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.




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