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Posted May 18, 2005

Diversity and Inclusion by Any Means:
Making Room for the Disabled

Taken from The Pastors Bible Study [Already cited on our web page]
Also see the link to the National Organization of the Disability

Jesus and the Paralytic Man

Some years ago I served in a congregation that was inadequately prepared to welcome the disabled. It was 1980, ten years before the 1990 Americans with Disability Act (ADA) would be approved. Since there was no legal policy requiring that buildings be handicapped accessible, our church had neither a ramp to assist physically disabled members and visitors to enter the church and get up the outside stairs, nor a chair lift or elevator for them to gain access to Sunday school classrooms that were mostly upstairs.

One Sunday, a man in a wheelchair came to visit our church. That day was the first time in my ministry and life that I would recognize how cruel and severe discrimination of the disabled in congregations could be. He looked like he could have been a man in his sixties, and his clothing and appearance gave me the impression that life for him had been pretty tough. He wore a pullover shirt and a pair of khaki pants, unlike the other men in the congregation, who wore suits and ties. He reminded me of an injured war veteran I’d known in my ministry. Was this man’s inability to speak clearly and his paralysis from the waist down a result of mentally disabling post-traumatic stress from war, or some violent act done to him on the streets? We had no way of knowing, and we really didn’t seem to care what his journey of faith may have been. As eager Christians, we were more interested in getting him in church, into “the Word,” and into a Sunday school class. So, we took his wheel chair, gave him a rather bumpy ride up the stairs to the entrance of the church, and since we had no elevator or chair lift, we took him out of his wheel chair and carried him up two flights of stairs. It still disturbs me to think of the look on his face, as I participated with several other men of the church in this transport. As we carried him, one man, a deacon of the church, fussed with him: “Man, you’re heavy. Come on, why can’t you use your legs?”

In her theological study entitled, The Disabled God, Nancy Eiesland develops a theology of disability and describes the exclusion and “social inhospitality” that disabled people experience in congregations. Eiesland writes that: “ For many disabled persons the church has been a “city on a hill” — physically inaccessible and socially inhospitable.” Like other people who feel oppressed or who are excluded from the church because of race, class, gender or sexual orientation, the disabled form yet another cultural group that needs to experience particular theological language, signs, and symbols in order to feel welcome within our congregations.

The narrative of Jesus and the paralytic, in Mark offers us a model for addressing these needs.

Theological Context

A major theological theme in the Gospel of Mark concerns the meaning of discipleship — what it is, what it isn’t, and what it often fails to be. There is no birth narrative in Mark’s Gospel. Rather, the Gospel begins with Jesus’ mysteriously appearing on the scene, being baptized, and immediately beginning the work of his ministry. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus’ mysterious power, authority, purpose and mission are misunderstood by religious authorities, his crowd of followers, and even by his own disciples, the people who perhaps should have understood him best. Sometimes, followers of Christ, both then and now, don’t get it. Even where diversity is concerned, disciples often fail to understand what the message and work of Christ are really all about.

In verses 1-2, Jesus’ crowd of followers finds him at home, and stop by for a visit. So many people from the crowd were “gathered” there to hear his words that there is no room left for anyone to walk in the front door. Like these people who are seeking to get all they could get from Christ, we sometimes fail or refuse to notice that there are others not as physically able as we are who cannot gain access into Christ’s house of teaching, healing and worship. A paralyzed man is at the door, and no one makes room for him. However, some unidentified people come along, who are not from the church, and they do what needs to be done. Rather than wait for the crowd or even Jesus to recognize them, they create accessibility for the disabled man, by any means necessary: they literally raised the roof. These are questions for us to ponder in our pastoral ministries, and the actions of the paralyzed man’s friends may help us to find our response. Two factors of their action stand out as helpful principles and strategies for making our congregations more diverse and inclusive — self initiative and persistent faith.