One year, as two broke college students, my friend and I traveled to New York for spring break. We found the absolute cheapest flight possible from the West Coast, which sent us from Northern California to Los Angeles, to Baltimore, to Long Island, to a bus, to a train station, and finally, to Times Square at midnight on a Saturday. As we hopped off the plane for our connecting flight to Baltimore, we passed by gate after gate, shaking off the almost six-hour flight we had just finished while gearing myself up for a few more hours of travel. To my surprise, I looked over at one gate and saw someone I knew! I thought how unlikely it was that anyone would know me in a random terminal in a random airport 3,000 miles from where I had begun my day. I was known. In a place I had never been and was just passing through, somebody knew me. The feeling of being known can be difficult to explain, but yet wholly undeniable when it’s experienced. Being known is a gift. In this season, how can we give the gift of being known to those in our congregations and communities with disabilities?
Approximately 1 in 5 individuals in the United States is impacted by disability. Disability itself can be a broad category. “Disability” can include physical disabilities and developmental disabilities and each can be subdivided into many different categories. Even within those subcategories, individuals can experience the same disability in vastly different ways. Disability is not a homogenous population. What we know to be true for one individual is not necessarily true for every person with a disability we encounter. So we must be willing to learn. We must learn about the unique ways God has created each person in our congregation and create space for their story to be told. In the New Testament, we see Jesus regularly creating spaces for people to tell their stories. Many times, the subjects were ones that had been overlooked or ostracized by society. Jesus entered time and space amidst this wholly broken world and used the stories of the marginalized to bring glory to God. But these narratives will never be known if we fail to recognize our need to be learning sorts of people. Trust me, just when we think we know it all, it is precisely at that moment that we definitely do not.
My friend in the next office over has a sign propped up in her window that says “listening is where love begins”. I see it nearly every day, and nearly every day this sign reminds me how much I like to talk. I have so many words. I will gladly talk to anyone about anything. But I also need to remind myself to listen, as it is in listening to others where God often does His best work. When we listen to the narratives of other people, it forces us to look outside of ourselves for a moment. It reminds us that not everyone experiences the world in the exact same way. Learning how someone experiences the world can challenge our own perspectives and ready us to expand our capacity for understanding and empathy. When we listen, we are forced to slow down and pay attention to the story unfolding right in front of us. We behave differently once we learn the stories of others. Our churches could create the best, most elaborate, most expensive inclusion supports and still fall flat on our faces if we have not yet truly listened to those in our ministries. Imagine going to the doctor’s office with a broken foot and told them the story about how you broke it, only for the doctor to put a cast on your wrist. Yep, they cast you, but it was in the totally wrong place because they did not listen to your story, to your experiences. The only way we are going to know the needs of those with disabilities in our congregation and to respond in meaningful ways is if we listen.
The church often approaches change like we are walking across a room full of mouse traps, blindfolded and barefooted. There is something about change that strikes fear in our collective hearts. Something inside us seizes up, as we gingerly tiptoe ahead, worried about the next potentially catastrophic move. The church need only to look at the story of Joshua to see that we need not tiptoe into the places God is leading us to change. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses, the great leader of God’s people, dies. Moses was an unquestioned giant of the faith. To say his successor had some big, Shaquille O’Neal-sized shoes to fill is an understatement. Enter Joshua. Joshua was tasked with leading God’s people across the Jordan River to the Promised Land. Amidst this huge change in personnel, God urges Joshua to be courageous, for the Lord God would be with him wherever he should go. And so Joshua goes forth, and God stays with him as He promised. Joshua did not half-heartedly lead, but he led with fortitude, bravery, and confidence rooted in God’s promise. And so should we move forward in making our churches more accessible, more welcoming, more hospitable as God calls us to love and serve those who have been marginalized and unknown. When we become willing learners and begin listening to the stories of those with disabilities in our congregations, we will see the need to change the church. Some of these changes may be smaller, some larger, some easy, some challenging. Some may take moments and some may take years. But in it all, let us move forward in times of change with the bold assurance of Joshua.
Perhaps the best news in all of this, is that any church, of any size, in any denomination, with any budget can give the gift of being known. Being willing to learn, willing to listen, and willing to change costs zero dollars. The only thing it costs is our own comfortability with our present circumstances. This season, and in the year to come, let the gift of being known be given freely to all those in our congregations who have yet to feel that they belong. No wrapping required.