At the end of a line of 14 other persons standing in front of our congregation to profess their faith and become members a few weeks ago sat my stepson Chris in a wheelchair.
“I’m here,” he cried out in what could only be understood as joy when his name was called.
And how blessed Second Church of Kansas City is by his presence. For as the contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said, a congregation in which disabled persons are not accepted is itself “a disabled church.”
Those are fine sentiments, but let’s be realistic. Chris, who suffers from a seizure disorder and developmental disability, functions cognitively as about a five-year-old. His speech is sometimes hard to understand. His mobility issues increasingly confine him to a wheelchair. Beyond all that he calls me a “duckhead” and jokes that my name is George.
Given such realities, what can Chris possibly bring to my congregation and what can he get from us?
Those are questions that shouldn’t even have to be asked. They are based on the false assumption that only people of certain physical or mental capacities have anything to offer congregations or can absorb anything worth absorbing, such as the gospel.
The reality is that Chris, more than anyone I know, embodies love. It is not overreaching sentimentality on my part to call him love incarnate. Part of the reason is that he sees others as people who need hugs, not as competitors for life’s resources or for attention. And any church that brings into its membership someone so loving can count itself nothing but blessed.
If people want to see what love looks like, they merely need to look at Chris (and people like him) as he reaches out to hug others or as he has lunch every day at his sheltered workshop with a special friend whom he helps by opening her plastic lunch containers and placing her spoon at her reach just so. Or when he says — as almost inevitably he does — to our pastor and associate pastor, “You’re so handsome today” or to almost any female who engages him in conversation, “You’re so pretty.”
And Chris can tell you that Jesus is in your heart and can say he’s glad to come to worship any Sunday we can get him there (he lives in a group home several miles from us) and that he loves to put an envelope in the offering plate. And that he really, really loves to hand out worship bulletins to people entering our sanctuary (I think it’s on the chance that he might get to hug some of them).
If this subject is new to you or your congregation or simply needs more attention, I’d direct you to a terrific 2012 book by journalist Mark Pinsky, “Amazing Gifts,” which I reviewed on my daily blog last year.
By the way, Moltmann, who spends considerable energy nowadays promoting inclusion of people with disabilities in congregations, had a brother who was severely disabled. The Nazi regime had him euthanized, a sweet word for murdered. Chris would have hugged him.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at email@example.com.