By Tom Stolle
Imagine this family: A child with nonverbal autism and other associated disabilities. The child begins violently assaulting mom and dad when he hits puberty, but cannot grasp the consequences of this, or even discern that his actions could be wrong. Both parents in this family have stable jobs, a nice home,
excellent medical insurance, help from others, a job that allows telecommunication from home, support from community services, and an extensive prayer network. That’s my family. My son’s name is Jimmy. Most people can’t fathom my journey, and it feels like my wife and I have been to hell and back.
Now instead, imagine the depths of suffering for a family that has a child like my son, but they don’t have the same advantages. They don’t have good jobs, don’t have both parents at home, marginal or no insurance, and almost no help from others.
Genesis 1:27 teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God. Individuals affected by disabilities need to be loved, but they also need resources and opportunity. Having a disability does not make a person somehow less human, less worthy of assistance, or less worthy of respect. Too many, however, maintain attitudes of superiority and judgment — attitudes which effectively open the door to oppression.
Oppressed people are frequently denied opportunities, causing them to be economically and relationally disabled in addition to the challenges they already face. They are often treated as subhuman. Our society engages in the active disabling of millions of people, viewing them as worthless, a waste of time and resources, and unworthy of assistance. Note that when people are “economically disabled,” that treatment sometimes leads to a physical disability. If you have fewer resources, you receive less care.
In Isaiah 1:17, the Lord says, “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.” (NLT)
The issue of loving and caring for individuals must be comprehensive. That is, we must love every single individual human being, regardless of age, race, gender, or ability. Due to the ignorance and neglect of this issue, there is an incredible need among Americans affected by disability, which is a reality for almost 58 million Americans. That’s 19 percent of the population. Many of these individuals, regardless of age, race, or gender, live at or below the poverty line.
In an article written by Michael Morris, the executive director of the National Disability Institute, titled “Poverty and Disability in America Matter,” the author points out that poverty and disability are related. His work, originally written in March 2016, reports the following:
- Adults affected by disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty as those not affected by disabilities.
- Women affected by disabilities are more likely to live in poverty than men. This gender disparity, when combined with the disability factor, results in a poverty rate of 31 percent for women, compared to 26 percent for men.
- People of color are more likely to be live in poverty than the white population. This racial disparity, when combined with the issue of disability, results in nearly 40 percent of African Americans affected by disabilities living in poverty. Compare this to the white American population, which has a rate of approximately 25 percent living in poverty when combining poverty with disability.
Among people ages, 15 to 64, note that10.8 percent of individuals with severe disabilities experienced persistent poverty compared to 4.9 percent of individuals with a non-severe disability and 3.8 percent of individuals with no disability. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that only 41 percent of individuals ages 21 to 64 with any disability were employed, compared with 79 percent of those with no disability.
The takeaway from this is clear: disability often results in or is connected to poverty.
Mother Teresa said, “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think, is as much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than a person who has nothing to eat.”
Note that according to a 2007 study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, among children who would eventually be diagnosed with autism, African American children had 2.6 times the odds of receiving some other diagnosis [than autism] compared with white children. Additionally, of those children who were misdiagnosed, African-American children were also 2.4 times more likely to be incorrectly diagnosed with a conduct disorder than white children. These statistics are appalling and sickening.
God help us, if we do not see ALL people as created in the image and likeness of God, this kind of misdiagnosis, not just of developmental disabilities, but of a person’s character and intentions can and does occur. I wish I could say that this type of data did not apply or was somewhat different within the Church.
Ed Stetzer, a religious leader in America, was quoted in Christianity Today magazine in 2013 as saying, “I was not able to find any substantial research on how churches are ministering to persons with disabilities … In other words, other than word-of-mouth and such connections, I cannot definitively say what is and what is not happening, and what we can learn from it…”
Consider that for a moment. A significant voice in national Christian leadership acknowledges that we don’t know how our churches are reaching individuals and families affected by disabilities. Often, the Church, through its inaction, is demonstrating a lack of care and concern for these special individuals and families.
We, as the Church, must do better. We have no excuse.
Many in society today believe that the Church is irrelevant. In many cases, they are right. I think that an irrelevant church is a sinful church. Why? It would be difficult to say that any organization that actively assists the poor, sick, elderly, and disabled is irrelevant (think James 2 or 1 John 1-3). However, are we doing this?
Concerning importance, programs for church members should not be placed ahead of ministry to those in need. Too many times, these programs are given a higher priority than obedience to the Great Commandment to love God and love his children.
Jesus ministered to individuals affected by sickness, disease, poverty, and disability. His focus was not on putting on a flashy show during a weekend service or building the next “big program.” His focus was on demonstrating His love for them by treating them with compassion and dignity. The Church, as well as those in the communities we serve, would benefit from imitating what Jesus modeled while walking the earth.
Likewise, Christ viewed the rich and the poverty-stricken with the same loving attitude. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that individuals who possess material wealth have been rewarded by God for working harder or rising above obstacles, while a poorer person must be lazy because they are reliant on charity and handouts. Such an attitude is sinful, unbiblical, and a stain on true Christianity. Both the wealthy and the poor are in need of God’s love and redeeming grace, and we, as a Church, need to demonstrate this.
The Bible says in James 2:1-4 (The Message), “My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your Church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, ‘Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!’ and either ignore the street person or say, ‘Better sit here in the back row,’ haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?”
These facts, along with the truths perpetuated by our Lord in Scripture, should shake us. They should make us angry. They should move us to action. We see time and again, when individuals are solely focused on themselves and their needs, the legitimate needs of others become less important. It’s possible that you may not want to be bothered by them either. You may ignore it, or even get irritated by the pleas and desires of others for justice and mercy.
The bottom line is simple: We are called as the Church to stand up for ALL people, even those who cannot stand up for themselves. God takes this issue seriously.
“Don’t walk on the poor just because they’re poor, and don’t use your position to crush the weak, Because God will come to their defense; the life you took, he’ll take from you and give back to them.” Proverbs 22:22-23 (The Message)
We can do better. We must do better.
Tom Stolle will be leading the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware’s Annual Special Needs Conference on July 20, at Cresthill Church in Bowie, MD. You can find additional details here.