Working as a disability professional in rural North India, where worldviews are formed based on traditions and myths, we have had the opportunity to witness the stunning stigma, exclusions, and injustice people with disabilities and their families often face.
I remember being shocked when I first heard a father say, in front of his beautiful girl who had a disability — a disability similar to my daughter’s disability — that his daughter would be better off dead. I have heard sentiments like this expressed many times since then.
“She would be better off dead.”
The horror actually makes sense in a Hindu worldview. Having “done time” for the sins of the past life, death would mean a better chance in the next reincarnation. Followers of Christ have far better news for anyone with a disability, and for anyone journeying with someone through disability. The myth of reincarnation pales against the promise of resurrection.
‘Luke 14’ Dinners
We feel blessed to have been part of activities, such as family retreats and “Luke 14” dinners, where churches actively reach out in love to include those with disability.
In these Luke 14 dinners — inspired by Jesus’s words in Luke 14:12–14 — churches host people with disabilities to a night of entertainment, good food, and fellowship. The act of hospitality not only shows God’s love to the marginalized, but also demonstrates to their families and the community that the kingdom of God joyfully welcomes those whom society ignores or casts aside. This kind of hospitality shows that God loves his children, irrespective of ability.
Although you may not hear someone say, “She would be better off dead,” in America, the sentiment is tragically prevalent. Status and value are all too readily determined by people’s functional productivity, their contribution to national economic output, and even their contribution to our personal happiness. Nationally, America aborts, seemingly without conscience, the majority of babies who are diagnosed with a disability. In effect, we’re saying, “We’re better off if she’s dead.”
Four Reasons for Energetic Care
Whenever Christians intentionally and enthusiastically embrace individuals with disabilities, we lift up the glory of God in that society. We should be devoted to caring for these men and women, first, because every person is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). All men and women with a disability bear the unmistakable and priceless image of their Creator. And if God has placed his image on these people, we dare not overlook or alienate them — or worse.
Second, disability is a beautiful and physical embodiment of treasures being kept in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). What we see and experience in our bodily existence is an obvious outward wasting away, but in fact his all-surpassing power shines through our brokenness. Disability ministry in a church opens another unique door for us to witness God glorify his strength. And it will keep us from conforming to a world obsessed with the appearance of the jar.
Third, disability ministry reminds the church that suffering is not random. Rather, it is an instrument that God intends to use for our greatest and longest-lasting joy. Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope; and hope does not disappoint us (Romans 5:3–5). Obedience through suffering produces hope, perseverance, and joy. We have experienced this over and over again in disability ministry.
Fourth, while the world sees little value in disability — responding with eugenics, euthanasia, and selective abortion — Jesus reminds his disciples that the man born blind was born so for a purpose. This purpose was “that the works of God might be displayed” (John 9:3). We move toward the disabled because we can’t wait to see what God might do.
What Can We Do?
What can churches do, practically speaking, to care for and serve people with disabilities? We have studied the friends of the man with paralysis in Mark 2:1–12. Their story has inspired us in our ministry among the disabled in India, and offers one paradigm for moving toward disability in your community.
1. Become a friend
“And they came . . . ” (Mark 2:3).
These men were friends of the paralyzed man. Their act on his behalf was sacrificial — he likely would not have been able to repay them. Jesus sees their love as an act of their faith and gives their friend a new life — forgiveness and healing (Mark 2:5, 10–12).
Those that witnessed what happened said, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:12). Friendship with a person with disability may require self-sacrifice — lots of sacrifice — but God can work through such acts of faith to open our eyes to his glory. We typically make friends based on common interests, but when we dare to step out and become a friend to those who are different from us, including people with disabilities, the world will take notice.
2. Bring them in
“And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men” (Mark 2:3).
The story makes clear that there was no room left for anyone to make their way to Jesus. The friends of the man with paralysis went beyond sympathising with him, and went out of their way to bring him to meet Jesus, overcoming significant obstacles to do so.
Invite those with disabilities into your church to meet Jesus. In the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14:15–24, we notice the master doesn’t give a choice, but he orders them to bring the people in and fill the house. What would it look like for you (and your church) to make the extra effort to welcome those with physical or mental disabilities?
3. Break down barriers
“And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay” (Mark 2:4).
The friends of the paralytic did what he could not, creating a path for him to come to Jesus. In a similar but more profound way, Jesus went to the cross to give anyone who would believe in him access to God. How sad it is, then, when our attitudes and inaccessible church environment erect barriers that prevent people from meeting God. Our task is to remove as many barriers as we can so that everyone might have an opportunity to hear the good news. We may need, for instance, to build ramps instead of breaking through roofs to allow our friends with disability to come in and meet Jesus.
One story of this kind of friendship stands out from our experience here in India. A pastor we know became friends with a girl with disability, breaking down serious social barriers in the process. He made time to connect with this girl and her family, and invited her to his church. Her name is Priyanka.
No one in her family was willing to take her to church, as they had to be with livestock, but this pastor committed to carrying her on his back along the two-kilometer path to church. Among other reasons, the story stands out because it was a pastor, not a parent, that took the first initiative to care for this child. He did this over a number of months, and Priyanka experienced spiritual and social healing through his church.
Meanwhile, of course, the church also experienced blessings by having her there. In time, Priyanka’s family noticed and appreciated all that had changed in her life, so they also started attending the church. Now the whole family has come to faith, along with seventeen more people from their village. Priyanka’s father has become a church planter. He’s now reaching out to all those in his area with the gospel, including those with disabilities.
We pray many more churches — in India, and in the United States, and around the world — would adopt this kind of faithfulness and see this kind of fruit from caring for those with disabilities — becoming a friend, bringing them in, and breaking down every possible barrier.