Before we could turn the calendar on a new year, the tsunami tested our capacity for hope and resolve. Its exceptional horrors exposed anew the range of our vulnerabilities. As we reunited in celebration with family and friends, we came face to face with that basic cost of living: the toll of aging. Once again we adored at the manger only to find ourselves at the foot of the cross.
This issue of In Trust draws attention to disability, a topic that is closely linked to our mortality. As a cause, disability has become so mainstream that we can be a bit jaded. The Americans with Disabilities Act sets ever more precise standards for accessibility, and we see the results everywhere in signage, public restrooms, curb cuts, mobility options, and Individualized Education Programs. I have watched and experienced the graces of these improvements over these past two decades as my own wheelchair- and scooter-bound daughter has come of age.
While thinking about this increasing social righteousness, I got pummeled in these early days of the new year by the first chapters of Mark's Gospel. Jesus alternately pursues and retreats from his intense ministry of healing lepers, invalids, and lame, blind, dumb, and possessed people. At the risk of sounding moralistic, I think the biblical witness is quite clear: Christians are to be associated with the dying, sick, and disabled. "Christians," after all, include the more or less decrepit, sick, and disabled, all of whom are on the same pilgrimage toward death and resurrection.
Mark demonstrates that this association is more than a demand of justice. It is a way of being. Christians over the ages have responded heroically by building and then reforming institutions to address this imperative. At the same time, we have segmented our expressions of love into separate institutions. What then does it mean for a community devoted to theological learning and spiritual formation for ministry to practice association with the disabled?
Our seminaries face particular challenges. Not only are they isolated by the segmentation of Christian institutions and ministries, they are also mostly impoverished and cannot easily generate the income to maintain and adapt facilities the way hospitals, retirement communities, social service agencies, and even colleges and universities can.
We can begin to address the limits of segmentation through field work and internships for our students. But inside our communities, we face other challenges, especially as we acknowledge the many forms of disability. We know, for example, that seminaries, like church buildings, ought to be architecturally welcoming -- emblematic of the kingdom, not just compliant with the law. Ad hoc strategies have their place but must not be substituted for strategic planning and fundraising to address the problems, especially on older campuses.
I also know from experience that no institution can perfectly adapt itself to the particular needs of my daughter, or any one else. What eases the way, beyond the basics of access, is that natural generosity and curiosity of people who are genuinely interested in our daughter. Such people are not afraid, patronizing, or pitying. They do not assume that all disabilities are alike, do not confuse the wheelchair with the person, are not impatient with slow speech or introversion, and appreciate the humor of multiple predicaments. The art of being with those with disabilities is learned over time. Our family and friends share the blessings of practicing this art together.
Ministry among those with disabilities always benefits from this generosity of spirit. It can be learned, but only alongside the disabled. And of course, our seminaries can continue to work toward such fullness of life and pray about it, as Jesus regularly did.