By Pastor Devin Strong, Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church.
In this world of deep divisions and differences, we’re often good at making speeches but not so good at asking sincere questions of each other. We also tend to gather with folks like us and assume we have all the answers. On one hand, I understand why marginalized folks band together for resources and support and, on the other hand, doing so focuses attention on one specific thing when we’re actually about many things.
Consequently, as one of the very few pastors in the Lutheran Church who serves from a wheelchair, I’m both disappointed and relieved that there’s no such thing as a “Disabled Clergy Group” in our denomination.
As human beings, we’re naturally nervous around people who look or act differently than we do.
One of our greatest sources of isolation and misunderstanding comes from the difficulty we have in simply asking questions.
With regards to people with disabilities, I’ll gladly make myself available as a resource for pastors and congregations, but in a nutshell, my advice is just “ASK!”
Ask before jumping in to help somebody with a task. Sometimes disabled people greatly appreciate your help pushing a wheelchair, opening a door, etc., but other times we prefer to do the job ourselves, even if it’s harder or takes us a little longer. Sometimes jumping in to help us throws us off balance and makes the job even more difficult. Over the years, I’ve learned to receive help graciously (mostly), but sometimes letting someone help me can be the hardest thing ever.
Ask people about their stories. This is good advice for any new person you meet. Most people like talking about themselves, especially to a sincere and caring audience. Don’t whisper and point; just ask me straight up, and I’ll tell you. Kids are great models for this.
They’ve not yet learned to be afraid like most adults, so they put their questions right out there. I’d much rather people ask me about my disability than be afraid of me. At the same time, if you ask me to share about myself, please be willing to share about yourself as well. It’s called friendship.
Ask people to help you. People with disabilities have lots of skills and interests in their lives.
Ask us about our hobbies and passions, just like you would anybody else. In a congregational setting, don’t forget to ask the person with a disability to consider serving on the youth ministry committee, the stewardship committee, or the governing board. Don’t just assume we can’t do something because of our disability; let us be the judge of what we can and can’t do. When I was a campus pastor at Georgia Tech, one of my interns happened to be a little person. Max was physically strong with a servant’s heart, and whenever the students and I went on outings in downtown Atlanta, he’d regularly volunteered to push me.
It took me awhile to realize how funny it probably looked to folks watching a little person pushing my wheelchair. We didn’t care. Every time we crossed the street, Max would laugh and say, “If somebody runs over us, it’s definitely a hate crime!”
How should you treat a church member on crutches, a female pastor, a black council president, a gay parent of the youth group? Like a person!
Ask them about themselves and listen – you’ll learn everything else you need to know.
God loves you and so do I.