonstrate Christ like behavior. We should seek to build strong lasting relationships with those with different ideas yet common core goals in our communities. Our actions, practices and policies must promote progress across toward ALL forms of individual diversity inclusion, not just the politically acceptable ones. This is done by incorporating a passion for respect for the individual, integrity and utilization of outcomes measurement. A huge dose of prayer needs to be added too. This means reorganizing commonly accepted power structures and following our baptismal covenant as stated in the Episcopal - Book of Common Prayer:

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in ALL persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among ALL people and respect the dignity of EVERY human being?

(BCP - page 305)

Our cry should be - “I will with God’s Help!”

Diversity representation or awareness alone does not guarantee that we've created a community where everyone feels valued, can participate or is empowered to contribute. What is needed is proactive and radical inclusion and hospitality which means that EVERY individual must choose to take personal responsibility to think and act in a way that includes and values others, to choose healing over shame and cooperation over conflict.

All May Enter Now

My prayer is:

All May Enter Now

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