Written by Teresa Goodnight, Thesis By Natalie Stitt Regent Preparatory – Student, Guest Author
Help Connect the Dots:
God likes to display His mastery of His plans sometimes. Without me, He literally just aligns things for the magazine that leave my mouth hanging open in awe of His intricately laid plans. When we first laid out the subjects for this issue last year, we planned on talking about Freedom in July. I immediately thought of Eric Maddox’s Saddam story and the story in LaFortune Park. I wanted him in this issue. In retrospect, I had no idea why he would be such a perfect fit. I reached out to him quite a while ago and he agreed. There was so much of his story I didn’t know, since we hadn’t talked since high school. It blew my mind as he pieced it together for me (and certainly you should buy the book! I did.). Interestingly enough, a few days before I interviewed him, God intervened with this next story.
We had a reader bring it to my attention that our Christian schools do not accept children with Down’s Syndrome. I’ll admit, I thought she was not possibly correct. Sure enough. One by one, as I found a free moment, I called through my list. I promised her I would look into it. Not one. My heart was breaking, as I understood her plea. If you are looking for a Christian education for your child, then something like Down’s just shouldn’t stand in the way. The reader said, “When I call, they tell me it’s a funding issue. Then, I see stadiums or buildings being built.” She continued, “One school even had a really large multi-million dollar donation made that completely changed the entire campus. Yet they didn’t add a plan for Down’s children either. So, I just think that’s something they all might say.”
I was so shocked. In fact, I say it out loud to people just to see their reactions. No one else knows either. I thought it must just be here. Surely. So, I checked with my sweet friend in Texas. Her son, Adley is maybe one of the funniest kids I’ve met. There’s not enough room to go into the air guitar singing he does in the kitchen. I mean wow. It’s so flipping hysterical. But alas, nope. He’s in a Charter School. I just couldn’t believe it.
These kiddos are a great fit in a classroom for so many reasons. For one, it helps them to be a part of the world and to understand the world better. For another, it helps students in these classrooms learn from these amazing kiddos. Not to mention, can you imagine siblings attending different schools for this reason? Wouldn’t that just break a child’s heart? The last thing that child would need is something else to challenge them emotionally in life.
So, it kept haunting me. Finally, I was on my last call to find a school with a program—Regent Preparatory School in Tulsa. I just knew they would have an answer I needed to hear. When the woman called me back from the school, I told her the reason for my call. She said something to the effect that this had been on her heart lately. There was a young lady who did her senior thesis on inclusion for those with disabilities in the Christian community. She said it was so moving that it had the staff talking in the halls. Regent didn’t offer school acceptance for these students either. However, she offered to connect me to the student. She thought we would want it. I couldn’t wait to read it. I was hoping she would agree to let us publish it in the magazine. We talked and she agreed.
I wanted to edit her piece in order to fit it nicely in the pages we had reserved. However, I couldn’t. It was so well written as it was. It was a testament to her heart and certainly to the education she received at Regent. More importantly, if her premise was right—just publishing it might open the eyes of our readers causing change. She and I decided to do a two-part series with her piece. We want to stoke the fire. Then, we’re hoping we can find churches and resources by our next deadline for September to help us fan the flames. Maybe we might find schools, who might say yes to stepping up to the call to make a difference in the lives of these kiddos.
Then, God threw in a fun twist. Something on the heart of this Rockstar Army Ranger, the interrogator? He wants to play a part in helping children with Down’s Syndrome. How does that fit? I don’t know. I expected his very cool story would get the magazine passed around from person to person. It will get us more clicks. More people will read and become aware!
In addition, I was introduced to City Elders, the guards seeking to govern the gates of the city. These guys are intense. Plus, they are recruiting pastors and business leaders from all over the state and nation. They had agreed to be a big story in this issue as well. As they take the magazine from county to county—this message will be spreading through the state of Oklahoma to pastors and Christian leaders.
If that doesn’t strike you as a bit of divine planning, then you should have been there when I read the student’s name. Natalie Stitt. It didn’t strike me immediately. Then, I realized her beautiful heart and powerful thoughts were fathered by our Governor, Kevin Stitt. (and mothered of course, by his lovely wife, Sarah.) Most will read her story because it’s amazing. Others will read it simply because of her name. All those reading WILL be stirred by God in some way. You can’t help it when you read it.
I couldn’t have recruited this group myself with such interesting connections. What’s God going to do with it all?
I have no flipping idea.
However, I CAN tell you I’ll be sitting on the edge of my seat waiting on what’s going to be in the September/October issue. It’s too much fun to watch without letting everyone in on God’s work. He’s working. He’s waiting for us to be a part of what He’s already prepared in advance for us to do. It’s beautifully majestic.
And with that introduction, I give you Natalie Stitt’s senior thesis.
The Image of God: a concept that has been discussed in theological circles for centuries; it is a factor that is common to all of humanity, and, speciﬁcally in the biblical sense, gives each and every individual on this planet inherent value that can never be taken away, but sometimes our vision of the image of God in others is obscured. Even in the church, we sometimes fail to discern this basic human gift. Last summer, I spent three weeks at Camp Barnabas, a camp for individuals with special needs. During that time I was introduced to Emilia. When I ﬁrst met her, we instantly started talking about our favorite animals, our favorite places to go, and our favorite activities. Like me, she loves the outdoors, music, and spending time with her friends and family. She is bright, kind, and an amazing listener, yet, despite our lively conversation and blooming friendship, she faces completely different problems than I do, because of her physical condition.
Emilia was born with a spinal defect, and was paralyzed shortly after birth, leaving her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. I could feel myself pitying her, and in my pity, I felt like I was doing good, but as our friendship grew stronger, I realized that there was no room for pity in our relationship. Pity is not wrong, but to truly be a friend to someone, there must be a basis of equality, a recognition of one’s intrinsic value, honoring the fact that they are made in God’s holy image. The ultimate end of a relationship with anyone, whether or not they have disabilities, must be established on this equality. Once I overcame my pity, I saw Emilia as she truly was, in her godlikeness.
The Bible, although seemingly vague when it comes to individuals with disabilities, is the place where any theological inquiry must start, but ﬁrst, terms must be deﬁned. Expressions such as “disabled,” “handicapped,” or the recent “differently abled” are contemporary expressions used when addressing or describing an individual with disabilities. These terms, however common they are in the English language, do not appear in the Bible. Instead, the Scriptures use speciﬁc terms such as “crippled” or “diseased,” yet, however straightforward the texts are literally, the connotations are much harder to decipher. In order to have an adequate understanding of disability and its relationship with the Bible and the Church, we must examine both the Old and New Testaments, and the ways in which its adherence followed holy commandments.
One helpful way to examine the Old Testament practices as they pertain to disability is through the lens of contemporary Judaism. Despite all of the curses that are often misinterpreted, Judaism is an extremely inclusive and welcoming community, and they take the rights of individuals with special needs very seriously (Jewish Values). Their mindset is not that of healing or charity, but rather an inclusive model that strives to follow the example of the Israelites in in the wilderness, a body of extremely diverse people serving under one God; in their eyes, Yahweh spoke at Mount Sinai because His people were gathered in unity. They believe that the “religious life of every Jew and the religious life of the entire community is deﬁcient when not everyone is able to be present. That is why it is so fundamentally important that historically marginalized groups are treated with dignity, respect, and honor just like anyone else in the community” (Inclusion is a Jewish Imperative).
The early Church adhered to Jesus’ commandment to “go out. . . and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” and blossomed as people of all forms grew in a community of love (Luke 14:21). As Jesus’ words echoed through their hearts, Jews and Gentiles, wealthy and poor, strong and weak, all partook in a community that strove to serve God and others. Having followed Jesus while he walked the earth, the disciples went out, sharing the gospel with all people, even those with disabilities, and they recalled Jesus’ teachings of providing for the widowed and orphaned, caring for the downtrodden, and bringing in those with disease and disability. Inevitably, as the Church grew, it became easier for it to be distracted from its original mission.
Now, there is a disconnect. Within the Christian faith there are several different ways in which churches include those with special needs. To illustrate this fact, one must examine the sacramental life of several Christian denominations. Let us consider the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Baptist churches’ positions on baptism and communion. Who do they say is allowed to partake in these sacraments? The Orthodox policies for inclusion of individuals with disabilities seems to be extremely similar to those of the Jewish tradition. They embrace the “uniqueness and dignity” of each human being, and recognize them as bearers of God’s holy image, therefore, fully including them into the body of the Church by encouraging full participation in their congregation’s sacramental life (Orthodox Theological Perspective).
In the middle, Catholicism is very quick to include, but not on the basis of one’s individuality in disability, but rather on the basis of salvation. The Catholic faith views the sacraments as playing an extremely important role in one’s salvation, so they do not like to take any chances. People, no matter if they are cognitively aware or not, are allowed access to the sacraments in a Catholic church.
Finally, on the other side, Protestant traditions such as Baptists, hence their name, elevate baptism as an extremely vital choice in the life of a Christian. Although this is not wrong, it lead to the exclusion of people who are incapable of making a cognitive choice, due to their profound intellectual disability. The topic of sacramental inclusion of those with disabilities is an extremely complex and multi-faceted theological dilemma; I am neither qualiﬁed nor able to provide a solution to this particular problem. I am simply pointing out the difference in practice within the Body of Christ for the purpose of examination, while asking the question, “Where do people with disabilities ﬁt in a place of worship?”
For centuries, the Church has struggled to accept those with disabilities. They have been seen as vessels of charity, as objects to be healed, and even as witnesses to the wrath of God towards sin. These misconstructions have clouded the Church’s eyes to one of the greatest commandments, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4). Now, the ‘policies’ for dealing with those with special needs vary from denomination to denomination, but assuming that every church follows Christ’s example and welcomes everyone, physical accessibility of a church is common in the United States. Following the civil rights movement of the ﬁfties and sixties, the American Disabilities Act ensures anyone the right to enter any building. Although this may be a vital step to inclusion for one with physical hindrances, “rights cannot open up spaces of intimacy,” that is, the ability to enter a building does not ensure acceptance from the people inside the building (Reinders 43). In other words, true inclusion into a community of love cannot be accomplished by the mere ability to enter a building.
Think of your church: how well is the special needs community represented in your congregation?
One or two members, although much better than many congregations, does not constitute the diverse image of the Body of Christ as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians. In Oklahoma alone, about one in every six individuals has a disability of some form (Admin), meaning that statistically, churches with gatherings of six or more members, should have at least one person with special needs in their community (Religion in America). Yet, nationally, eighty to eighty-ﬁve percent of churches do not have any form of a special needs program (Five Statistics). This is because not enough people with special needs attend those churches to warrant such programs.
Statistics such as these contradict Jesus’ teaching in the book of Luke, to “go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” (14.21). Where are all of these people? Why do they not attend a church? In a 2014 study, George White asked these very questions in a survey of 166 people, from eighteen different denominations. The purpose of his survey was to get an internal view of the “current status of people with disabilities within the Christian community” (White 21). His questions ranged from general to speciﬁc experiences, all of them inquiring about inclusion and the barriers to inclusion in the Church. Many of the answers he received were both eye-opening and heartbreaking: of the 166 responses to the questions about the barriers to inclusion, 39.8% reported it to be on account of ignorance, lack of training, or faulty theology. Another 40.9% reported the attitude of the congregation as an inhibiting factor to proper inclusion into the church.
Whether or not this general attitude is intentional, it has still proven to be a factor that inhibits inclusion. As his study continued, those surveyed also noted several actions that proved to enhance inclusion. In their experience, those had been with training, increased awareness, and welcoming attitudes, all of which begin in the heart’s ability to recognize intrinsic value above disability. When God breathed life into Adam and Eve, He instilled within them His own image, instantly bestowing upon them inherent value that is irrevocable; in some circles, people are referred to as “Icons of God” in order to preserve the scared nature of the term and the image they bear. Although this worth can never be changed, the original perfection that God created Adam and Eve with is marred by original sin: a consequence that reaches all of humanity (Hoekema 20).
The term “Imago Dei” is something that is so often tossed about in theological discussion that it seems to have lost some of its potency, but it is not something to be taken lightly. When God created the world, he crowned mankind with His image, distinguishing them above all other creations, and instilling within them a value that would never be taken away. Christians understand that this term holds weight, and distinguishes humans above other creatures, yet, when topics pertaining to disability arise, the factor of the Imago Dei, and all that it pertains to, is sometimes forgotten. Humanity, in Christian theology, is predominately deﬁned as an icon of God: it is the basis for the intrinsic value that all human beings possess despite status, intelligence, or physical ability.
As humans, we innately desire community; the Church functioning as the Body of Christ should be the fulﬁllment of the communal need that God instilled within us, until we stand in His presence. If people with disabilities are made in the image of God, then they are fully human and share the need for community and relationship with the rest of the human race. Those with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual challenges, are individuals not only deserving of the love and support offered by a Christian community, but, because of their intrinsic value, they have every right to be a member of the Body of Christ. In order for these inclusive needs to be fulﬁlled, we must biblically redeﬁne inclusion and reorient our hearts to view all individuals, with or without disabilities, as Jesus would.
THINGS TO PRAY ON:
• What is your atitude toward those with disabilities?
• Your church’s attitude?
• Your school’s attitude?
WHAT DOES INCLUSIVE LOVE LOOK LIKE?
If we aren’t expressing that love towards all, we might consider 1 Corinthians 13:1, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” Are there areas such as this, where you have slipped into becoming this loud, obnoxious instrument? Even the loud obnoxious cymbal can become an instrument of beautiful music.
Should you consider making a difference in your life/church/school to be more inclusive?
Stay tuned. In September, we will highlight some groups exemplifying the love of Christ who will give us some practical steps to becoming the full Body of Christ. As we know, God has gifted each of us and we each have a place in His body.
Were you aware that all Christian schools we’ve checked from Oklahoma to Texas will not accept those with Down’s Syndrome? I’m trying to imagine the face of the child not allowed to attend school with their brother(s) or sister(s). Is there a case for non-inclusion of these children?
Should it continue? Email
firstname.lastname@example.org and share your thoughts.
-Works Cited in Thesis
Admin, Gardens. “Oklahoma Disability Statistics.” Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, 13 Aug. 2018. // Cross, Richard. “Aquinas on Physical Impairment: Human Nature and Original Sin.” Harvard Theological Review, vol. 110, no. 03, 2017, pp. 317–338. // Edwards, June. “Children with Learning Difficulties and the Sacraments.” Children with Learning Difficulties, 1994, pp. 70-81. The Way, 17 Jan. 2019. // Eiesland, Nancy L. “Sacramental Bodies.” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, vol. 13, no. 3-4, 2009, pp. 236–246. // “Five Statistics We Can’t Ignore: Disability and The Gospel.” The Banquet Network, 4” Sept. 2018. // Greenberg, Ben. “Inclusion Is a Jewish Imperative.” My Jewish Learning, 8 Apr. 2015. // Hoekema, Anthony A. Created In God’s Image. 1st ed., Eerdmans, 1994. Print. // “Jewish Values and Disability Rights.” Religious Action Center, 3 Dec. 2015. // Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. HarperOne, 2017. Print. // Moss, Candida R. “Disability in the New Testament.” Bible Odyssey, 1 Oct. 2014, www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/video-gallery/d/disability-in-the-nt // “Orthodox Theological Perspectives on Disability.” World Council of Churches, 21 Oct. 2015. // Reinders, Hans. Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008. Print. // “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public // Life Project, 11 May 2015. The Bible. New International Version. Biblica, 2011. Bible Gateway. // White, George. People with Disabilities within Christian Community. 2014. // Yong, Amos. The Bible, Disability, and the Church: a New Vision of the People of God. Eerdmans, 2011. Print