Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Professing Crip: a review of Mike Mather's book

Once again, the dynamite duo is at it. This time, Chris wrote a poem in response to my thought on Michael Mather's new book. So for the bibliography purists:  A review of Michael Mather, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.

You can commend my can-do attitude
But I don't need you to claim it 

The power of love rests with me
And, I am here to say it 

You don't have all the answers I seek
And, I'm not very terribly meek
Though I hear they shall inherit the earth 

I am here, full agency 
Professing crip, I come as me 
Knowing my full worth

Bringing heaven into our shared space 
A little mercy with lots of grace 
In my body, just as I am 
My owned reality

cover of Having Nothing, Possessing Everything

When I lived in northern Indiana, I heard a lot about a United Methodist church known as Broadway Christian Parish UMC. It sounded like a good place, but my mobility problems made it difficult to get across the city to attend. Several years ago, when, having traded the status of professional student for professor, we moved to Indianapolis, a familiar name popped up—Broadway United Methodist Church, and, to my wonder, a pastor who had moved from one city to another, but managed to be at a church of the same name! 

Thus I came to meet Mike Mather, as we met to talk about his congregation and its work. It was a worthwhile discussion, and a partial tour (due to accessibility problems) that (still due to accessibility problems) left me still looking for a church home.  

Now Mather has written a book that chronicles his work at these two inner-city churches. It’s an eye-opening story that gives anyone a lot to think about, such as programs, the nature of the abundant life, prejudices, grass-roots approaches, and this theological historian’s favorite angle: who controls the narrative and what their viewpoint is.

It’s a book that is well worth reading if you are at all concerned about poverty and what our society could do about it. But it’s also well worth reading if you have ever thought about what our society and especially our churches could do about disability, chronic illness, and mental illness. This shouldn’t be a big surprise: disability and related problems (medical expenses, limitations on work, stigma for a few) are leading factors in poverty. When I was in seminary, our disabled student organization found that we shared many concerns with the African-American students: being judged based on exterior appearances, dealing with obstacles—some placed by those who thought they were helping—and charity performed as supererogation. And the disability parallels continued throughout the book.

In the early chapters, Mather relates that the biggest spiritual problem he faced at first was that the poor didn’t believe they had any gifts, and the rich didn’t believe they had any needs. Every day in religious circles, “disability ministry” groups discuss whether their subjects can understand and comprehend what the “leaders” wish to communicate. And every day, those “leaders” discuss what they can do for others. On the next page of the book is a revelation and solution—one that, interestingly enough, mentions disability: when another pastor met with a blind group, they stated “Just because you have sight doesn’t mean you can see.” Coming out of that meeting, Mather says of one member, “He is blind, but he sees” (31-32).

The book is about hidden abundance, and there are many facets beyond economics. Another pair of statements also reflect the realities of disability. The first is that life and its struggles are hidden from outsiders, as are the gifts present among the members. Couple this with Mather’s realization that he began to learn that he had tools to fix people, not to help them (45). It’s a reminder of the disability motto “nothing about us without us.” Another way to put this: ask us what we need and what works. The most effective organizations that I’ve been part of are those which let the members set the agenda.

Mather also takes on one of this writer’s least-favorite buzzwords, “empowered.” He notes that people in all walks and statuses of life can do a lot, and have power already. Using buzzwords like this tends to convince people on the margins that they don’t have any power unless it is granted to them. As Mather states, this completely avoids identifying problems correctly, and isolates those who need help from being involved in developing actions (56). In this light, many social service agencies and organizations and congregations make two significant mistakes. The first is not identifying the actual problem. The second is providing answers or remedies without talking with or involving those we intend to help. This double isolation is not at all hospitable, not welcoming others to the table and not accepting their gifts (78). Indeed, it shows that most of the labels we use are, as Mather quote Sam Wells, “a mask we put on people to hide their true wealth” (114).

As an aside, in a different context, buzzwords like “empowered” are also used to transfer responsibility without granting real authority to change things, which is something else that people with disabilities will be familiar with. One of my colleagues concluded after a discussion that the essence of inspiration porn is congratulating disabled people on overcoming the barriers placed in their way by able-bodied people. If our neighbors (and let’s not forget how Jesus defined who is our neighbor) are God’s children, we should act like it. Our neighbor is not something to be fixed, but is one of our fellow humans who contribute to the well-being of all (119, 134). If our churches and other agencies could grasp this vision, it would be a breakthrough for all people—poor, disabled, and everyone else. One doesn’t need sight to see, or legs to walk, when we have the mind of Christ.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Jean Vanier's Jelly Beans

Update: Jean Vanier passed away on May 7, 2019, in the early morning in Paris. 
On the same day, Fr. George Strohmeyer, long-time priest assigned to L'Arche Erie (the location I visited), celebrated the 55th anniversary of his ordination.
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On Holy Saturday, the world heard that Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, had moved to palliative care at the age of 90. My friend Chris Wylie wrote this poem in response, which in turn led me to write the essay that follows the poem. We are publishing our thoughts simultaneously. 
Jelly beans

You created a place for people like me
A caring and loving community 
You called it The Ark
L'Arche in your tongue 

Living together
Together as one

To learn and to grow was your grand vision
Fulfilling in unison love's great mission
Grow we did like flowers in bloom
Ushering Heaven into the room 

Go with peace as we wish you good rest 
Because of your spirit we have been blessed
We leave you these words we're grateful to say
Thank you for everything Jean Vanier

photo of colorful jelly beans
Jelly beans. Not just bags, boxes, or even crates. The day I arrived at a L’Arche office to begin a short-term residence as part of my seminary work, the office was full to the brim with cases of jelly beans.

The jelly beans were part of a federal government surplus program. They’d been stored in a warehouse for a while, and someone had decided it was time to share them. So social service agencies throughout the northeast received a share of the supply.

And social service agencies throughout the northeast had no idea how to handle stacks and stacks of jelly beans. If I wanted to sit, I had to move jelly beans. In the end, I was encouraged to (and did) take some jelly beans with me as a souvenir of the trip.

For the remainder of a two-week period, my wife and I enjoyed the hospitality of a L’Arche community, and shared lives, love, and jelly beans like never before.

We also, as befitting a seminary assignment, discussed the workings of L’Arche with people in the business office, and, most of all, with the community’s full-time chaplain. Refreshing and insightful discussions with a colleague of theology, pastoral concerns, the history and writings of Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen. In one of those talks, I asked how he approached people with limited language skills. He replied that they didn’t need to understand the words, they would understand the love.

Love is sort of like jelly beans. It’s everywhere, you just have to learn to appreciate the gifts, even if the package may be different.

And now, Mr. Vanier, as you stand on the edge of eternity, maybe we can understand the love  you have given the world, the gift of learning about ourselves. 
photo of more jelly beans
Poem: Chris Wylie
Notes: Tim Vermande
Photo: Tiia Monto, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Monday, March 25, 2019

An Invitation

Pliny, Natural History (Latin)I've had this blog space for several years, but never did much with it. It's time to make an effort again. So, an invitation. It's set up so you can get new posts by e-mail, RSS or Atom. Friends can try my Facebook page or whomever shares it (which, as is typical, is encouraged).

Posts will generally cover history, centering on theology, mythology, and the arts. There will also very likely be a lot of disability and inclusion matters. And there will definitely be a good bit of irony, sarcasm, and attempts to offend everyone (although equally so), accompanied by emphasis on careful, thoughtful reading.

Now I find a disclaimer is in order: although I have three degrees in historical studies (one including theology and another disability studies), I'm not qualified to teach history, as I am unable to coach football. So have a grain of salt ready as we go. If you need help, ask Pliny, who first told us about doing this.

Image source