A person becomes part of a group in different ways. When I started my first professional job with a large organization I completed a highly structured new employee orientation program. Anyone who has been through something like that knows how it works. The curriculum is designed in such a way that people leave behind some of who they are that they might become more like the group: These are our leaders, these are our rules, this is how we follow them, we accept some things, we don’t allow other things. In a nutshell, this is the way we do things around here. The process is one of assimilation and the stronger the group’s culture, the greater the expectation that the individual become more like the greater whole.
Church culture and assimilation
Faith communities are not exempt from a pattern of assimilation, perhaps not in formal structure but certainly in culture and expectation. And that expectation of assimilation often puts adults with disabilities and families with children who have disabilities in an awkward position. It is likely their entire lives have been shaped by a struggle—and often a failure— to belong. In one study, more than half of families surveyed reported changing places of worship because their children with disabilities were not accepted or included.[i] The behavior and practice of a group can indeed disconnect us from one another.
If assimilation has such a downside, why would groups that profess inclusion bother with it? One possibility is that those of us in communities of faith seek to lift up and celebrate the existing culture. We experience an abundance of good things and we warmly embrace who, and whose, we are. Perhaps one of the reasons we invite others is so that they can eventually become just like us and enjoy the celebration. Congregations see the invitation of others to join them as a natural and good thing. But that outreach is problematic for many people with disabilities—and a lot of other marginalized people for that matter.
Perhaps we might consider a somewhat different newcomer model.
Picture a family, a father, a mother, and a young child. They constitute a complete unit in every way. They know who they are as a family, they all belong, and there is a powerful sense of shared life together. Then, one day, a second child is born. And nothing is ever the same. Attention is now widened, patterns that were once comfortable are disrupted, and there is a new definition of who this family is. Make no mistake, there will be tension because change will do that. Some changes will happen on their own and be barely noticeable, like different family pictures on the living room wall. Others will be large and intentional. Rooms in the home will be repurposed and long-range financial decisions will be adjusted. Yet all will come to love who they are as a family and the new sense of belonging they share.
Where the fear lies
It is often suggested that resistance to the inclusion of people with disabilities is driven by fear. Fair enough, but fear of what? Fear of who the new person is? More likely, fear who we might become if we open the door wide enough for anyone to enter. If churches have a sense that the presence of people with disabilities will change them, they are correct. That’s exactly what will happen. And there will be new understanding of beauty and wholeness in the family.
[i] Ault, M., Collins, J., Carter, E. “Factors Associated with Participation in Faith Communities for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities and Their Families” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, v. 17 n. 2 (2013) 184-211