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

 

PIL or Love?

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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.

Braille Scripture at Work

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One Sunday a while back I was lazing in one of the soft, roomy, easy chairs in the flat I rent here in Delhi when my phone rang.  It was Alamelu a friend who is an Assistant Professor at a college for women here in Delhi.  She said she was nearby with her husband and asked could we meet up. It was an easy question and I was soon hurrying off to meet them at gate number two of Green Park Metro station.

Alamelu and her husband Annavaram are new friends, people I met last year at a conference especially called to review how much progress was being made in a movement called Engage Disability which is striving to improve the response of church in India to disability.  They stood out at that conference because they walked everywhere hand in hand, then gradually it became apparent that they are a delightful couple with a love for the Lord who has touched their lives in rather special ways.

Annavaram and Alamelu are blind.  She can see a little but Annavaram nothing at all, yet as a team holding hands, they are able to move around confidently even in an unknown conference venue. I was to meet them both again a few months later at an academic conference arranged by Annavaram in his role as an Assistant Professor at a leading central university.  Now he was in Delhi for a visit and I was rushing off to bring them home.

We agreed to walk home from the station which proved to be a good lesson for me. I must have walked those gullies a thousand times but never before had I noticed how many obstacles there are if you cannot see.  With a good deal of “keep left” and “look out for the bollard” and “be careful here the footpath becomes rubble” and at one point a quick bend to move a plastic bottle out of the way, we arrived home and I experienced the joy of introducing my new friends to the family with whom I live.

But really what I wanted to share was something of what we talked about and most especially something Annavaram told me had deeply affected his life as a boy.

 Alamelu is happy to admit that if it were not for being visually impaired she would probably not have received any education at all.  In the small village where she was born there was precious little money and usually girls would be married early without going to school because of the cost involved. A relative told her parents about a school in Chennai especially for girls who were blind and he took her and got her admitted.  Alamelu is from Telugu speaking Chittor district in Andhra Pradesh so at first she struggled with Tamil but in the end she learned and would go on to become fluent in Tamil and English and able to read both in Braille.  Perhaps she would not have become a Christian either but for her blindness, her family is Hindu but her special school was Christian and she grew up learning about the Lord and in recent times took baptism.

Annavaram’s story was a little different; he joined school late and when he started at a Christian-run special school for the blind and learned Braille his world opened up in the most marvellous way.  He was just a boy but he was troubled with notions of God in an imperfect world and what on earth was the purpose for his life as a blind child.  Between lobbying for better food for the hostel boys, Annavaram discovered the wonders of the Bible in Braille.  And then he found John 9 and the story where the disciples asked Jesus who had sinned, the man born blind or his parents.  Jesus replied that neither had sinned

“but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:3

Annavaram told us, that Jesus’ reply to the disciples was a reply to his own question about what the purpose of his life could be.  It was immediately obvious that what is required of him is to use his life to give Glory to God.

Do you understand?  It is not a fickle God who makes one to see and another to be blind, one to hear and another to be deaf, one to walk and run and dance and another to never be able to even stand.  Each one of us is unique and each has a purpose to live life to His glory.  Many of us will never hear that truth as clearly as Annavaram did and that is not a mistake, Annavaram was looking for answers and The Lord put scripture into his hands and a means to read it. In our times too Jesus speaks to each one of us, those with disabilities as much as to any other.

Alamelu and Annavaram are faithful Christians on their journey through life. He often preaches and both exhibited a depth of knowledge and love for scripture at sessions they shared at the Engage Disability conference.  To watch Alamelu pass her hands gently across the pages of her Braille addition of the gospels and hear the reverence in her voice as she reads aloud is a miracle and a joy.  I am so glad that they have both brought  to me a fresh view of life and the wondrous work of God in his children.

Braille takes up a lot of space on the page so each book of the Bible is printed separately.  Alamelu and Annavaram’s Braille Bibles were sent free of cost to them, book by book over a period of time, by Lutheran Braille Workers 

Being not Doing

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Have you ever really thought about how you measure people? I imagine I can hear an uncomfortable hum as readers become slightly defensive. But the fact is that there are a whole slew of ways we might measure people: by their intellect; by their wealth; by their religious beliefs; by their ability to command (power or respect); by their hard work. All of these are actually measures of ability that pervade so much of our thinking when meeting and getting to know people. It has become quite normal to judge a person by their abilities or what they can do.

Maybe you measure people by their colour or race or beauty, youthful vigour or elegance; well dressed is more acceptable than poorly dressed for example. These are measures based on physical appearance.

Thomas E. Reynolds in his book Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality calls this the ‘cult of normalcy’. Many of these views are centuries old but they are being promoted all the time because we live in a world which needs all of us to be producers and consumers. So advertisements for everything from cars to baby soap show perfect, well-off looking people, capable of hard work and play. These are economic ways of thinking and most definitely not loving or Christ-like and they are brutally unkind to people with disabilities who may not be able to produce and consume like most people and may look quite different from the normal.

Few of us are really selfless so we expect something in exchange for friendship and love.  If you go out with a friend it is because you want to share news, have fun, catch up, it is a two way thing, you want something out of that meeting whether you mean to give something back or not.  Nothing wrong with that you might think, and on the surface it seems perfectly reasonable.  The important thing is to realise that in our relationships we expect more than some people can give.

It might be good to pause for a few minutes in Isaiah 53 at the prophesy about Christ  –

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” 53:2

“Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” 53:3

This then was the Son of God sent for our salvation. There was nothing good looking or powerful about him. There is every indication that he was in fact powerless, a silent lamb to the slaughter and therefore could not be classified along with our current measure of hard working, bright and well off. From this account he was also not at all attractive and nothing at all like the people in the adverts.

Yet that is what God chose to send to save his people.

Geeta Mondal writing about the blessings she has received as a result of being the mother of a child with autism writes:

“Another thing my child has taught me is that we live in a world where ‘doing’ is more important than ‘being’. We as Christians are people who have received salvation, not because of what we do, but on the basis of the gift of God, Jesus, who dies for us. It is a gift, free. We cannot do anything to earn it. However, so many times in our lives, even within our churches, we judge on the basis of action, and the person in the maximum need of grace is perhaps given the maximum condemnation.”

Perhaps we begin to hang our heads in shame as we realise that she is right and we have a way to go in shaping our thinking to be more Christ-like and more loving in our attitudes.

Geeta continues:

“My child is the way he is. I have to love him the way he is just as Christ loves me the way I am. ……. Same as the way God relates to me. I am His child, and nothing can change that. ……. We need to accept the fact that more important in the sight of God is not what we do, but who we are – ‘His children and heirs.’”

If we can fully grasp what Geeta has discovered then two things can happen:

  1. We shall begin to change the way we measure people and will move from the world view to the Christ view and in so doing people will know we are Christians.
  2. We shall want to reach out to people with disabilities with the news of the gospel because it will be a perfect balance to the brutal world view. Remember we are to be salt and light in the world.

Geeta and Raaj Mondol’s son Samarpan found going to church a horrible experience, in part because even the light touch of a dupatta hurts on his skin and as a child people would touch him or pat him which he found painful. If Samarpan was not going to be in church then it would be difficult for Geeta and Raaj to be there too which became a source of sadness to them.  Geeta tells us that the pastor of their church realised their difficulties and agreed that one of the church cell groups would operate from their home. In that atmosphere and sitting at a safe distance, Samarpan was able to join in and the family felt the joy of the fellowship of other Christians.

If we are salt and light then you can be sure choosing to have a cell group so that Samarpan could hear the gospel is a very fine example of being salt.

No One Sinned

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In John 9, Jesus and his disciples are going along when they see a man who was born blind, the disciples ask Jesus

“Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

As a 21st century Indian Christian how do you feel about that question?  Do you ask yourself the same thing when you see people with disabilities?  Do you wonder why the disciples were so sure that someone must have sinned?  Or have you never particularly thought about it?

For about 400 years before this event a theory had been circulating in the Greco-Roman world that said the physical condition of a person was a sign of their moral character.  Leading thinkers like Aristotle held that a person who was physically bent over like the woman in Luke 40:11 probably had a feeble moral character, whilst one with a strong straight back would have a strong high moral character.  That thinking was prevalent at the time of Jesus. We see something of it in John 9:34 when the Pharisees declare that the blind man was “steeped in sin at birth.”

In the same way, prevalent in the culture in which we live in India is the philosophy of karma where-in according to say, Swami Sivananda,  Prarabdha is the past action which has given rise to the present birth and Sanchita  is the balance of past actions that will give rise to future births – (the storehouse of accumulated actions.)  How this manifests in individual beliefs is that when seemingly bad or disappointing or difficult things happen it must be because of bad actions in the past (for which read sin).  By that definition, being born blind or with any other disability must be attributed to bad karma or bad actions/sin in a former life.

Because we are Christians in a culture where these kind of beliefs are prevailing we must pay attention to Jesus’ reply to the disciples and work through and be completely clear what it means. In doing so we shall find we know God better and can welcome people with disabilities into our congregations as we have never done before.

Jesus is unequivocal when he tells the disciples

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”

When we looked at this text in our Bible Study Group here in Delhi, Neelam told us that it was the single most liberating scripture of her young life.  She is a nurse in AIIMS, an intelligent and sensitive new Christian. She has an orthopaedic disability and wears a calliper.  All her life she has been asked what she did in an earlier life to have ended up with this disability.  Neighbours and family friends and even her parents have felt comfortable to ask her.  She, of course, could never answer their questions and felt the terrible load of it somehow being her fault.  For her to hear Jesus say that it was not the sin of the blind man nor of his parents that caused the blindness liberated her from the cruelty of the question of karma.

In the gospel story Jesus then goes on to say

“it has happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life”.

The Pharisees tell the blind man he must accept that God has given him sight and give God the glory (Vs 24).  But the man insists that Jesus healed him “I was blind but now I see” (vs. 25) and since no one has ever heard of a man being born blind being given sight then Jesus must be from God (vs. 33).  Jesus used this blind beggar, this so called sinner from birth, to see that He, Jesus, was indeed the Messiah.  Here is the inclusive, gracious God using all kinds of people for his purposes.  It does not mean that God has set people with disabilities amongst us as examples or to make us all understand Him better; that would be absurd,  God is not like that and it would be wrong of us to somehow explain away disability in that manner.

Be clear, Jesus says disability is not caused by sin and he illustrates that God may use all kinds of people for his purposes including those with disabilities. By acknowledging and sharing these truths, church in India will be strengthened in its response to disability so as to free those who are burdened by unanswered karma questions.

Sorry What Did You Say?

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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.