By Wendy Harbour, Director of the National Center for College Students with Disabilities
Please pray for me and with me in ASL. [In ASL: Father and Mother of us all, please bless my words and everyone here who is listening. May your spirit move among us. Amen.] And let us sign and say…Amen.
Today is disability awareness Sunday. A day when people everywhere go to church to honor people with disabilities as part of the Body of Christ. And a day when people with disabilities everywhere go to church and cringe, waiting for something offensive to happen.
The scripture reading for today is certainly cringe-worthy for disability activists like myself. The New Testament reading tells us how Jesus healed all the lepers. Now there’s nothing wrong with Jesus healing people. In fact, since Luke himself was a physician, this story in the Book of Luke takes on great importance because Luke recognized how disabling leprosy could be and how it could never usually be healed. Lepers were often sent away to simply die on the fringes of society. Being healed from leprosy…that was a miracle in more than one way.
The problem with any bible stories about healings of Jesus is that they often end with him saying, “Go – your faith has made you well.” Today’s Gospel is no exception. Unfortunately, for many people of faith, this means they read the gospels and think, “Well, if I have a disability or illness, or my friends or family members have disabilities or illnesses, then we must not have enough faith if we are not healed.” This is a terrible message for people to internalize and believe. But churches reinforce this idea in many many ways. They have healing services where prayers are offered up for physical, mental, and cognitive healing. What happens if people are not healed? Has God abandoned them? Were they people of “little faith”? Likewise, churches are often incredibly inaccessible and judgmental places, where people with disabilities get a message over and over again that they are not welcome or worthy to be Christians. Disability awareness Sundays like today can create awareness of disability, but lead people to think that one Sunday each year is enough, when they should be reflecting on ways to make real change for people with disabilities in our world.
In fact, I am guilty of that, as well. When I was younger, my church never really talked much about disability. As I became progressively hard-of-hearing in junior high and high school, this story led me to pray for healing. My faith in God was so absolute…surely I would be healed if I could just pray hard enough. By the time I was graduating college, this story was just a metaphorical story that meant nothing. I had learned American Sign Language, but was bitter about so few churches having interpreters, and had met more people with disabilities who had to leave their communities of faith due to prejudice or discrimination. For the last 15 years or so, I have attended church on Sundays, but my wife has often had to interpret for me, and I have been welcome on Sundays but not able to attend anything else happening at church because I am too expensive. And after being caught in a whooping cough epidemic, I struggled for many years with uncontrolled asthma. The church was there for me when I was in the hospital, but people only came the first time each year I was in the hospital, and then they never came to see me after that….I felt like an inconvenience by being hospitalized so much. So my faith has become one of disconnection and isolation even when services were technically interpreted, and I got my requisite prayer shawl once each year in the hospital. I relied on myself for anything I wanted to know or explore, and my work is a vocation for me, but I’m not going to lie. It has been lonely. The story of the Lepers was just one more oppressive Bible reading in a long history of oppressions in the many religions I have explored; I felt like a metaphorical Leper. In the past year, my family moved from New York to Minnesota, and I have been surprised and delighted to say that I am finally finding re-connection and a deepening of my faith through attending a church where my family can sit together and I can attend things outside of services. I am being encouraged as an individual to re-connect with faith in a community, and pleased to be experiencing a peace and re-connection with my faith I haven’t known in many years. Parts of my soul are healing again and taking a look at the Bible with fresh eyes. So today I’d like to share my current take on the story of the ten lepers, as a woman who has disabilities who is a disability scholar and activist, and as someone who is re-connecting to what it means to have faith and believe in God. As someone who has been a leper in many places because of my disabilities.
The most important part of this story for me is actually verse 15: “Then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back praising God…” Jesus had sent the ten men to be checked by the priests, who were ordered by Jewish Law to look at people and made a final call of whether or not they had leprosy, judging them clean if they didn’t have it, and unclean if they did. When Jesus sent the ten lepers to the priests, the point was for priests to verify that yes, they were truly cleansed (or healed).
But one man didn’t need the priests. He knew when he was healed and didn’t need anyone else to tell him this. He judged himself clean. He judged himself well. He judged himself whole. And with that judgment and decision about himself, he then praised God and gave thanks. And Jesus recognized this man’s authority, as well as the fact that nine other men could have claimed the same authority: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” Jesus then validates and offers a little external validation for what the one leper already knew: “Your faith has made you well.” Luke even notes that the one who returned was a foreigner, throwing a little intersectional work into the story, as well. The one who was the most different actually “got it.”
I work at the federally-funded National Center for College Students with Disabilities. When my colleagues and I work with college students who have disabilities, they are in the middle of college or graduate school. They are figuring out who they are, the ways all their identities work together, and their place in the world. It is an amazing process that is also endlessly frustrating to anyone over 30 who is working with them.
Some of the stories are quite powerful: students trying to put together student organization or lawsuits to take on huge powerful campuses. A mom and daughters who are homeless, searching for resources so the oldest daughter can go to college. The veteran with PTSD trying to find other veterans going back to school. The dad who is a special education attorney, trying to figure out why higher education is so much harder to navigate for his son. The policy makers calling to ask about how many college students have disabilities, only to have us tell them that we don’t know, because even in 2016, no one is really counting them. These people often take these situations and try to turn them around and make a difference, and it is an honor and privilege to witness their work.
But throughout their college experiences, students lives depend on the judgment of other people, to know which services they are allowed to have, to know how they should use those services. Talking about their disability is called “disclosure,” which makes it sound like they are spies. Making decisions about their lives is called “self-determination” and if they speak up for themselves, then they are “self-advocates.” Other nondisabled college students are allowed to find themselves, explore, switch degrees, skip class, and make poor decisions, check out drugs, sex, and rock and roll. If students with disabilities do this, they are labeled “difficult,” with a poor attitude about “authority,” or (my personal favorite) “non-compliant.” It’s why I have a t-shirt at home stating that “Non-Compliance is a Social Skill.”
My staff and I tell these students that having a disability can be a difficult experience. It can be life-threatening or painful. But we also tell them there are things that may surprise them and offer support. There is a broad community of disabled people. There are disability arts, there’s disability history, there’s athletics of all types for people with disabilities, there are many things about disabilities that can be gifts and even blessings. And I’m not talking about gifts and blessings of being inspirational or overcoming (two other cringe-worthy words in the disability community). I’m talking about being empathetic because you have wrestled with a mental illness…being creative because your chronic pain forces you to be…having prosthetics that are wondrous and not limited by what a “normal” hand, leg or foot looks like… being able to think out of the box and innovate because your dyslexia or ADHD helps you do that naturally. Or [in sign] BEING BILINGUAL.
College students often hate their disabilities, which means they hate part of themselves. This is ableism, and it is every bit as insidious as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, or the other sins that divide us. It also means the students do not recognize that most of their problems actually are due to inaccessible and unfriendly attitudes, policies, and environments. 9 times out of 10, they are not the problem. Ableism is the problem. The story of the ten lepers says to people with disabilities that we must decide when we are cleansed and whole. No one else can tell us this. And when we turn to God with our self-acknowledged wholeness, God will say, “Yes, of course, you are whole, you are cleansed, you are healed, you are amazing, you are in my image, and your faith has made you well. Your faith in me, your faith in yourself…your faith.” We become the one leper who is still technically a leper because he hasn’t seen the priests for a clean bill of health, but somehow this technicality doesn’t matter. The disabled person, a leper at the margins, a foreigner…and a witness for the power of faith. A person in direct connection with Christ.
So disability is not just about disability. It is also about difference, what is normal, and what is on the margins. What appears to be broken.
In the spirit of this Gospel, please take a minute to look at the people around you, or to simply think of who is sitting by you. Imagine each one having pains, illnesses, disabilities, and also just parts of themselves that embarrass them, that feel broken, secrets that haunt them, fears that exert unwanted control, or sadness that keeps them up at night. They may say negative things about themselves, or always live their lives by negative things others have said about them. Now imagine each one of them as the image of God and part of the Body of Christ.
And then suddenly heaven has power doors and angels who know sign language. People don’t automatically become nondisabled when they reach the pearly gates, even if the pain or suffering ceases. Suddenly God might be a Black woman who is also a quadriplegic. Or God may be a gay man with bipolar disorder. Or God is a homeless veteran with a traumatic brain injury. Or an autistic child of immigrants who flaps her hands in church and squeals during hymns. Suddenly God is in the risen Jesus who has disabilities, with weeping wounds that he expects people to see and touch. It does not mean God enjoys seeing us in pain, nor does it mean he causes it to teach us lessons. And God certainly doesn’t absolve us from striving to be better people – she just doesn’t assume being better means being cured. If Jesus experienced disability, it means it is simply part of the human experience. It is part of creation. And anyone who does not welcome disability, does not welcome the messy, blessed wholeness and beauty of the Body of Christ.
In closing I ask you to pray with me:
Dearest creator, we pray for each person here today. Our neighbors, family, and friends. Help us to see ourselves in the image of God, as part of the Body of Christ. And let each of us hold that prayer and feel ourselves receiving it in places we see as broken or different or disabled. Let us breathe in the prayer, let it wash over us, and oh Holy One let us believe it with gratitude and thanks. Please sign or say Amen.