Today is the 26th anniversary of the fateful day when we and our parents walked down the aisle of a church, and as my friend Mark says "in front of God and everybody" nervously mumbled a few words about loving and living together. No one has asked yet, but I offer one observation.
Beware of gateways.
Biblioesclavio leads to librocubicularism.
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
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”
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.