Pastor Devin Strong
Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church
Crip Camp opens with grainy video of a couple dozen significantly disabled teenagers exiting a dilapidated bus on a hot day in the summer of 1971. Some of the campers walk, others wheel, and some are carried.
They are at Camp Janed in New York, one of the first retreats in the nation specifically geared toward disabled youth. This 2020 documentary, available on Netflix, follows the life and struggles of half a dozen campers with a variety of handicaps. The firm reveals how these young people who came of age at Camp Janed became the front lines of the Disability Rights Movement in this country from the first rehabilitation bill in the ‘80’s, which mandated that all institutions receiving federal funding –schools, libraries, city busses, etc. – be made accessible, to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that mandates that all public buildings of any kind be handicap accessible. In particular, Crip Camp highlights the marches, sit-ins, and fierce leadership of Judy Heumann on behalf of persons with disabilities.
I am one of the few pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who does life and ministry from a wheelchair, and I am ashamed to say that I knew little of this history.
I went to a summer camp a lot like Camp Janed in the mid ‘70s. I went to an inaccessible junior high, was bussed to an accessible high school, went to a semi-accessible college and two semi-accessible seminaries, and I am still largely ignorant of the story that made Disability Rights possible!
Certainly, I face my own challenges in schools, in churches, and in society in general, most of which is driven by fear rather than malice, but I have also been blessed by teachers, neighbors, and many friends who have gone the extra mile to make room for me. As we reflect this week on how far we have come as a nation and how far we still have to go, I must say that I am one of the fortunate ones who has met more support than anger. Growing up, I did not know how bad it was for others in wheelchairs because it was not so for me.
I am deeply grateful to live in this country.
I am also deeply pained to see and to feel the strife that exists among us on a number of issues. Watching the newsreel footage of the demonstrations in Crip Camp, I was surprised how much it looked like the marches of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, and the Gay Rights Movement, only I did not learn about the Disability Rights Movement in school because I am living it.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, I want to make an observation. Most of the conflict in our society right now (and perhaps always) is happening because disparate groups of people want a seat at the table. They want to be heard, and they want to know that they belong at the table. We have got to stop meeting at separate tables and yelling at those at another table. We’ve got to make the table bigger, and we have got to help those who are frightened and angry believe that they are not losing their seat at the table. Indeed, scripture teaches us that a bigger table is a better table. I commend the movie Crip Camp to you, and I give thanks to Judy Heumann and so many others who helped make room for me at the table.
God Loves You, and so do I.