This blog post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Welcoming EveryBODY: Learn, Pray, Join initiative.
Katie Mansfield facilitates learning about trauma-sensitivity and resilience-building amid conflict, stress and adversity in multiple contexts. Since 2015, she has worked with STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. She recently completed doctoral work, focused on expressive arts-based, embodied learning for resilience building. Dance is her daily medicine, and she sometimes leads worship at Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
While delighting in the speech my nephew gave at his brother’s wedding, after he had already experienced about four years of living with “permanent disability,” I pause. I celebrate how his family and friends have surrounded him with care and encouragement after he experienced such a radical and sudden change.
While preparing to go to the memorial service for my brave and hilarious cousin, who lived 62 years as an inspirational and loving person with cerebral palsy, I pause. I celebrate the phenomenal family who surrounded her throughout her life and the resources they could access for her care.
While reading and listening to voices in the disability justice movement, like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Patty Berne, I pause. I celebrate the ways they speak the truth about injustice and oppression that are inherent in a system that hates “bodies that have needs” and the ways that they amplify love, beauty and possibilities with art and organizing.
I pause, again. My loved ones are white folks who have settled in the U.S. for multiple generations, whose families have been able to offer financial and health care safety nets. It’s been a few generations since anyone in our family worked a poorly paid caregiving job. We have had a very different experience with disability than people from immigrant, Black and brown communities.
Piepzna-Samarasinha names a choice:
“[You] either have no needs and get to have autonomy, dignity, and control over your life, or admit you need care and lose all of the above. Also in the mix is the fact that some of us come from immigrant, Black, and brown communities and have worked … badly paid caregiving jobs for years, which hasn’t made giving or receiving care uncomplicated. Many of us have been taught that needing care is a weakness we cannot afford and have survived through needing absolutely nothing.”
As I consider access, inclusion and welcome in the church, a hymn pops into my ear, and I’m not sure I feel good about it. We sang it often when I was a child, growing up Catholic on Long Island, New York: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me” (Matthew 25). How in church — and everyday life — do I see others as “least” or “lesser”? Have I internalized the idea that having too many needs makes me or others “lesser”?
When I think about liberation, what bodies do I envision accessing freedom?
Do I envision some as inherently freer than others? Do I picture people living with chronic illness living with autonomy, dignity and control? What would it look like for everyone in a congregation to feel autonomy, dignity and control?
When I think about churches practicing inclusion and welcome with a particular focus on disability, I think of a variety of practical and concrete actions. These range from ensuring wheelchair access to having multiple modes of accessing services — in person, online, with microphone/sound amplification or signing for hearing challenges — to organizing ride shares and helpers and care collectives to engaging people with disabilities in leading worship and guiding policy.
The Disability Justice: an Audit Tool — authored by Piepzna-Samarasinha, envisioned with Stacey Park Milburn — offers a chance to go much deeper, to review procedures and structures, people, and policies, including questions like:
- How are you recognizing wholeness in your work, including when someone is “unproductive” or slower than what you’ve been taught is “productive?”
- How do you build with the leadership of people who are not many-degreed, super-fast, full-time workers with standard CVs?
- What are your connections to disabled people who are sick, homebound, institutionalized, “weird,” without formal education and poor?
What if all of our worship and congregational planning considered disability as a first thought, rather than an add-on to “standard” programming?
What if we took more notice of the ways we categorize some of us as “lesser”? What if we encouraged everyone to name and honor our needs, rather than feel we are not supposed to have needs? What if we did a deep dive in our conversations about the difference between disability rights and disability justice? What if we oriented toward wholeness, seeing every body as a critical part of the whole?
Welcoming EveryBODY: Learn, Pray, Join celebrates the many gifts that people with disabilities bring to our church communities. This initiative also calls us to repent as a church in the ways we have not fully seen or welcomed people with disabilities. May we commit to being more loving and aware as we care for one another.
This initiative is a partnership between Mennonite Church USA and Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADN).
Find upcoming webinars and ways to get involved at https://www.mennoniteusa.org/ministry/peacebuilding/learn-pray-join/welcoming-everybody/.[/minti_box][/vc_column][/vc_row]
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.