Inviting People In

all are invited

The chances are that if your church is evangelical you spend some time praying for “people groups” who have never heard the Gospel, perhaps a tribe in a remote part of India or a nation far across the world.  I doubt that you will ever have considered people with disabilities as a “unique people group” forgotten or missed out for the gospel but for very different reasons.

In India there may be as many as 2.1 crore people with disabilities and we as Christians have the perfect environment to welcome them in.  We have a Lord and master who came alongside people with disabilities as a routine.  We have a gospel of love which is to reach to the ends of the earth and to all creation…remember what Jesus says?

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  Acts 1:8

Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Mark 16:15

                                                                                                                                                                    I guess that means people with disabilities and their families and loved ones too. So how can we do that?  I mean a missionary can head off somewhere “unreached”; a young pastor can relocate in order to plant a new church but where are people with disabilities, especially the ones who have not heard the gospel? Maybe you’ve never really thought about that.

Engage Disability’s Disability Inclusion ToolKit[1] states

People with disabilities might often be hidden in the church neighbourhood and therefore not receiving any services. Churches and Christians need to be in the community actively reaching out to those with disability and linking them in to health, rehabilitation, education, employment and government services. They need to be included in social events, festivities and church music and drama presentations.

I have recently heard of one approach which I thought was worth sharing. Christians in Chittor District in Andhra Pradesh visited one of many Bhavitha centres in the district that provide integrated education.  They went to meet the children and special education teachers to find out their struggles.  When they heard they needed some activity materials, mats chairs and a cupboard they found a way to donate a second-hand cupboard and buy play materials, mats and chairs.  They handed them over at a little function with a lunch and they encouraged parents to send the children to school regularly.

This is not social work, it is Christians witnessing God’s love and if the school is near a church it is one way to find out about families living with disabilities in your neighbourhood who may not have ever thought of entering your church.  Those are people who may appreciate encouragement, love and friendship and who can be invited to to join in special religious and social events organised by the church.

[1] A resource produced by Engage Disability to guide church communities in good ways to respond to disability. It can be downloaded here.

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A Glimpse of The Kingdom of God

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I started this blog because I thought there were stories of how church in India is responding to people with disabilities that are not being recorded and shared. The following is just such a story.

In the church I attend a microphone is passed around for new people to introduce themselves.  One Sunday about six months ago Shreya, who is not a new-comer, was most anxious to have the mike.  Her mother tried to indicate to her that it was inappropriate but Shreya insisted, even to the point of calling out “Pastor Pastor” in an attempt to appeal to him to agree to let her speak.

Pastor checked that all the-new comers had introduced themselves and then he asked the usher to pass Shreya the mike.  She took it gleefully and asked everyone to pray for – well for something which wasn’t quite clear – and then she mentioned someone’s name and sat down.  Our Pastor paused for a moment and then admitted that he could not understand what Shreya had said leaving her Dad to explain that a relative was getting married and Shreya wanted us all to pray for her. The coming wedding was important enough to ignore her Mum’s appeal for silence. (Remember blind Bartimaeus who would also not be silenced in Mark 10:46-52)

For me, there were three outstanding moments in the incident; the first when Pastor agreed for the mike to be passed to Shreya, the second when she asked us to pray for something that was important to her and the third, when Pastor admitted he did not understand what Shreya had said.

Shreya has Down’s syndrome which is a disability that has slowed down her intellectual development and which results in her sentences being a little confused.  Pastor knows that, but still he encouraged her to speak, laying bare his own vulnerability in admitting he could not understand what she said. As for Shreya, well her family have prayed for more than a decade that she would develop enough to read the Bible and witness for Christ; there, with the mike in her hand, she had indeed witnessed to her belief in the power of prayer to a loving God.

As I released the breath I had been holding I understood I had seen a glimpse of the Kingdom of God; a place where those who call out will be heard; a kingdom where we will be equally vulnerable and where those who are different will be able to pray, praise and worship God just as they are.

“ Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside begging.  When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth he began to shout “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!”

Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more “Son of David have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped and said “Call him.”

So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, “Rabbi I want to see.”

“Go” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.”  Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.                                                                   Mark 10:46-52

If you would like to know more about how you can improve the response of churches in India to disability please consider downloading Engage Disability Toolkit

 

Gifts Galore

Picture7Just a short blog post this week with three great stories.

This morning Delhi Bible Fellowship South (DBF South) congregation had a combined service starting at 9 a.m. This meant that instead of the usual two English services there was just one and that too a communion service.

Shreya was right there at the door handing out the notice sheets with a happy smile and greeting for everyone. Sounds fairly much what you would expect except that Shreya has Downs Syndrome and as a little girl she could not bear to be in crowds of people. Indeed I saw her at the wedding of a church couple recently and she was quite distressed by all the people. Yet at the end of the service today she reached forward and shared a hug with the young woman sitting in front of her in church.

What an answer to prayer! Her Mum says the beginnings of her socialising came when she started to go to Sunday School at DBF South and now here she is today lending her gifts for the church.

George Abraham and his family have been members of the Methodist Centenary Church, in Delhi, for a long time. He is involved in leading praise and worship, and fairly recently he anchored a multilingual service. Apart from church, he and Rita attend The Bible Study Fellowship that meets on Saturday mornings for in-depth studying of God’s word. After he had been attending for a while he was invited by one of the leaders to join him for coffee and a chat during which he was asked if he would like to take up a leadership role for one of the sub groups. He did, and he and Rita both say that their years studying with the group had seen a manifold increase in their understanding of scripture. This is a description of a man using his gifts to serve The Lord. George is blind.

Inderjit Lal who is a member of The Cathedral Church in central Delhi, as his father was before him, has served on the Church Committee and was Treasurer for a spell. Inderjit can walk only with great difficulty and is mostly in a wheelchair.

Today during the sermon we were reminded that many of us have work or passions related to justice, health care, universal education, saving the girl child and other similar important causes but nothing should be more important to a Christian than the gospel. As a Christian it is hard to disagree with that, which is why these three examples are so encouraging. Church is there for all; it must be open and welcoming to people of all types with or without disabilities. Let the gospel reach everyone so that they too can serve the Lord and as Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:10

“Each one should use whatever gifts he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its  various forms.”

There might be something we can do to make that possible for every Christian.

  • Maybe there is someone in your congregation with a disability. Do they have opportunities to take a full and active part in church life, or is there more that could be done to make them feel welcomed to serve? Why not ask them?
  • Perhaps you know of a Christian who has disabilities who is not coming to church; it might be worth meeting them and trying to find out why and looking together at what might make it easier or more welcoming.

“They Don’t Know How To Be With Us”

DSCN0105The atmosphere in Kiran Village*, Madhopur, near Varanasi is amazing. The formally barren landscape is covered with trees and purpose-built buildings and the little paths are busy with boys and girls and young men and women on crutches, with wheelchairs or just plain wobbly, making their way from the gate to their class-rooms, the production units or the therapy rooms. Just a half a mile down the road is the Ganga, flowing slowly and low at this time of the year and with broad, sandy banks.

I had met Promila Charan some years before, she works in Kiran Village as the PA to the Director. The last time I saw her was a few days before she was flying off to Europe. I was longing to find out how she enjoyed the trip and also to know more about her life as a Christian professional with disabilities. Long after the children and staff had gone home Promila directed her wheelchair into the guest house, transferred herself to a more comfortable chair and we began to talk.

Quite soon into our conversation Promila said

“Read the Bible and see for yourself Jesus came for the weak and poor. Even if we have disabilities we are part of the church. We all have a purpose.”

Of course she is right but she also added

“Pastors don’t really know how to care for us, how to be with us”

It was something I had heard from the wife of another person with disabilities who told me that the new minister in the church seemed to patronise her husband and did not seem to know how to behave with him.

So what is happening here? I would like to suggest that Church ministers, like many other people in larger society, haven’t a clue about disability. They are unsure what it means to be a person in a wheelchair, or someone who is visually or hearing impaired and it is hugely puzzling to know how to be with someone who has the odd movements of a person with cerebral palsy or idiosyncrasies of autism. Yet we need our pastors to be able to serve the whole Christian community whether they have disabilities or not.

Engage Disability has produced a Disability Inclusion Toolkit packed with sensible suggestions and explanations on how church can respond to disability. If anyone reading this would like to know more about training to make your church more responsive to disability then please send an e-mail to sylvia.engagedisability@gmail.com

A good approach might be to emulate the attitude of Promila’s parents. Promila is the last of several children. Her father was a highly educated freedom fighter and much respected in general society; he loved his youngest daughter dearly and always encouraged her to try things “you can do it” was something both her parents told her often. So it was that she went on to do a Masters degree in Economics, the only girl with disabilities out of 500 in her year. In my blog last week I mentioned that George Abraham was also set in the right direction by parents who never held him back but allowed him out on a bike and kept him in normal school, collaborating with the teachers for his wellbeing.

For church leaders, the example of these parents, matching as it does Jesus’ attitude, is a fine model to follow. A great place to start in improving your response to people with disabilities is to treat them as you would other members of the congregation. If you do not usually patronise members of your congregation then you do not need to do so to one in a wheelchair. People with disabilities have fears and doubts and worries just as everyone else and they need the love and support of church members and leaders too. They have spiritual needs to be addressed and may have a heart to serve the congregation and gifts that church leaders need to learn about. And finally, as people with disabilities they may have particular concerns that they would be glad to share with church leaders for prayer and support; they will not feel able to share if they are not welcomed in the same way as everyone else.

Promila said that she had heard about a job in Kiran from a member of her church, someone kind enough to think of sharing the opportunity which has changed her life. George met his wife first at Sunday school and later they hung out with a crowd of young Christians at university.

Both George and now Promila, have attributed their successes in life to parents who encouraged them. A lesson there for church leaders too. Find out the challenges and then be an encouragement. A few words here, the knowledge that they are prayed for, news of an opportunity, and a chance to serve in church are all practical encouragements.

We might also give a thought to parents and family members living with disability. Promila told me that one of her regrets was that both parents died before she started work in Kiran. She knew they would have been pleased for her. Congregation members and church leaders must take the time to support parents of children with disabilities. They have all the usual fears and worries of parents plus a few extra as they wonder about care-giving after they grow old or die and as they try and juggle the needs of children with and without disabilities (it is not at all easy to be the sibling of a person with disability).

It is recorded in Luke 14:15-24 that Jesus said

“Bring in everyone who is poor or crippled or blind or lame”

Crippled and lame are not the sort of words we use now because people with disabilities have asked us not to, but the message is clear, the kingdom of God is for all and when we miss out those living with disability we are being disobedient.

Promila did eventually get around to telling me that she had the most wonderful six weeks in Europe. She visited Switzerland, Italy and Ireland, stayed in people’s homes and spoke in churches. She could travel in public buses because they are designed to receive wheelchairs. When she returned to India she found herself thinking

“When will we make public places accessible in India?”

A great question really. Would Promila be able to speak in your church or is it inaccessible for someone in a wheelchair or using using crutches? ….. but that is for another blog post.

*Kiran village is the location for Kiran-Society a Centre for Inclusive Rehabilitation Click here to know more 

“I Can Always Ask”

bat

If it is true as I mentioned in my last post, that we are all vulnerable, all dependent on others and indeed God, for who we are and how we can live in this world then there is a commonality between all people, those with disabilities and those without. It is at that point of vulnerability that compassion is possible. It is not a superficial attitude that says “there but for the grace of God go I”, rather it is a deep understanding that if I wish for a full place in society, if I long to be loved and need to be accepted then so do others and if I am hurt by rejection or being considered inadequate then others too will equally feel the pain of rejection or exclusion and resent being written off as useless.

George Abraham is a most accomplished man; he is musical, a cricket wizard and experienced CEO who has founded and run organisations and seen that they achieve sustainability before handing them over. He is an events organiser, public speaker and a Christian leader, and has a delightful sense of humour, he also happens to be visually impaired. I have known him for a few years and long since realised he was talented. I met his wife Roopa much later at a lovely lunch they hosted for me in their home. She knew George when they were children in Sunday School, lost touch as parents were posted and then met up with him again as a student in Delhi at which point she decided that he would make a great match. She said what she saw was a handsome, intelligent and accomplished, Christian man and she told her parents that she was fond of him. George’s father, on the other hand, was having to battle George saying he did not wish to be defined by his disability so his parents should not accept proposals from people with disabilities. As an aside it is a great testimony to share that George’s Dad said it would be his prayer that the Father would “send the proposal to his door” which is exactly what happened with a re-routed letter from Roopa’s parents suggesting they should meet up.

The reason that I tell this story here is because although George has a full and fine life he is the first to admit his vulnerability not as a sign of weakness but as a fact. He was as daring as any youngster even riding his bike around the colony where they lived and his love of cricket was based on bodyline bowling…

”I would aim for the haze at the far end of my vision and it was either a wicket or hospital for the batsman!”

But he is the first to admit that the derring-do of youth was matched by the practical application of his Mum collaborating with teachers, opening the house to his childhood friends for shared homework etc. He described himself as outgoing with lots of great friends so he was always surrounded by sighted boys and girls growing up. He used the word collaboration a lot. And it is a great word for that is what we all do through life, collaborate with others to get things done, because we cannot do them alone.

 In 1 Cor. 12:21-26 Paul is talking about how the body (the Church) is made up of many parts.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

I was near Delhi University North Campus a few weeks after visiting Roopa and George when I saw four visually impaired students walking together towards the metro and I was reminded of George’s comments about how his achievements are greatly influenced by the good sighted friends he has had along the way. He wished visually impaired students would reach out and make friends with the sighted students for their mutual benefit.

George had recently found himself forced to take an unscheduled long bus journey and had told the conductor he would need help to know when they had reached their destination and how to get from there to the airport. His neighbour on the bus asked why he did not travel with a companion his response was

“I can always ask for help.”

It is obvious isn’t it? I cannot tell you how many times I have felt inadequate to a task and have had to ask for help. How is that alright for me but somehow considered a weakness in a person with a disability?

So, what has any of this got to do with you as an Indian Christian reading this blog?

  • I hope it has challenged your idea of what it means to be a person with disability
  • I pray that it will bring you to your knees to thank God for reminding you that you are nothing, nothing at all without His blessing. You are vulnerable and that is the common ground you share with all men and women. We all need each other and God.
  • I trust that if you are a parent and you know any children with disabilities you will encourage your children to play with them, invite them for birthday parties, and children’s activities at home and church.
  • I hope that the next time you need to ask for help or directions you will recognise the need as one you share with people with disabilities, the elderly and children ….. and it will make you more sensitive and caring and less quick to judge.
  • I pray that if you are student you will not shy away from fellow students with disabilities because you are afraid.

You can listen to George Abraham speaking about his childhood here  https://youtu.be/e-HBnuy_BZc

I would like to apologise for originally using the logo of the World Blind Cricket Council as the opening image for this blog.  I am sorry for any confusion this may have caused.

 

 

One Caste, One Religion, One Disease

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As Christians we can expect that church will bring about change in society, sometimes it happens in unexpected ways.

Bethany Leprosy Colony in Bapatla, A.P. is a self-settled community of people affected by leprosy many of whom spent time in the Salvation Army Evangeline Booth Leprosy Hospital just cross the main Chennai to Kolkata railway track. Prasad was one of the founder members of the community in the 1950’s and a Christian; he established the first church in Bethany. Many of the people affected by leprosy who lived in Bethany had moved there from the leprosy hospital after treatment and methods of care changed. They were unsure about returning home either because their families would not welcome them or because finding matches for siblings would be difficult. These were therefore people that felt excluded.

Anthropologist, Dr. James Staples in his book Peculiar People Amazing Lives records that the people often spoke of themselves as being “Oka kulam, oka matam, oka jabhu” or “One caste, one religion, one disease” a topic that he takes up at some length in the book. In this case the one religion is Christianity which most of them had been exposed to during their stay in mission hospitals and which they began to practice once they settled in the colony. The form of Christian practice was shaped by the protestant evangelical missionaries they met in the hospital settings and then significantly by the Lay Evangelical Fellowship (LEF) pastors who regularly visited the community to conduct the Sunday services.

Society attitudes towards leprosy can be best described by a look at a local doctor who I shall call Dr. Lakshmanarao. He confessed in the 1980’s that he was afraid to treat leprosy patients in his small private practice. He was afraid of the disease (even though he was scientifically trained) and he was afraid of the impact on his own business if he was seen caring for people with leprosy. He only changed his mind after meeting a young Christian nurse from the UK whom he considered vibrant and beautiful but who had chosen to work in the Salvation Army Leprosy Hospital. He reported:

“When I saw her I looked at my own motives for avoiding treating leprosy patients and realised they were unsound.”

He subsequently went on to serve the community for many years visiting the colony and treating people in his clinic, which continued to thrive.

At the same time a young man with leprosy who worked in the Salvation Army Hospital and later moved and worked in Bethany leprosy Colony had one hand that was disfigured as a result of leprosy. He would boldly go about his business in the local town of Bapatla but always with the affected hand hidden in his trouser pocket so as to avoid rejection or any confrontation about leprosy.

The LEF pastors were almost the only Indian visitors to the leprosy colony and their faithfulness was striking at a time when many people would have been, like Dr. Lakshmanarao, uncomfortable interacting with leprosy affected people never mind visiting the colony.

It is these LEF pastors  who together with the fervent Christians in the leprosy colony, insisted on holding an annual three day prayer meeting in Bethany which over time attracted Christians from the local villages and Bapatla town. All would meet together to listen to speakers from across India sitting under giant pandals, in the open space in front of the community hall right in the centre of the leprosy colony. Those prayer meetings brought outsiders into the village in a manner that had not been seen before indeed in the one year a group of pastors travelled from Mumbai and stayed in the colony guest house.

Here then, is the societal change that I mentioned at the start of this blogpost. There were no walls around Bethany Leprosy Colony, they were not necessary as no one really wanted to come there but the response of the LEF pastors were in part instrumental in breaking down the invisible walls of fear and exclusion which have disappeared from the colony now.

The Bethany example proves to me that Christians, by their behaviour, can effect change in society which is why it is so vital that church in India leads the way in its response to disability, providing a model of inclusion that not only allows all people to learn about Christ but which others can emulate.

 

So when do we care?

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If at all you ever think about disabilities what direction do your thoughts take? I guess it might depend on your circumstances and time of life. If you are about to become a parent you might find yourself praying for a hale and hearty baby and doing everything in your power to ensure that you protect your unborn baby from the risk of disabilities. Babies and toddlers need vaccinating against the worst of childhood diseases like polio and measles. Parents of youngsters constantly worry about their propensity for climbing and speed and the associated risk of injury from accidents. Later there may well be a whole slew of years when the idea of disabilities never enters your head…you and your children are sensible, and safe and have got by very well until now. But then comes old age, failing eye sight, a realisation that you are not hearing as well as before, stiffness and perhaps even some of the nastier illnesses of later life like Parkinson’s disease or a stroke that leaves you unable to move on one side; chronic arthritis or dizziness and falls resulting in broken bones and difficult rehabilitation.

So when do we as church need to care about our response to people with disabilities? I was wondering how the man with the withered hand in Mathew 12:9-13 became like that and also the ten people with leprosy in Luke 17:11-19, do you think they contracted leprosy as children or had to leave their homes and jobs as adults? We are told that the man in John 9 was born blind and there are loads more examples in scripture that should get us thinking. I always have a chuckle at Ecclesiastes 12 with its vivid description of decrepit old age.

If there are all these possibilities then perhaps we should be getting our response to disabilities sorted out now. Maybe church does have a responsibility to be informed and open and welcoming to all people with disabilities because at any moment it could be us who become a disability statistic. I would not wish to be left out. As a young parent of a child with disabilities I would feel so sad if my child could not go out with the rest of the children for Sunday School or if I could not come to church at all because there was no one available to care for my child whose disabilities preclude him from attending church. As a young adult on crutches or in a wheelchair I want as much fun with the youth group as anyone else. And as a faithful member of a congregation for many years I do not want to find myself unable to receive communion because I can’t climb the stairs or be unable to join the singing of hymns because the words on the screen are not clear enough to read and there is no large printout for me to read in my seat.

In church recently I found myself sitting next to the father of one of my friends who is visiting for a while. I know he has become deaf in his old age and I was acutely aware that he could not always understand what was being said. I wondered what we could have done to make the service easier for him to follow. The notice sheet handed to everyone as they enter was especially helpful that week as it included not just the scripture portion but also an outline of the message, so he could have followed that if he had wished to. If the verses used to lead us into a time of worship and confession had been displayed on the screen it would have been helpful. These are small changes that would be fairly easy to implement as a routine.

Before posting this blog I had a chance to ask my friend’s father about his experience in our church. He did not answer my question but told me instead that he had recently visited a home for children with disabilities run by The Missionaries of Charity sisters. He said he had asked if the children could hear and when he found out that they could he got permission to sing with them and share a Gospel message. That elderly man has been an enthusiastic Christian and evangelist for many years, church in India needs such people, we do not want to lose their wisdom and experience for the want of a little thoughtfulness and imagination in the way we make services inclusive for everyone.