I came to MCC Seed Colombia after three years of living in Puerto Rico where both my university and church advocated for full inclusion and rights for LGBTQ people. I was nervous coming into a new context where perhaps it would be taboo to talk about the issue in church and society. My placement is with a small church that is home to many people with disabilities. I found it difficult and confusing to sit through sermons where inclusion and love were being preached for persons with disabilities while LGBTQ persons were being left out of our understanding of marginalized people with whom we are called to love and fully accept. “How can we preach inclusion for certain people but not others?” I lamented.
As time passed, I began to get to know the church better. Despite being a social worker I had little practical knowledge or experience in the area of disabilities. I had to figure out how to accompany and navigate relationships with several people with disabilities who are important members of the church community. I realized that I knew very little about how to ‘be church with’ let alone ‘share life with’ people with disabilities. Many of my normal behaviors and reactions were unintentionally excluding some of these people from relationship and inclusion in community.
Concerning people with disabilities my church has taught me not to:
- Fear, pity or assume helplessness on their part
- Use liturgy and language that unintentionally leaves out persons with physical disabilities
- Make decisions for persons with a disability, assuming they are incapable of deciding or doing for themselves
- View persons with disabilities as incapable of experiencing sexual relationships
- Exclude them unintentionally from activities due to a lack of preparation to accommodate needs
Through a process of awareness with my church I am learning to:
- Confront my fear of assisting by asking directly if help is desired and in what ways
- Use liturgy and language in church that is mindfully aware of and includes persons with disabilities present
- Respect that people with disabilities can make their own decisions
- Recognize that people with disabilities can also have romantic and sexual lives
- Plan and discover creative and accommodating ways to include people with disabilities in community activities
Through my own process of gaining awareness by participating in my church community, I am reminded that just as I have needed this church to teach me about people with disabilities, so too can I contribute to a process that opens up the community to new perspectives about inclusion and the LGBTQ community. Through small yet meaningful interactions, we slowly learn from each other. This includes things like: a difficult conversation with a church leader, a moment of intervention in church when an adolescent calls a peer ‘gay’, a blog written and discussed on the subject, attending a conference on disability and the church, interacting weekly with our members with disabilities, being reminded when and how to assist or not assist and why.
We need each other to grow, to encourage greater awareness in our lives of others who are different, and to share in the process of becoming more human. As Paolo Freire wrote,“…the more fully [a person] enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This person is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them.” I am grateful to my church here in Colombia for dialoguing with me about people with disabilities. I have been transformed because of their impact in my life and I hope my presence and dialogues are in some ways mutually transforming for them.