Disabilities in Church: How do we view them?

In Octobers cover article, Methodist Message reported on the Through the Cracks Conference on Embracing Persons with Special Needs, held at Wesley Methodist Church (WMC) the month before. This follow-up article shares nuggets from our interview with the conferences keynote speaker, the Rev Wilfred C. Hoecke, and Ms Lee Hwee Chin from WMC, which has a special needs community.

An American pastor who grew up with dyslexia and has a son with Down Syndrome, the Rev Wilfred C. Hoecke was uniquely placed to share insights from three perspectives: of individuals with special needs, of their families looking for support, and of the Church, which often wants to reach out to such families but does not know how.

He observed that the Church in general has responded awkwardly to families with special needs not deliberately, he noted, but simply because they did not know how to respond, especially to the “disability culture”.

“Allow love to rule,” he advised. He issued a challenge: “The next time you see a person with a disability, get down eyeball-to-eyeball with them and talk to them. Even if they can’t respond to you, welcome them, and ask their families how you can help.”

“Help” may not require volunteers to become childcare workers, which can be intimidating. “We’re not asking people to become therapists,” assured the Rev Hoecke.

Instead, the help given can be as simple as freezing extra food for a family, doing tax or subsidy paperwork for a family or single parent, driving them to appointments, or being understanding when a child has a meltdown in public. “It doesn’t have to be fancy,” he shared. “The daily mundane things overwhelm us as parents.”

The Rev Hoecke acknowledged that the process of helping the Church become more welcoming to families with special needs may feel awkward and strange at first, but the efforts are appreciated by families.

He also pointed out that “what we’re doing with special needs ministry is not very different from what we will have to do with seniors’ ministry”. Thus, developing the workforce and system for such a ministry will have benefits going beyond the special needs community, and may potentially affect each one of us in the future.

But core to this ministry is how we view people with disabilities our “theology of disability”. What place have we made within the Church for persons with disabilities? How can the church begin to really value people with disabilities?

The Rev Hoecke pointed out that 1 Corinthians 12:7 clearly states each person is given a spiritual gift. This includes people with disabilities as well! “The Holy Spirit and the prophetic gift is not limited by a person who has Down Syndrome.” This is evidenced by the Rev Hoecke’s experiences with children with special needs who were trained to be prayer intercessors, and were uniquely able to minister to others.

Disability also moves the Church away from cognitive teaching to heartfelt teaching; how do we disciple a child with special needs? We will need to show them what it means to be a disciple rather than merely talking about it.

One very difficult question to do with the theology of disability, acknowledged the Rev Hoecke, is how it interacts with the theology of healing. Sometimes Christians think disabilities are the work of satan or the result of Man’s disobedience due to the Fall, but in Exodus 4:11, the Lord said to Moses: “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”

So we have to consider: Why does God want that? Why did He want Moses to have a stuttering problem? Why are we sometimes broken?

“There is a reality,” said the Rev Hoecke, “that God wants to bring healing. But the apostle Paul asks for healing of his thorn in the flesh – which most theologians suspect was his poor eyesight – in 2 Cor 12:7-9, and God says no. ‘I want this disability. I want you to have this because I’ve a plan that’s bigger than your plan. And part of that is for you to be broken, and it’ll keep you from being prideful.’

“So we cannot say that in all cases it’s just a lack of faith… There are some sicknesses that are unto death. And some to bring God glory, as in John 9:3.

“When my son Karl was born with Down Syndrome, a well-meaning man came up to me and said ‘I believe the Lord wants to heal Karl’. So I went to the Lord and asked Him. And the word I got from the Lord was as clear as a bell. ‘No, this disability is for you as much as it is for Karl.’ And I never had the freedom to ask the Lord to heal him for Down syndrome. But I’ve prayed for healing for his ear infections and we’ve seen God heal those miraculously.”

The Rev Hoecke noted that satan does sometimes bind a person and Jesus did rebuke demons, rebuke the storm, and occasionally rebuked a sickness. But one cannot assume that is the case for every disability.

“Just like anything else I go the Lord and ask Him: ‘Is there something that we’re supposed to pray for here?’ I pray, not because I’ve seen God heal people through me, but because He tells me I’m supposed to ask for healing! But if He doesn’t heal, I don’t get mad at Him either, because I understand that sometimes His purposes are different than mine.”

What are the next steps for the Church in Singapore? Ms Lee Hwee Chin, one of the Pastoral Team Members of Children’s Ministry at Wesley Methodist Church, noted that churches which are already making headway in special needs ministry or other advocacy efforts should continue to network and reach out to other churches, building a volunteer network. A survey should also be done with parents of persons with special needs.

But more church leaders need to support and invest in this drive for full inclusion, responding to the growth of this movement from the ground up.

How will you and your church respond to this call? Will you value the gifts and ministry of persons with special needs?

  • ASK your church leaders to welcome and make room for people with disabilities to minister alongside others.
  • JOIN a network of Christians supporting families with special needs in various ways. Contact Ms Lee Hwee Chin at hweechinl@wesleymc.org

Grace Toh is the Assistant Editor of Methodist Message and has been a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church for most of her life.