PIL or Love?

Picture1

I am in a Whatsapp group that is looking at social inclusion for people with disabilities.  This last week there was a message from someone asking about the process for filing a PIL petition (Public Interest Litigation) seeking to make places of worship in India accessible. There were a number of replies including one reporting “We have got kind of a positive verdict on a PIL to make Hindu Temples accessible in Tamil Nadu.”  My first response was “whoa, we are going to get left behind and lose our chance to lead with Christian love and hospitality.”

Inherent in the commandment “love thy neighbour as thyself” is the concept of open hospitality, a calling and welcoming-in to become part of the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is for all.  We know that Jesus paid particular attention to all kinds of people with disabilities; the blind, those with withered arms, the lame and paralyzed all experienced his loving touch transforming their lives.

The system of PIL in India seeks to provide an opportunity for anyone to file a petition for something that will be for “the public good.”  A successful PIL will result in the court delivering social justice.

Let us think about this a little: the Whatsapp message was about a PIL seeking to make places of worship accessible; that sounds like an issue for the “public good” given that there are probably as many as 26 million people with disabilities in India now and very many will struggle to access places of worship. But as Christians do we not wish to welcome people with disabilities into our churches and prayer halls?  Do we mean to exclude them?  Do we even think about them?

This is not a social issue that is only the concern of activists or NGOs, The Psalmist says

“All your works praise you, Lord;  your faithful people extol you.
They tell of the glory of your kingdom  and speak of your might,
so that all people may know of your mighty acts  and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.”                                                                                                         Psalm 145: 10-13

Are we not the faithful people mentioned here and aren’t we supposed to speak of the glory of God’s kingdom so that all people may know of God’s mighty acts? Church is who we are and also where we meet to tell of the glory of God’s Kingdom and to praise Him. Accessible church is a matter of Christian duty founded on love and hospitality.

“Bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”                                                                                                                                                          Luke 14:21.

We already have the instructions; let us lead the way in sensitive understanding and act as salt and light, bringing God’s love to all and being an example.

Jesus says in John 13:34-35

“…As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

We must not wait for a PIL to be told to make our places of worship accessible for that would be to have missed a chance to give the Glory to God.

If you want to know how to make your church accessible (and much more) please contact Jubin at engagedisability@gmail.com and ask for a copy of the Disability Inclusion Toolkit prepared by Engage Disability.

Advertisements

Sorry What Did You Say?

Sorry_I_Can't_hear_you

Sunita tried to get an extra hour in bed on Sundays and do everything a bit more leisurely than usual.  When she pulled her phone towards her she was amazed to see it was already 8.30. She could not believe that the sounds of the morning in her Delhi flat had not woken her already, she must have been much more tired than she thought. She rolled over onto her back and suddenly noticed that the fan was going at high speed but she could barely hear it. With a sense of foreboding she sat up and realised she could hardly hear anything. The sound of water running into the sink as she brushed her teeth was odd, as if only some of the sound was reaching her ears.

Sunita had been deaf in one ear for many years but it hardly bothered her, now something was wrong in the other ear. As she reached for some cotton buds hoping to clear out the blockage her cousin popped her head around the door and said something, Sunita could see Asha’s mouth moving but she couldn’t hear a word. A feeling of complete panic engulfed her and wildly she prodded just below her ear. A fraction of hearing returned and logic told her that it must be a local blockage and she should not be afraid.

No specialist was available until Monday so Sunita decided to go to the chemist for some wax softening drops in the hope that they would help. The medical shop was just along the street from where she lived but it involved crossing one little lane and manoeuvring around the cars, bikes and veg stalls lining the narrow road. But she was as uncomfortable as if she was crossing a busy railway junction unsure where all the noises were coming from and which direction she should watch first to avoid being hit by a bike or car. She was feeling very fragile by the time she reached the medical shop. It was busy so she had a moment or two to collect herself but when she spoke she couldn’t tell how loud she was or what she sounded like and she was relieved to find she had been understood. The next hurdle was paying the bill. She concentrated hard and looked at the mouth of the shop keeper before she could understand how much she had to pay him.

Though she was discouraged and worried she decided to go to church anyway. She felt safe once she was in the auto but church was altogether different. Usually she loved the songs and hymns but the distorted hearing made the music sound horrible and she dared not sing because she could not hear what she sounded like. She was able to follow very little of the sermon and was hopelessly distracted by a miserable feeling of what she would do after church when her friends would greet her and she would not be able to hear them. She suddenly felt an enormous sense of loneliness. Being deaf in one ear had been one thing, this was horrible, so horrible she crept out during the final hymn rather than have to meet everyone.

She spent the day quietly contemplating what life would be like if her hearing could not be restored; music would be out of her life, an unimaginable loss she thought; she guessed that if there was some residual hearing she might be alright to talk one to one as long as she could see the face of the person she was talking to but if there were other noises or conversations going on or if it was too dark to see the mouth of the speaker, she knew she wouldn’t manage and people only have so much patience to repeat things. In the afternoon when her phone lit up she had to ask her cousin to take the call and she realised that if she couldn’t use the phone then she would be useless at work. One by one the difficulties presented themselves in her imagination. By the time she went to bed she was most sincerely praying for a reprieve with the visit to the doctor the next day.

Sunita, had nothing seriously wrong this time. On Monday the specialist  syringed her ear and solved the problem. She was left hearing well but deeply touched by the experience.

Mercifully most people do not get to experience any type of disability except perhaps until they grow infirm with old age, although maybe if we did, we would be more sensitive. As a Christian how often do you find yourself thinking about what life is like for others? We should be doing it all the time because that is the stuff of compassion which is a characteristic of our Lord Jesus and also because we are told to do so in Colossians 3:12

“Therefore as God’s chosen people clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

In the story, Sunita experienced just a few of the daily challenges of hearing impaired people –

  1. Vulnerability walking down the street unable to hear the traffic.
  2. Wary of speaking because they have no idea if they are shouting and worried about annoying others.
  3. Exclusion from singing with others in church for the same reason
  4. Inability to hear the sermon
  5. Dread of after-church-fellowship because they cannot hear what their friends are saying
  6. Loneliness
  7. Risk of being unemployed

I am sure there are many more.

We who are church, have the power of the Holy Spirit, our own attempts at compassion will be pathetic compared to what the Spirit can show us. Let us call upon the Lord to open our eyes to the challenges of people with disabilities around us and find ways to make sure that the Gospel and fellowship of other Christians is readily available to them.

If you would like your church to be more responsive to people with disabilities please contact Engage Disability here to enquire about training.

Acknowledging Shared Vulnerability

Larger Hills

Recently I met a young woman in a small tribal village in Manipur about an hour’s drive from Imphal. Her name is Nengnei Kim or Kikim and she is about 34 years old. I saw her first through a side window of the lovely wooden house in the hills. As she watched us walk up the drive her high cheek bones and very thick, short, black hair, cut with a full fringe, reminded me of a picture I once saw of a dignified South American tribal women. Kikim joined us in the wood panelled sitting room crawling to and fro on her hands and knees. I was privileged to have the opportunity to ask her father about their lives with Kikim. He explained that they had thought perhaps she had received the wrong medicine for a fever as a baby but subsequently tests showed that half of her brain was nor properly formed affecting her development.

Kikim’s father told me that he thought his other children had found their sister an encouragement as she was always around them and seemed happy as they were growing up. She seems to show no other feeling but happiness was how my friend interpreted what he said to me.  When I asked him about the struggles he and his wife had faced he said that it had been hard trying to cope with the many seizures she suffered but that about ten years previously a friend had brought an evangelist home and together they had prayed and fasted and since that time Kikim had not suffered any seizures. As he spoke Kikim crawled towards him and rested her head on his knee as he gently ran a hand through her hair. It was just for a moment and then she crawled off again and sat against the wall looking around and occasionally drumming her fingers on a small side table.

As we were served tea I noticed on the mantelpiece above the magnificent fireplace a framed notice of recognition from the Baptist Church for Kikim’s father’s work organising the feast at one of the major church events that constitute a significant part of the communal life in the village. Kikim’s father said the church had helped with money for medicines and the women of the church come and pray but he seemed a little surprised at my question about the response of the church, only mentioning the evangelist much later in the conversation.

That same evening one of his sons came calling at the house where I was staying. He is a fine young man who has spent years away studying for his PhD but his heart remains in his beloved village in the hills. When I mentioned how grateful I was to his father for taking time to share something of his life with Kikim he said I think we should use reason about these things; my father thinks the prayers of an evangelist cured the seizures, I think it was just her age and medicines; she still takes medicines.” The sensible logic seemed perfectly reasonable, especially coming from such an accomplished young scientist, and I started on a few quick (and rather trite) Christian responses. Then he told me with a tinge of bitterness, that as a child he had prayed and prayed for Kikim. In that moment I glimpsed a vulnerable little boy struggling to understand why his prayers were not answered and I became aware of a deep sadness.

Thomas E. Reynolds is a Canadian theologian with a son who has autism and various other neurodevelopmental disorders. In his book Vulnerable Communion; a Theology of Disability and Hospitality, Reynolds writes that we live in a time where the value of each person is based on whether he or she is capable of being productive in the sense of able to work and be part of modern capitalism. The modern world expects and respects independence and productivity (the language we use is an indication: what was earlier called Personnel Management is now called Human Resource Management, as if each of us is so much human capital!). This way of defining normal, naturally excludes people with disabilities who therefore need healing/hiding/pitying/caring for as they somehow represent something that is out of control. It is as a result of this so called prevailing view of “normalcy” that family members of people with disabilities find themselves running a full gambit of feelings including anger, disappointment, frustration, shame, pity, fear, loneliness, revulsion, bitterness and doubt.

Reynolds shows that this ‘normal’ is nonsense because none of us are actually independent. We are born to be in community, we have been “loved into being by God” and “objectively, many people spend a great part of their lives physically dependent upon others” (…in childhood and old age, during sickness etc.)  “On a subjective level we are all dependent upon others for well-being.”   “Human beings crave worth and fear the lack of worth, so we seek recognition and welcome by those around us.”  We need other people and that neediness means we are vulnerable by being “open to being wounded.” There are many strings to this vulnerability but acknowledging that we are all vulnerable and all are interdependent will allow us to consider an alternative where communities are based “upon a vision of the common good that empowers the well-being of all, and in terms of the creative love of God who is revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ”

It is in that new view of society represented by God’s love and endless grace, that we share in a common vulnerability as Jesus did; and the relatives of people with disabilities can hope to find how to live without experiencing the negative emotions resulting from having to deal with a world that thinks interdependence and vulnerability are weak and abnormal.

We who are church are often as deeply immersed in the worldly notions of ‘the normal’ as everyone else and so we try to ‘help’, believing our role is to pray for healing and give to charities when what is actually called for is holiness. We are called to be something different in the way that Jesus was different. We are to be people who love as Christ loved. This can be done by being available, giving and receiving love in mutual vulnerability interwoven with compassion and sympathy. Our love is to respect others just as they are, as Christ did. Christ came alongside us as a vulnerable human (God made man) and then did not judge others in the way of the world, he wished only that everyone may live and live to the fullest. The Lord’s desire for us to experience joy is boundless…he offers us eternity. Our love, therefore, shall seek to nourish the beloved’s ability to experience joy. And, just as God remains faithful in Christ and the Holy Spirit so we must remain faithful; that is not ‘doing for’ someone but ‘being there’.

This kind of holy love stands in contrast to the mistaken world view that declares Kikim is a problem needing a solution. When we condemn Kikim by the worldly notion of ‘not normal’ we deny our shared vulnerability and dependency and in so doing bring into doubt the truth of Christ’s love.

 

The Disability Inclusion Toolkit is Out!

 

disability-inclusion-toolkit-c

The first copies of the Disability Inclusion TOOLKIT are out!  It is a terrific collection of perspectives on church and disability written and compiled by Engage Disability India .

There are nine units covering Biblical and Faith Perspectives of Disability, Inclusive Church Ministries, Healthcare and Rehabilitation, Personal Development and Family Life as well as Education, Livelihood, Empowerment and an important last unit covering Leisure.  The pages are crowded with stories from people with disabilities and their families and carers. Text boxes and images add clarity and throughout are scripture reminders of why church is meant to be inclusive.  At the end of each chapter is a list of resources and there is a DVD containing a range of learning resources.

A small group of people have already been trained to use the TOOLKIT and they will be training others.  The focus will be on helping church leaders (and then us) to become more  sensitive to disability and then to reveal how  we can be more inclusive.  Let us practice being thoughtful, welcoming and encouraging first and afterwards the tough issues like having to spend money to refurbish a church or meeting place to improve physical access can be addressed.

The TOOLKIT is packed with practical suggestions.

  • Provide opportunities for persons with disabilities and families to share their faith and life experiences in the church.
  • Car pooling might be one way for a person who could not manage public transport to stay at work.
  • Sitting with children without disability so that parents can spend extra time with a child with disabilities might be all that is needed to ensure a child with learning difficulties keeps up with school work.
  • In respect of health care – Churches can create a caring group for carers to provide practical support like transportation to the hospital, waiting with parents during various tests, caring for siblings during hospital appointments.
  • As a neighbour to a family with a child with disabilities you could encourage your own children to go around and play, and share birthday parties and celebrations.
  • Stand in solidarity with a person with disabilities as they claim their rights to benefits, schemes and opportunities. Perhaps a family would like your assistance to fill up forms or applications, or to meet government officers.
  • Check that your current church leisure activities and events are designed to be a pleasure to people with disabilities as well as their carers.

See it is easy!  We have the tools, now let us get going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shreya Went to Sunday School

shreya  It was a May evening and I had come with a friend to a pleasant housing colony in South Delhi to meet Shreya and her parents Sujaya and Bobby; and I was excited.

Some months earlier I had written something for a Disability ToolKit to help churches achieve greater disability inclusion and I remembered that earlier Bobby and Sujaya had hinted that their experience in our church with Shreya had been very good so I had asked if we could meet to find out more.

Sujaya and her mother-in-law Eva welcomed us. After a few minutes 18 year old Shreya ambled in wearing a floaty, pink chiffon top, her hair escaping from her plait. She responded warmly in English and Hindi to our greetings and asked her Mum if she should bring water for us, only sitting down after she was sure we were catered for.

Sujaya had already begun to tell us that she attributed Shreya’s social integration to Sunday school. “She was afraid and would cry in a crowd but after going to Sunday school she learned to sit amongst others calmly.”

Although her parents are from Orissa, Shreya was born in Kolkata.  When she was six months old she was detected as having Down’s syndrome; a genetic abnormality where there is an extra copy of chromosome 21.  Such children are late meeting milestones and may have varying degrees of intellectual challenges delaying and limiting their ability to learn.  I wondered how Sujaya felt when she realised her lovely daughter was different “Oh I thought God makes everything beautiful in his own time and so it would be with Shreya” she told me. As we continued to talk I realised that Sujaya’s faith has remained unwavering in that conviction.

A change in Bobby’s work brought them to Delhi. Sujaya says she realised the move was answered prayer as in Delhi there were better opportunities for Shreya.  “Soon after we arrived here the maid took Shreya and her younger brother Shant to play in the park”. Sujaya told us “I think Shreya must have become angry and hit out at another child because from then on everyone called her mental”  “We were so hurt by that” Eva interjected, looking sad at the memory. “She would greet whoever she saw and they would ignore her and keep their distance” Sujaya explained.

A moment later Sujaya’s face brightened as she told us that one day, responding to a ring on the door bell, she found herself face to face with a Telugu woman enquiring if she was the mother of the girl who was a little different. The visitor explained that she was a Christian who lived a couple of blocks away, she had seen Shreya and felt called to visit and pray with the family.  Sujaya was amazed, that a stranger would reach out in Christian love so thoughtfully.  That meeting has turned out to be the central pillar of the way the family prays for Shreya.  “For ten years we have met together every Friday for fasting prayer just for Shreya, praying for the Lord to work in her life.”

“On moving to Delhi, at first we attended a local church but they did not have anything special for children and I could never really join in as Shreya was so fretful.” Sujaya explained.  “Then a friend told us about the vibrant Sunday School at DBF South and we started to go there. I would still sit outside until one day the superintendent suggested that I leave Shreya with the Sunday School teachers and go along to listen to the sermon.  She said the teachers would call me if Shreya was too distressed or things got out of hand. So she started to go to Sunday school. Then one summer, two or three years later, when there were no classes Shreya agreed to come into the main auditorium and since then she has been fully integrated.  The gentle handling of the Sunday School teachers made a huge difference in her life.”

Shreya joined the conversation telling us that she enjoyed going to church. We talked about Disability Sunday when she was given a slot in the Sunday service to read out the 23rd Psalm, which she did with some trepidation but great joy. Then she sang the first verse of her favourite song Aaj ka din for us in her slightly deep, gravelly voice, much to everyone’s delight. Then her brother Shant joined us and cheerfully told us that Shreya loves him and is always on his side in any kind of family discussion.

Bobby laughed as he told us that she loves to pray. “She prays for everyone in the family, all their friends and even the neighbour’s driver. Sometimes she prays for so long we try and stop her by saying “amen” loudly but she will not be deterred.”  We all laughed and then reflected on the fact that here is a young woman who remains like a child because of a genetic disorder but yet she so beautifully reflects Jesus’ teaching that we must all be like little children.

“You know Shreya is improving all the time, she can read from class III books” Sujaya told us.  “Now that she is older we thought we should take her out of her special school and join her in a place for vocational training but our prayers are that she will learn to read and understand the Bible and be a living witness.  When we are praying for that and she continues to learn in school then how can we move her?”

Smiling, Sujaya tells us that Shreya is already influencing people’s lives.  “The Telugu lady has told us that she has experienced so many spiritual blessings since coming in touch with our family which she did because of Shreya”.

The Inspiration and Hope

Heartsandsouls is a blog inspired by Engage Disability India which is a movement to strengthen the Christian response to disability in India.  The name came to me after reading a story about a poor blind man who, after being shoved out of a church, asked “Don’t I also have a soul?”

 I have been hearing about some fine examples of Christian responses to disability in India which I’ll try to share.  Hopefully as time goes on the best examples will be emulated until church in India becomes fully inclusive.