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“Cripping the Church: A Personal Reflection on Disability and Religion”

Jacqueline Woo

Image is a screenshot from a special needs ministry at a Church in Singapore featuring the words on the left “Special Needs Ministry, 8.30am, Every Sunday, Auditorium 4-7 (Faithfulness)”. On the right of the words, a boy in a blue t-shirt kisses the forehead of a lady.

 

 

 

It is often assumed that a writer on the topic of disability would have had a deep and intimate experience with the human condition, whether personally, or through a loved one in the family or a circle of close friends. For me, it is indeed the case.

I have a neurological movement disorder, characterised mainly by strong involuntary movements, since the age of three or four. It started with a limping gait and frequent grouses of fatigue, along with a puzzling strain on my vocal cords. As medical check-ups and tests went underway, my family and I began to realise that this was no ordinary fleeting condition. Instead, it would have profound and chronic implications on every aspect of my life in the years to come.

Growing up in a Christian family in Singapore, attending Sunday School to hear and know God’s Word was a regular part of my life. Every Sunday, my parents, my brother and I, would attend church service as we tried to navigate through the complexities of Scripture as well as that of curious, peering gazes and awkward conversations that reflected a mild but certain degree of unfamiliarity and discomfort with a fellow believer with special needs. As the years went by, depending on our family situation and physical convenience, we took hiatuses and changed churches. Eventually, it came to a point during my teenage years when I felt that going to church was more of a burden than blessing. My physical and verbal differences had taken a toll on me and bridging the gap between my church-going acquaintances and myself seemed like an insurmountable task. Confused and unable to understand God for the suffering He allowed me to go through, I stopped going to church.

I only rediscovered my faith when I was 21. I regained my faith – even when my material conditions had not changed – when I met a few friends from my university residential college who administered to me spiritually and physically on a personal and direct basis. My friends would patiently listen as I typed my thoughts out in the comfort of my campus room, while another friend helped me to go to church every Sunday. My friends were open-minded enough to work around the physical differences arising from my disability and embrace not just my strengths but also my weaknesses. They adopted ways that worked best for me to the best of their abilities, thus aiding my rediscovery of religious faith.

From then on, through various ups and downs, my personal faith has consistently featured as my core support. I have come to recognise that I bear the intersectional identity of disability and Christianity. However, it disturbs me that the wider local society still embodies stark gaps with respect to this intersection. As Deborah Creamer notes:

“Textbooks and readers on religion and theology routinely fail to mention, let alone reflect on, experiences of disability. Other works mention disability only in passing, as part of a list of other diversities, but fail to treat these issues as relevant for theoretical or theological construction.”[1]

 

This reflection on my own experiences provides an opportunity to re-examine the areas of engagement between disability and the church. I argue that we should rethink the ways in which we can consider how inclusion happens in local church spaces, and what it means to be included in religion. For instance, if one attends church services, does that automatically make one an active integrated church member?

I suggest firstly, a rethinking of traditional notions of disability. Religion in this case offers a self-reflexive position to rethink secular perspectives of disability, which are often also linked to the stereotypes held by society. Secondly, I offer a rethinking also of accessibility, governance, and practices in church. One of the main concepts I will draw upon is Cripping. As coined by Carrie Sandahl, Cripping reclaims a previously stigmatised term – cripple – and aims to “spin mainstream representations or practices to reveal able-bodied assumptions and exclusionary effects” as a useful means to begin to rethink our ideas about the intersection between religion and identity.[2] As Margaret Price notes, Cripping as theory is to think about affinities across differences and which is particularly concerned with “attempts to discipline all bodies.”[3] The term Crip, as Alison Kafer uses it, is then a means to challenge normative expectations of what it means to function in society and is a useful way to examine the inherent normative/ableist features embedded in religious practice. In other words, it is the idea that we should not bend disabled bodies and minds to ableist expectations, but instead bend expectations to meet those bodies and minds, including in religion.

 

Living with Disability and Christianity

The following are some common stereotypes of disability prevalent in society, ones that are embedded in religion including Christianity:[4]

 

  1. Interpretations of disability as punishment for one’s own sin or for the sin of one’s parents
  2. A test of faith
  3. An opportunity to build character or to inspire others (“inspiration porn”[5])
  4. An occasion for the power of God to be made manifest[6]
  5. A sign that one lacks faith
  6. A mysterious result of God’s will

 

While experiences of religion by people with disabilities have tended to be more negative, mine have been more positive. For instance, the formation of a prayer group within my accessible college campus, facilitating worshipping together while living with fellow believers have helped me to strengthen my faith then.

For me, I have come to see that the Christian Scripture can be interpreted as disability-blind, in the sense that Christians look past it rather than away from it or ignore it; and disability-conscious, in the sense that it confronts the difficult topic of earthly suffering while offering the hope of heavenly healing for eternity. Spiritually, all Christians are promised spiritual renewal resulting in eternal life regardless of our bodies and minds. Christianity preaches that Jesus is able to bring ultimate salvation from all man’s afflictions through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross. Christians believe that Jesus, through His death and sacrifice, has enabled us to overcome all forms of pain and suffering, including those of physical and mental,[7] be it receiving healing or adapting and living out a meaningful life. Christianity can thus be seen as accepting and inclusive of differences.

 

Accessibility to Church Activities and Through a Disability Lens

As I seek to make further meaning of religion in my lived experiences as a person with disability, I interrogate what inclusion really means in the context of the local church and inclusive scripture. While the church today may have taken into consideration basic and/or more visible accessible infrastructure such as ramps, drop-off points, and lifts, further strides towards true inclusivity that allow persons with disabilities to participate meaningfully in religious activities are still works-in-progress. For instance, why are there only steps to the pulpit/stage in some main sanctuaries and not an alternative ramp? Why do stage podiums appear to be constructed with people who stand rather than sit in mind? And what can we say about a lack of captioning or sign language interpreters during main services and church-related activities for the Deaf or hearing-impaired?

 

Normative Christian Behaviour/Practice

Ideally, Christians attend Sunday services[8] and cell group meetings held usually on Friday evenings or Sundays after services. These meetings typically take place at cell members’ homes on a rotation basis, or within the church grounds itself. Cell group meetings provide a platform for fellow believers to discuss the Word in greater depth than the message dissemination in main services, and to nurture tightly-knitted communities for sustenance through the highs and lows of life.

Moreover, Christians may serve in various ministries (such as Children’s Ministry), take up leadership roles (such as cell group leaders, worship leaders, or events exco), and/or attend regular church events (such as annual church camps). There are also fun, informal cell get-togethers (such as potluck, leisure outings), especially during festive seasons throughout different periods of the year (such as Christmas, Chinese New Year).

However, the Christian identity is not solely defined by what Christians do or what events Christians attend. Christians believe that God also places value on inner spiritual attitudes and disciplines of devotion and prayer towards Him, that precede mere attendance in church activities. Thus, daily devotion and understanding the Bible are also intrinsic to our faith, and following Christ involves being rooted in a community. Beyond the doctrines, laws, teachings, and practices adopted by church leaders, most church leaders would concur that these inner self practices are core to the living Christian, in congruence to God’s teachings. In other words, these doctrines also build towards true Christian living. As a true, healthy Christian, we thus take part in the various church-related activities.

Apart from attending Sunday services in person, or attending cell group meetings virtually through Skype, and church camps, I want to pursue full Christian inclusivity. I dream of attending on a regular basis cell group meetings in person, being involved in ministry service and leadership roles, as well as to hang out more often during cell get-togethers, all with adequate assistance. I want to forge closer bonds with church members to build a strong community.

Yet much of these activities still revolve around ableist expectations and in turn elude me. For instance, during my recent young adults church retreat to Batam, while the route from the ferry terminal to the hotel and formal activities within the hotel were accessible, the route from the hotel to the nearby mega mall for leisure was not as accessible for me. As an alternative, my friends helped to purchase what I wanted. While I am truly grateful for their assistance, what I really wanted was also to be able to visit the mall in person and see all that it had to offer with my own eyes, and more importantly, bond and hang out with them. Thus, my hope is that we need to reconsider accessibility beyond simply basic access and helping, to consider and organise formal and informal church activities around best disability practices.

Although certain accessible in-roads have been made in mainstream activities of worship, discussion, and prayer in church, as we will take a closer look in the following section, these are just the tip of the iceberg. There is still room for improvement in such church activities both on local and overseas grounds. As such, I think the time is now ripe to re-examine how fellow believers with disabilities can be more seamlessly integrated into the church community.

 

Space, Time, Productivity

“Operating on crip time, then, might be not only about a slower speed of movement but also ableist barriers over which one has little to no control over.”[9]

 

Alison Kafer’s concept of “Crip Time”, where “crip” features as a truncation of “crippled,” reclaims the derogatory term and replaces it with a positive meaning. Kafer argues that,

 

“Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognising how expectations of “how long things take” are based on very particular minds and bodies.”[10]

 

In further acknowledging that disability is “a challenge to normative and normalising expectations of pace and scheduling,”[11] we should ask: What does inclusion really look like, and how can local churches adapt to disability culture? Kafer has suggested examining three aspects of society – space, time, and productivity – as a means to rethink practices in society, including religious practices.

Of the three notions, space, or physical access, is arguably the most crucial as it has the potential to alienate and exclude disabled people from accessing the church, before other considerations can take place. For me, accessibility becomes a big question when location rotation for cell group meetings translates into inaccessibility. The practice of location rotation and the lack of a spot to stretch out and type my thoughts comfortably are two barriers to my participation in person in cell group meetings. Re-shuffling of event venue or an inclusive event venue setup while forging bonds with my cell mates would encourage my participation.[12] Recalling the example of a lack of accessible ramp to a pulpit, we should follow through with the physical layout rather than stopping at basic access.

Turning to time, Kafer notes that time is usually governed by ‘neoliberal/capitalist’ notions. In other words, in a fast-paced and developed society like Singapore, we are concerned with making the most out of time. However, given believers’ special needs, they should be allowed respective expanded time, or flexible time, in reacting and responding to their perceptions accordingly. For instance, during group discussions at my recent church retreat to Batam, I was allowed the flexibility of more time to respond where I typed my thoughts out. However, sometimes this was not enough as typing still takes more effort and time than verbalisation. The perceived secondary communication mode is simply not as dynamic as opposed to verbalisation, and many still prefer verbal interaction, a longstanding social norm. My call is then to reintroduce and embrace typing not as a secondary but an alternative mode of communication. This would benefit others in society as well.

At the institutional level, the flexibility for individual needs can be subsumed by larger concerns. Take Christian service for instance. Service takes place within a particular space within a fixed timeframe. It opens with worship, we have Holy Communion once a month, the Pastor preaches, and we listen to the sermon and take notes. All of this happens within a specified period of one-and-a-half to two hours. There is a certain normative function associated with the schedule of events that need to happen. It is assumed that all who attend can comfortably immerse themselves in the experience within the two hours allocated for service. However, what if people need more time than that? Can we then make service more responsive to people’s needs? For instance, instead of expecting members to take notes independently, can we avail the notes on request for those who truly require notetaking assistance? Can we be more flexible in allowing people more time to respond, receive, and understand the sermons?

At the same time, Christians are encouraged to be productive in their journey with God and fellow believers. This includes attending x number of religious events or peer influence gatherings, or to mingle at the latest spots in town. This relates to an innate desire to be seen as a useful contributing member of the community and, by extension, the society at large.

Ideologies of productivity and utilitarianism in society, governed by this notion of time, may seep into the church such that Christians may fall into the trap of thinking that to be a productive Christian, and therefore a devoted and good Christian, is to attend events and gatherings regularly. In other words, we may feel a constant need to be productive and contributing members of society and the Church. This idea of being a productive Christian, wherein I sometimes feel the pressure to be, does not encompass the tangible and real constraints of disabilities, and may result in some misunderstandings or misassumptions. For instance, if I do not attend cell in person regularly, my presence might be more easily forgotten. I might also be mistakenly perceived as treating revered Christian practices and gatherings capriciously. By extension, I may also be assumed to be an individualistic Christian, a Christian who does not see the need to worship and fellowship with others.

While it is pertinent to acknowledge that exclusion exists despite the communal commandment, it is as a result of the limitations of humanness and the environment rather than Christ’s directive or design. However, there is a resolution to this – time, patience, and dedication, and seeing disability as the norm rather than the exception. As we continue to push the boundaries of adjustments made to integrate disability culture in the church, to change the norms in which we conform to, we will also simultaneously be educating our communities person by person. Eventually, Christians with and without disabilities will be able to fulfil the goal of building community and worshipping together despite physical and mental barriers.

 

The Inclusion Dream

We need to actively recognise the implicit normative assumptions in religious institutions and that churches too need to be re-cognisant of their inherent presumptions as we strive towards a more inclusive society.

“In our disabled state, we are not part of the dominant narratives of progress, but once rehabilitated, normalised, and hopefully cured, we play a starring role: the sign of progress, the proof of development, and the triumph over the mind or body.”[13]

 

“I, we, need to imagine crip futures because disabled people are continually being written out of the future, rendered as the sign of the future no one wants.”[14]

 

In the first quotation above, Alison Kafer highlights how the futurity of persons with disabilities are conventionally framed in curative terms. This is problematic as not all impairments or differences cause pain, discomfort, or illness, and where they do, not all conditions have a cure or relief. Hence, Kafer sets out her preference for Crip Futures that includes respecting how individuals view and treat their own bodies as part of the inclusion drive and debunking normative assumptions.

Kafer hits the nail on the head with regard to the Inclusion Dream – to be included and respected in all aspects of civil life. Inclusion is far from merely providing accessible physical infrastructure or about grandiose statements of inclusion. It also involves respecting the wants, choices, preferences, and needs of the person with disability that would in turn have implications on our built environment and practices.

However, there are no straightforward answers or blanket solutions to every issue faced. As such, in spearheading social change, we need to be mindful to consistently interrogate, follow up, and review practices. Where infrastructure cannot be amended in time, the oft-quoted standard theory that inclusive attitudes trump infrastructure still applies, as the basis of inclusivity. However, where infrastructure can be amended in time, churches should adopt the two-pronged approach in striving to be disability-ready at a physical access level,[15] and adapt as and when the need arises along the way.

Drawing inspiration from the spirited Rosa Parks who stood up for civil rights as a coloured woman and refused to back down despite menacing pressure, along with other African American women who “challenged white feminists to include them in “feminist theology”, those who identify with disability can also raise our voices and challenge other movements and theologies to be more inclusive.”[16] This example encourages me as it exemplifies that the strength and activism of individuals can and have changed attitudes across societies and national boundaries. It illustrates that communities are malleable and have the capacity and willingness to assimilate. In other words, a paradigm shift is all that is needed. When we recognise our exclusionary norms and adopt best practices that facilitate disability participation, true inclusivity is achieved. Just as these feminists championed for feminist theology, together with other disabled people – people disabled by society’s limiting perceptions – and our allies, I would like to advocate for disability theology as a core body rather than footnote of the Church.

The lyrics of contemporary Christian recording artist Mandisa’s Bleed the Same resonate with this sentiment:

 

Are you left?

Are you right?

Pointing fingers, taking sides

When are we gonna realise

 

We all bleed the same

We’re more beautiful when we come together

So tell me why, tell me why

We’re divided

If we’re gonna fight

Let’s fight for each other

If we’re gonna shout

Let love be the cry

 

Only love can drive out all the darkness

What are we fighting for?

We were made to carry one another

We were made for more

 

Singapore has achieved and maintained its status as a multi-cultural and multi-racial nation. The next step is for our country to be multi-abled as well.[17] I have reflected on how we can rethink inclusive practices in the Christian church. My dream is that believers with special needs would also be afforded the same full gamut of opportunities as those without special needs to participate and integrate. Inclusion is not just about physical access, but also about practice.

And in the end, this is not confined to religion either.

 

 

Jacqueline Woo has a BA in History and has a keen interest in the field of religion and disability. She hopes to see more local churches stepping up to integrate disability culture in church practices. She is currently a part-time writer.

 

 

Notes

[1] Creamer, D. (2009). Theology and the Disabled Body. In Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities (p.55). Oxford University Press.

[2] Sandahl, C. (2003). Queering the Crip or Cripping the Queer?: Intersections of Queer and Crip Identities in Solo Autobiographical Performance. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 9(1-2), 25-56. doi:10.1215/10642684-9-1-2-25

[3] Price, M. (2018). Working in Intolerable Space/Times: Living Towards Justice in Academic Institutions [Chicago, IL: Talk at University of Illinois at Chicago]

[4] Creamer, D. (2009). Disability and Christianity. In Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities. Oxford University Press.

[5] Inspiration porn is the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability. The term was coined in 2012 by disability rights activist Stella Young in an editorial in Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s webzine Ramp Up and further explored in her Tedx Talk. (Wikipedia)

[6] John 11:4 (ESV) of the Christian Bible declares, “But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.””

[7] Christians believe that while there is no promise that physical and mental afflictions will be overcome, in this case to find a cure, on earth, there is a definite promise that the pain will not last forever. The temporary pain will be overcome during Jesus’ Second Coming to complete His salvation work. This is anchored in Revelations 21:4 (ESV) of the Christian Bible: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

[8] Some local churches also conduct services on Saturdays.

[9] Kafer, A. (2013). Time for Disability Studies and a Future for Crips. In Feminist, Queer, Crip (p.26). Indiana University Press.

[10] Kafer. Time for Disability Studies and a Future for Crips. Feminist, Queer, Crip (p.27).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Beyond location, there are other personal and situational complexities functioning as barriers to my participation. However, given privacy reasons, I will not delve into them here.

[13] Kafer. Time for Disability Studies and a Future for Crips. Feminist, Queer, Crip (p.28).

[14] Ibid (p.46).

[15] Frank, J. J., & Stephenson, M. (2013, September 20). Let’s End Disability Discrimination in Church. Retrieved from https://www.thebanner.org/features/2013/09/let-s-end-disability-discrimination-in-church

[16] Creamer. Theology and the Disabled Body. Disability and Christian Theology (p.55).

[17] Zhuang, K., & Lee, J. (2017, December 02). Striving towards a multi-abled Singapore. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/striving-towards-a-multi-abled-singapore

 

 

References

Books

Creamer, D. (2009). Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities. Oxford University Press.

Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana University Press.

Wilder, C. (2016). Disability, Faith, and the Church: Inclusion and Accommodation in Contemporary Congregations. USA: Praeger.

 

Journal and News Articles

Ashby, C. (2011). Whose “Voice” is it Anyway?: Giving Voice and Qualitative Research Involving Individuals that Type to Communicate. Disability Studies Quarterly, 31(4).

Gould, J. (2016). The Hope of Heavenly Healing of Disability Part 1: Theological Issues. Journal of Disability & Religion, 20(4), 317-334. doi:10.1080/23312521.2016.1239153.

Sandahl, C. (2003). Queering the Crip or Cripping the Queer?: Intersections of Queer and Crip Identities in Solo Autobiographical Performance. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 9(1-2), 25-56. doi:10.1215/10642684-9-1-2-25

Zhuang, K., & Lee, J. (2017, December 2). Striving towards a multi-abled Singapore. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/striving-towards-a-multi-abled-singapore

 

Christian Reflection Posts

(n.a.). (n.d.). Why does God allow people to be disabled/handicapped? Got Questions. Retrieved from https://www.gotquestions.org/God-allow-disabled-handicapped.html

Frank, J. J., & Stephenson, M. (2013, September 20). Let’s End Disability Discrimination in Church. Banner. Retrieved from https://www.thebanner.org/features/2013/09/let-s-end-disability-discrimination-in-church

Kidd, A. (2017, April 17). Disability Makes a Church Strong. Desiring God. Retrieved from: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/disability-makes-a-church-strong

Toh, G. (2013, December 5). Disabilities in Church: How do we view them? The Methodist Church in Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.methodist.org.sg/resources/other-articles/our-community/117-disabilities-in-church-how-do-we-view-them

 

Talks

Price, M. (2018). Working in Intolerable Space/Times: Living Towards Justice in Academic Institutions [Chicago, IL: Talk at University of Illinois at Chicago]

 

 

 


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