In Their Midst: Disability, Inclusion, and Access
In the face of systemic erasure, violence, and exclusion, today’s readings can be a balm for disabled people and those who love them. I say this with multiple sighs of relief, because I don’t always find the Bible to be a source of blessing for disabled people. Too often, Gospel stories about Jesus’ “miracle cures” have been interpreted to mean that all disabled people could be “cured” if they prayed hard enough or had enough faith, and that therefore disabled people who are not cured must be sinful, unbelieving, or unworthy of healing. I’ve heard stories from one disabled person after another about being prayed over (usually involving unwanted physical touch) by total strangers on a city bus, or in the back of a church, or on a sidewalk, all for the emotional or spiritual benefit of “well-intentioned” Christians who truly believe that their singular prayer could eliminate blindness, chronic pain, or the need for a wheelchair. I’ve experienced this myself, when I have confessed my struggles with mental health to Christian friends who immediately tell me that my mental illness would be cured if I “talked to Jesus more” or who earnestly pray “in Jesus’ name” that my mental illness would “go away with no more medication or therapy.” There are, undoubtedly, some disabled people for whom these prayers are comforting or desirable. However, there are many other disabled people who do not want or need these prayers to “work,” who do not want or need a “miracle cure,” because they understand themselves to be whole and holy inclusive of their disability. In this homily I hold closest to my heart and soul those disabled people who, like myself, reject a non-consensual “Christian cure agenda” in favor of full inclusion, access, and celebration in the Church and in the world, no medical miracle required.
My first sigh of relief today comes in our reading from Jeremiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this reading, the prophet proclaims God’s promise to bring back God’s people to their traditional land and waters. When Jeremiah is describing the people God will bring back, he writes, “[God] will gather them from the ends of the world / with the blind and the lame in their midst.” Notice: Jeremiah does not say “the cured” will be in the midst of God’s people, and although we might expect him to, he also does not speak of “the formerly blind and lame, who now miraculously see and walk after being prayed over by religious leaders.” Rather, we are told that the blind and the lame, just as they are, will be included “in the midst” of their community’s joyous return to the safety and agency of home.
We, whether abled or disabled, are the spiritual siblings of those whom God brought back from exile. This scripture reminds the abled among us of the many disabled people already in our midst: the disabled people who are, every day, in our Sunday School classrooms and church councils and youth groups and back row pews, whether or not we know and recognize their disability. If God cared enough about the disabled Israelites to name their presence specifically, surely we must care enough about our disabled community members to ensure their inclusion, comfort, and wellbeing. In a different way, the disabled among us are reminded that we have always been here, that we have always been a necessary and relevant community within our spiritual traditions, equally present in ancient times and in this morning’s Zoom liturgy. We have a lineage of disabled ancestors extending back thousands of years, who have shared our needs, desires, and gifts. Disabled and able-bodied alike, Jeremiah reminds us that disability is neither new nor rare, but rather commonplace and ever-present in God’s own community.
This passage of Jeremiah has yet another lesson for us in regards to disability: that of access. Jeremiah tells us that God leads God’s people “on a level road, so that none shall stumble.” I wonder: does God say this specifically because God has already been explicit about including disabled people on this journey? What a change this “level road” would be from our churches and businesses! A level road, with no stairs to the sanctuary, or to the communion table, or to the fellowship hall. A level road, with no stairs to the bathroom, or to the bus, or to the restaurant counter. Can we imagine removing all the other ways that we cause our beloveds to stumble? What about a level technological “road,” with closed captioning on our livestreams and image descriptions in our newsletters? Or a level sensory “road,” with fidget toys in every pew and adult coloring pages in our bulletins? Or a level environmental “road,” with brighter lights for our low-vision congregants and microphones for all — yes, even when you use your “outside voice?” For those of us who are disabled, we recognize: we deserve a level road. We deserve not to stumble. God’s way is accessible to us and God’s will is our ease. Barriers to access are neither holy or natural, but rather human-made and heretical, inherently oppositional to what God wants for each person. The call of God, spoken through Jeremiah, is to make a level way — an accessible way — for all to be present and welcome in our communities.
After such a liberating and gratifying Hebrew Scripture, I was surprised to find myself relieved, again, at our Gospel today. In this scripture passage, we encounter a blind man, Bartimaeus, who calls out again and again to Jesus, demanding his attention. Whereas Bartimaeus’ contemporaries shushed him and attempted to discourage him from talking to such an important passer-by, Jesus instead insists on connecting with this disabled begger. Before assuming, before acting, and before praying, Jesus asks a critical question of Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus’ question communicates to Bartimaeus and to me (and, hopefully, to you) what disabled people have always understood: disabled people know what they want, disabled people know what is best for them, and disabled people deserve to make decisions about their bodies, minds, and spirits. Jesus communicates agency. Jesus communicates consent. Jesus communicates relationality, personhood, and intimacy. And so should we. Bartimaeus, we are told, does tell Jesus that he wants to see, and Jesus grants this desire. But I hope, and trust, and pray, that had Bartimaeus told Jesus he did not want to see but rather wanted to have fair wages, or inclusive communities, or, yes, a level road, that Jesus would have granted that, too.
At every turn today, from our Hebrew Scriptures and our Christian Testament, we witness a God who models and demands inclusion, access, and consent for disabled people. We are reminded of the presence of disabled people in religious communities throughout the centuries. We are taught to make a level road for the disabled people who journey already in our midst. We are shown what it is to trust disabled people to be experts about their own lives, independent of our assumptions or comfort. Those of us who are disabled, those of us who have long known these truths in our bones and synapses, can find in these readings divine validation and affirmation of our naturalness, worthiness, and on-purpose-created-ness. And all of us, abled and disabled alike, can find in these texts a moral and spiritual imperative for disability justice. Our sacred texts both create and reflect the world as we know it, and today, our texts remind us of our new and ancient call to be in right relationship with disabled people and all God’s creation. Amen.
 Bethany McKinney Fox, Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church (Downers Grove, Illinois : IVP Academic, 2019), 75.
Allison Connelly-Vetter (she/her) received a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary. While in graduate school she studied interdisciplinary approaches to disability theology and Madness and wrote a capstone thesis on Christian ableism and restorative justice. Allison regularly preaches and offers presentations and workshops for churches and religious congregations across the country on topics such as disability theology, queer Christianity, and theological grounding for social justice. She finds a spiritual home in both the United Church of Christ and in lay-led, non-canonical catholic communities such as Benincasa Community, where she interned while in seminary. Allison and her wife, Brooklyn, live in Minneapolis, MN, where Allison is the Children, Youth, and Families Program Coordinator for Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community and a faith organizer for the Center for Sustainable Justice. Her writing can be found in Dear Joan Chittister: Conversations with Women in the Church (Twenty Third Publications, 2019) and Liberating Liturgies 2.0(Women’s Ordination Conference, 2020), and on the New Ways Ministry’s blog, Bondings 2.0.
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