07 January 2011
Doing mission with a disability
By Ceri Longville
In Britain, there are 9.5 million adults who have a recognisable disability (Disability Rights Commission, 2006): that is over one-fifth of the adult population. Yet, how many of these are represented on the mission field? This is a challenging question. I have not found any information nor statistics to be able to give an answer. I have to be honest though, I cannot name many and believe we need to address this.
What is a disability?
I've been giving some thought as to how to define the word disability because in a sense we can all name things which we are unable to do or make life difficult for us. For example, I have a poor sense of direction which you won't notice until, for example, I give you a lift in my car to the local supermarket and you see me reach for my SatNav (okay a slight exaggeration)! However, when you meet me, one of the first things you'll notice is that I have cerebral palsy because it impacts my everyday life. Thus I will define disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially affects major activities in everyday life".
Why are there so few people with disabilities in Mission?
I have many thoughts on why this is the case. Firstly, I don't think the heavy UK health and safety laws have done people with disabilities many favours. People seem more and more afraid of doing anything 'outside the box' and I imagine a wheelchair user going to a developing country is going to need to be with a team of people happy to muck in, improvise and take calculated risks together to overcome any hurdles.
Pastor John Naudé writes in his blog: "Malawi's physical environment is not very suitable for wheelchair users and, although I managed to access all venues, it was only through the help of friends and a bit of creative thinking that we managed to access everywhere. At one point there was a large gulley with a plank of wood across it for people to walk across. They found some extra wood and managed to tie various bits of wood together for me to push across. It wasn't a 'safe' bridge across with level and very stable bits of wood, but they had gone to great effort to enable me to cross. Thankfully, with my own wheelchair skills and a fair few prayers quickly offered up, I managed to cross it several times a day."
Another reason, which makes me very sad, is that I believe that in this fast-paced society, the God given potential in many people with disabilities is often simply not recognised or tapped into. Just as David in the Bible was left out in the field while his brothers stood lined up before Samuel to see who was to be chosen king, people with disabilities are often not considered for roles in the church or the mission field. Yet it is clear from the Bible that God's choice isn't always the most physically able. "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7). In terms of calling; David's stature was not a problem to God, neither was Moses' stammer, nor was Paul's 'thorn in the flesh'.
We tend to see people with disabilities as the ones needing ministry and not, perhaps, necessarily needing to be released into ministry. But we all have been given gifts by God and need opportunity to use them. I read the same Bible as everyone else! God challenges me to use my gifts for the Kingdom.
People with disabilities are indispensable on the mission field
There are three main reasons why I think people with disabilities need the opportunity go on overseas mission and why it needs a higher profile on the church's agenda.
• Firstly, for reasons I have alluded to above, I believe God includes people with disabilities to partnership with Him in mission.
• Secondly, I believe the testimony of someone with recognisable disability is powerful and will be listened to by those who are suffering. Pride makes us all want to hide our weaknesses and yet admitting to them can break down barriers with those we are sharing the Good News with. However, pain is the common denominator that gives all Christians a platform to speak about our hope.
• Finally, when people with disabilities are working as part of a mission team this has a huge capacity to speak for itself about the inclusivity of God's family. There are many places in India where those with disabilities are seen as the lowest of the low within the Hindu caste system - hidden away and abused. If people with disabilities are seen included into our teams, respected, loved and treated equally this could potentially speak volumes!Where do we begin?
The challenge as ever starts at home with the senders, churches, Bible colleges, mission training centres and mission organisations. Christians with disabilities, like everyone else, need access to information, access to premises and, perhaps most importantly, access to understanding and encouragement. It is great to read about the success of the initiatives of Through the Roof (a Christian charity promoting access and inclusion in Church life) who organised two short term missions last year. Each team had one person with a disability, to help inspire a spirit of inclusion within schools and churches in Uganda and Guatemala.
I have made a small attempt to help here on OSCARactive. I have set up a group called 'Doing Mission with a Physical Disability'. I am conscious that what I have written here hardly scratches the surface, so I encourage you to join the group and use it. My vision for the group is for it to grow into a place where anybody can ask questions, share stories of their own experiences on the mission field, highlight possible opportunities and discuss some of the additional practicalities that may be involved, such as travel arrangements, accessibility etc. Providing links to helpful information would also be great. As someone with cerebral palsy, I know the pain of exclusion and rejection, yet I've also experienced inclusion, empowerment and encouragement from those who have taken the time to see past my disability to the potential God has placed within me. Having studied mission, I am currently involved in working for OSCAR. I am very keen to see this issue of releasing Christian people with disabilities into mission/ministry roles being raised as much as needed.
"Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable." (1 Corinthians 12:22)
Ceri Longville lives in Cardiff and works for OSCAR. Her main responsibilities involve cultivating OSCAR's online community, OSCARactive. She has a Computing degree, a masters in Mission Studies, and likes seafood and chocolate (but not together!).
This article is used with permission from OSCAR