by David Morstad
In faith communities of every tradition, people gather at tables. Literal or symbolic, social or sacred, the table occupies a distinct place in our understanding of the Holy. Tables are not classrooms or theaters. At a table, we face one another. We serve others and are served by them in mutuality. There is an expectation of interaction, shared stories, listening, engagement, nourishment and, at the end, the tacit assurance that we will gather at this table again.
Tension at our tables
It is a polite understatement to say that people with disabilities have often wrestled with their relationship to faith communities and their place at the table.
In 2008, a 13-year-old boy was banned from his church for outbursts related to his autism. When his family announced their intentions to attend anyway, the parish priest filed a restraining order against them.
On the website of the Beth Yeshua HaMashiach congregation in Houston, Texas, the Messianic Jewish congregation proclaims, “Praise G-d, we won the law suit! Texas Civil Rights project represented our opposition… [and] Adonai allowed us to be very victorious.” What is the cause of this great celebration? In 2012, they banned a woman from the church because she complained about the inaccessibility of the restrooms. The District Court in Harris County initially ruled that the church had indeed discriminated against her, but in March of this year, the appellate court reversed that decision.
More than buildings and behavior
Beyond the issues of acceptance and accessibility, though, often lies a deeper tension. Many have simply wrestled with the proclamation of scripture itself. Depending on the chapter and verse, we may read that disability is the result of sin, a sign of God’s disfavor, or the intentional act of God to humble or punish a person. Blindness alone is a common metaphor for everything from disobedience to outright stupidity. Is it any wonder that, in the absence of a more careful and mature understanding, people with disabilities could be left unimpressed with what our table has to offer.
It may be helpful to take a closer look at some of the history, culture, and practices at the crossroads of faith and disability. There is much for us to talk about. Perhaps we can have that discussion at a table. A larger table.