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World churches urge new attitudes toward disability

By Julia Stuart

For people with disabilities, healing does not necessarily mean being cured. Rather, it has to do with inclusion in the community.

“Churches who wish to heal people with disabilities must fully assume their mission to include them – not as objects of pity or receivers of service but as full contributing members.”

These are the words of coordinator of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN), Sam Kabue of Kenya when he spoke to the 600-plus gathering from World Council of Churches (WCC) member churches and mission and evangelism agency representatives from around the world.

Of the many elements in last month's WCC gathering on Healing and Reconciliation, this contribution was among the most challenging. For many such as my German journalist colleague it was a totally new insight. “I feel ashamed,” he said. “I have not understood such a perspective before.”

Sam Kabue's message is not novel for those New Zealanders who are aware of our own disability and spirituality network. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to hear in an international context, especially in the WCC, where there is full Roman Catholic and strong evangelical and Pentecostal representation.

“There is no doubt in my mind that divine healing is biblical and applicable in the Christian faith,” Sam said. “However, as it relates to persons with disabilities is made complex by differing teaching, doctrines and theology.”

Sam was scathing about unhelpful and patronizing attitudes in the church. “Some churches' belief that there is relationship between disability or sickness and sin has made them develop an attitude of pity and sympathy to those disabled or sick.

“To them, the presence of people with disabilities in the church is a sign that the church is unable to combat the devil that is the source of these infirmities. The response is endless prayers for those in this condition and when these prayers do not yield the expected result, the victim is blamed for having no faith.”

More liberal theology too has its share of keeping persons with disabilities outside. Mainstream churches are largely responsible for the charity approach and the growth and maintenance of a ‘helping’ profession, which relegates persons with disabilities to a receiving end.

“Helping becomes an excuse for exclusion and this is characterized by separate schools, rehabilitation centres and other caring institutions. Very few churches have developed procedures for initiation of persons with disabilities and especially the intellectually disabled into sacraments prerequisite to full church membership.

“In the process of caring, persons with disabilities are not considered to have anything to offer in the church. Even those willing to serve find it very difficult to be incorporated in to the life of the church.”

Sam analysed a number of well-known Biblical instances of healing and curing, and also non-instances such as Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' from which he was not delivered.

“The guiding principle must be the conviction that we are incomplete, we are less than whole, without the gifts and talents of all people,” he concluded. “We are not a full community without one another. Fully including people with disabilities is not an option for the churches of Christ. It is the church's defining characteristic.”