Wilfredo Choco De Jesús: Paying the Cost of Reconciliation (Catalyst Notes)

Wilfredo Choco De Jesús was one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2013. The senior pastor at New Life Covenant Ministries in Chicago, he is a man not only of the Word but of action. He started his talk with Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” This, he said, is why Jesus came. This is what we are called to: to seek and to save the lost.

How do we lead in a drifting culture dominated by fear? First, we must realize that nobody drifts towards holiness. Holiness is intentional. Therefore, a Church that offers transformation in a drifting world must be an engaged, purposeful, responsive Church. Prayer is not a crutch. It is the start of something, not the end of it. Revelation calls for a response. Understanding can wait, obedience to the revelation of God cannot. “When my Father says do something, I do it.”

Remember: God uses unusual people to do extraordinary things. It’s all over the Bible. Wilfredo De Jesús, also known as Pastor Choco, felt called to buy a farm and amazing things took place to make it happen through all sorts of crazy turns. That farm has, to date, rescued 625 girls and women from prostitution. There is a cost to reconciliation, but we, the Church, should be happy to pay it. He told a story of buying five prostitutes for one hour. They brought them to a place where they laid out a beautiful banquet. They spoke truth over them, that they weren’t born a prostitute and they were loved. Those women walked away from their path and, through the sacrifice and support of the church, ended up becoming leaders in the church. It’s just like in the parable of the lost sheep: the sheep is not rebuked for being lost, it is celebrated for being found.

Or the prodigal son. The son who basically told his father, “I don’t care about your status, I wish you were dead.” He demanded an inheritance he wasn’t even owed and his father gave it to him, sacrificing his status for him. Then that son leaves and squanders it all. Eventually he came to his senses and returns humbled. What does the dad do? He RUNS to the boy. Men didn’t run in the first century; children and women ran. But again, the father disregards status and runs to the son. He embraces and covers the boy, showing that his protection is over him. He gives him jewelry which is a symbol that tells the son and others that he has complete authority to negotiate on behalf of the father with the assets of the family. That’s some crazy sacrificial love.

Why is the older brother upset? Well, this was all at a cost to him, in his mind. The inheritance was rightfully his, and already the father had allowed his younger brother to squander half of it. Now, he was paying for this celebration as well as giving the prodigal son his status back. You see, someone always pays the cost of reconciliation. There’s a cost to bringing others to the table, to gather those that Christ calls us to. The question is, what are you willing to pay so others can be reconciled to God? Are you willing to stand in the gap?

Father Edwin Leahy (Catalyst Notes)

Father Edwin Leahy is impressive, although he doesn’t think so. There’s some videos below that explain a lot of what he has done and what his work is. Some of his insights as he spoke:

  1. Racism is America’s original sin.
    1. White people in power knew what they were doing, starting in the 1800’s, to neutralize black males who were now free, and that neutralization continues today.
    2. Most of the students he is responsible for at his all boy school are missing fathers. They need help discovering and amplifying their voice.
  2. Be quiet and listen. Folks in the community will eventually tell you what they need.
  3. Tell people, ‘God loves me to the cross. But also, love others.’
  4. Recognize attitudes versus the vastness and vagueness of “culture.”
    1. Whatever helps or hurt my brothers and sisters helps or hurts me.
    2. Tend to their hearts.
    3. Create community.
    4. Create leadership opportunities.
    5. Accepting the Other and where they are.
  5. Be okay with arguing; sometimes provoke fights. It’s not okay to stay comfortable.
  6. Remember: the orchestra tunes to the first violinist.
  7. Develop listening skills.
    1. People will teach you how you can best be of service to them.

He said, “I wasn’t called to be successful, I was called to be faithful.” A great joy is seeing boys who graduated return as fathers with their kids.  They are designed to be a community that bears one another’s burdens. He told a story of an expelled student who was a Junior and he never left. He sat outside his office for two days and the Father told the other boys, “No, he’s out.” The next morning, the kids hid him. During attendance, they’d call his name as absent when he was there and then stopped. They spent the year avoiding each other and his Senior year the Father welcomed him back.

Why is there a fence around this school in downtown Newark? It marks off holy ground in the middle of a city in struggle. Like Moses, in the middle of the ordinary we encounter the extraordinary. Remember: Not all fires destroy; some fires ignite us.

Just a little bit about Father Edwin Leahy and what he does.

Remember…

Bryan Loritts: Multi-ethnic Cultural Engagement (Catalyst Notes)

Bryan Loritts is the Lead Pastor of Abundant Life Church in Silicon Valley, California, a published author and the President of the Kainos Movement. He began his time by stating that multi-ethnic cultural engagement is challenging but necessary. Consider I Corinthians 9:19-23, “or though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” What Paul is talking about is contextualization: the gospel doesn’t change and isn’t open to interpretation but the delivery is. Without the gospel, contextualization is compromised.

Bryan helped to put together a book called Letters to a Birmingham Jail, which includes the entire letter from Dr. King to the churches in Birmingham. He laments the evangelical passivity. Bryan points out that all great examples of teaching and preaching that pastors learn in school are written by middle aged white men; where is their voice? And why is the church silent when deaths happen? The only thing worse than hatred is indifference; when we fail to grieve with those who grieve. Is that the Church that Christ called us to? Yet this is what happens when our relationships aren’t multicultural.

People begin to brew in their bitterness, he said. He referenced Ephesians 6:12, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” and challenges us in responding to each other this way. People, bitter over their experience with the church or white America, also fail to engage. At the least offense, they want to take their ball and go home. He said, “Thank God that he doesn’t judge and condemn us the way we do our white siblings!” It is harm on all sides.

There is a call in the Church for redemptive impatience. This is different than passive! It is patient and aggressive. When we look at revelations we see a diversity in the people in God’s presence. Bryan reminded everyone that if you have a problem with diversity, you’re going to have a problem with heaven. Paul knew that this wasn’t a vertical gospel, focused only on you and those like you looking towards God. We are called to love our neighbor as we love our self. To give this some context, in Jewish culture hate is detachment. Therefore, if you say you love God yet are indifferent to the suffering of your brothers you are missing the point. We are call into a community of the beloved, we a robust orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Relational intentionality is important. Your sanctuary is your dinner table; you need to invite people in. You can’t ask of others what you aren’t doing yourself, you cannot lead people to where you aren’t. Therefore, multiethnic cultural engagement is important. Homogenous churches become racist because your biases become entrenched in your systems and structures. We need people with differences in perspective to keep this from happening. How do we know it isn’t happening in most of the church body? When people get shot our disparity of response tells us we are disconnected. If you don’t see your brother in their death, you don’t mourn, you don’t protest, you don’t seek justice.

Paul says, “I have become…” This is the discomfort of change, where you lay down your rights and your preferences for the other. Bryan says that black folk who are successful necessarily learn the “I have become…” but this is not a requirement of white folks. At no point are white people force, out of necessity, to become. It is worth remembering the ultimate I have become is Jesus Christ: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11

John Gordon: Mission (Catalyst Notes)

John Gordon is an American author and speaker on the topics of leadership, culture, sales, and teamwork. His focus was mission. He said that mission starts with leadership. He gave us 7 C’s that can help leaders in ministries to be successful and effective.

  1. Culture. Many companies have a mission, but how many of their people are ON mission? How many places operate as one team, with one plan and goal? Once you know what you stand for it becomes much easier for everyone to make decisions.
  2. Contagious. Leadership is a transfer of belief. Positive leaders, regardless of circumstances or outcomes, point everyone towards the future. Be aware: one person can’t make a team, but one person can break it (example: energy vampires). If someone is complaining, they should also be bringing a solution to the table. If you are complaining, you aren’t leading.
  3. Communicate. If you are too busy to communicate with your team, you can’t lead. Communication is key.
  4. Connections. Connections build commitment. A team will always beat talent when talent isn’t acting like a team. Be sure to share defining moments in your life.
  5. Commitment. He told this story of a man complaining about giving his wife a shoulder massage after she’d had a tough day. His friend told him, ‘If you don’t give her a massage, someone else will.’ It’s the same with our team. Most of the time, we don’t need a different team, we need to be better leaders. He said that he realized he didn’t want to be a big household name, he wanted to be big in his household.
  6. Care. Great leaders care more. This includes both love and accountability, the two things that help build a great team. Accountability is an act of caring because it doesn’t let others settle or demotivate the team.
  7. Consistent. Nothing happens if we aren’t consistent. Share your telescope with the team, let them see the North Star. Also share your microscope with them when you see critical activities being done well. It all starts on the inside, in the locker room.

Dave Ramsey: Building Unity (Notes from Catalyst)

Dave Ramsey is an American entrepreneur whose work brings financial freedom to people in all walks of life. He began his talk by speaking about the Belgian Plow Horse.

32ab270774008f00874e110b9f5c26c2

You see, this amazing horse can pull 8,000 lbs. on it’s own. But if you take two of them, who have never met before and team them up, they can pull 24,000 lbs. together. Somehow, through their teamwork, their immediately able to do the work that most people would have assumed would require three horses. The really amazing thing is, when those two horses are a matched pair, they are fairly similarly, know each other, etc. they’re able to pull 32,000 lbs. That’s 4x the work that one can do!

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)

The remarkable thing about this verse is that the Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” God says that nothing is impossible for us when we act in uncommon fellowship. In this story, we see that the people who settled in Shinar started worshipping what God gave us (like the ability to build a tower that reaches to the heavens) rather than worship the God who made all things possible for us.

Unity and uncommon fellowship is not a natural occurrence, it is from intentionality. Dave Ramsey outlined 5 enemies of this over his time as an organizational and spiritual leader.

  1. Poor Communication
    1. Learned from Andy Stanley, repetition is key as leader. Tell them until they are annoyed with you telling them, because then you know they know. Then, remind them.
    2. Cast vision, and spend a tremendous amount of time and energy as a leader communicating that vision.
      1. Sit down together, invest in breaking bread with each other (you wouldn’t believe, he said, they amount they spend on people eating together)
      2. Organizations move at the speed of the trust we’ve built
  2. Gossip
    1. Why do people who pee in their cereal gripe about the taste?
    2. Psalm 34:14 “Keep your tongue from evil And your lips from speaking deceit.”
    3. Real complaints have a responsibility to be taken to leadership, but you also have a responsibility to be part of the solution.
  3. Unresolved Disagreement
    1. Leaders pull, bosses push
      1. We don’t push people to where we want to be, we go and pull them to where we are
      2. You might not like each other, but you need to trust each other
      3. Disagreements distract us from the goal
  4. Lack of Shared Purpose
    1. When we drop the ball, anyone on the team can pick up the ball because we all know where we go.
      1. Most of the time, if we have 12 people, we have 12 agendas which creates tension and confused priorities.
  5. Sanctioned Incompetence
    1. If you allow incompetence or non-compliance, you demotivate your whole team.
      1. Whether they are volunteers or employees, excellence is the standard. By not dealing with those who don’t meet the standard, you are encouraging it. Misbehavior then gets worse and hurts everyone.
      2. To be unclear is to be unkind.
        1. Example: A old guy who was being too much of a hugger and was creeping everyone out. As soon as it was brought to his attention, he confronted the issue. “Stop doing that, you’re being a creeper.” “It’s how I am.” His response? “Change.” Why? Because behavior, like being a creeper, is a decision and it’s not okay.

These are spiritual issues. If you adopt these as guides for leadership and enforce them, then your team will adopt it and remind you of it when the team fails to meet those expectations.

Eugene Cho: Uncommon Fellowship and Samaria (Notes from Catalyst)

Eugene Cho (aka NOT Francis Chan) was amazing. Founding and Lead Pastor at Quest Church as well as the founder of One Days Wages, this is a man on fire for God and people. He started his time with us in John 4:1-10:

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

He highlighted the fact that it said, “Now he had to go through Samaria.” First, let us remember that Jesus didn’t have to do anything. It’s also important to understand that there was a long and complicated history had led the Jewish people and the Samaritans to this point in time, at which they were completely divided. That meant that while it took 3-4x longer to travel around Samaria rather than just pass through it, concerns around cleanliness and safety practically make it a requirement for a faithful Jew.

In fact, we can get a feel for the sentiment when we consider the most common prayer of gratitude prayed by Pharisee’s in public at that time. They would give thanks to God that they were made Jew and not Gentile, free and not slave, man and not woman. We can see this prayer specifically addressed in a revolutionary way through Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Eugene Cho talked about how we, as a church love to TALK about our “Samaria” but that it is a totally different thing to walk through Samaria. He used the example of exercise. The idea of exercise is engaging and we can read and talk about it to such an extent that we can become very knowledgeable in the topic. But it’s a very different thing to know how to run a marathon well, what you need, etc. than to actually train and run for a marathon. Must people don’t want to do that. When it comes to us and our Samaria, we need to not just talk about it, but live with it in the very core of our very being, resting in the truth that all people are created in the image of God. If God’s grace is sufficient for you then you must believe that it is sufficient for the Other.

In truth, some of the most difficult people to lead to Christ are actually Christians. In the story of the Samaritan woman, as well as many other stories of miracles and healing, Jesus stops. He looks in their eyes. He shows them he sees them. Consider the story in Luke 8:43-48:

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

Jesus, as Eugene Cho pointed out, didn’t need to ask who had touched him. He knew. But this is where he shows us that he is a King who stops and looks into the eyes of his people and meets their needs. His people were the rejected, the sick, the poor, the oppressed and the suffering, and his ministry was impactful because he didn’t draw lines to divide people; he crossed them to build community.

If the Church fails to be like Christ, it loses it’s impact. In our current times where communities, cities and countries exist in such divisive states the Church oftentimes remains homogenous and therefore ineffective. This is hardly surprising. We don’t become a different person on Sunday; it’s a reflection of who we are and the relationships we have Monday through Saturday. Consider the following infograph that he referenced:

black-friends-white-friends

From the perspective of the white person we see that they, statistically speaking, create an environment were the “Other” is generally not truly included or understood. It would certainly be challenging for the friend who is the only black friend to feel truly comfortable being their authentic self. It is also challenging to gain a true depth of knowledge regarding the complexities of race through the perspective of so few minority individuals. The end result of these homogenous environments is an inability to see or recognize the systemic issues that are faced by people who aren’t white.

But there’s an even bigger problem. Sometimes in those environments the idea of systemic racism is called into question. Isn’t it, they say, really a sin issue? And Eugene Cho’s response to this question is, “Of course.” BUT when sinful people gather together, they will create a culture that eventually includes systems and structures that are relevant to them and which benefit them. This is why racism is and continues to be systemic; we continue to operate in lives that are largely segregated and hardly reflect the uncommon fellowship that Jesus calls us to and models.

So what do we do? We confess to one another. We confront the places where we aren’t reflecting the Gospel. We speak Truth, we dismantle systems of oppression and segregation, we reconcile ourselves as individuals and communities. This will be a testimony to the power of the Gospel and it’s ability to transform us today. As we consider what this looks like for each of us in our lives, I want to return, as Eugene Cho did, to the story of the Samaritan woman. In this account we see what can happen when we pause, see another and meet them where they are. In this story, her encounter led her to join missio dei:

Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” John 4:39-42

Jo Saxton: Life as an Uncommon Fellowship – The Early Church (Notes from Catalyst)

I adore Jo Saxton. She’s a Nigerian Londoner who, more recently, relocated to Minneapolis where she pastors at a church plant.  She also chairs the board of 3DM, is an author of a couple of books and is overall just an inspiration. She started her talk with a favorite verse of mine and what I believe captures the heart of the mission God has been calling me to the last year or so:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

When she thinks of those early church times, she said that she often thinks of the phrase from A Tale of Two Cities, where it says that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” It was the time where there was tremendous persecution and suffering for Christians but it was also the time where the church was, likely, the most unified and mission focused in it’s history. Jo Saxton gave us a How To Guide for modeling ourselves like the early Church:

  1. Posture & Purpose: What kind of family are we? We need to ask ourselves how we live and lead. Are we leading from behind locked doors and “loving” from a distance? Or are we willing to get into the mess that is the Other’s life and sit with them. Jesus literally went to through walls to be with his disciples, they touched his scars, he was patient as they worked through their skepticism and doubt. Does our posture look like his and is our purpose shared? We should be operating in the understanding that all people are made in the image of God and we are commissioned to them. This is difficult and costly, just as it was for Jesus.
  2. Prayers & Practices: How do we live as a family? How do we share devotion, worship and fasting? What do those rhythms look like (or are they absent)? And are we praying with people unlike us? Doing life together included sharing meals, materials, their real live and brokenness. This is different than the way we are naturally inclined to operate, but God is doing something different through it. We need to remember that it doesn’t blow out our own candle to light another. Doing life this way requires generosity.
  3. Pressure & Pain: How are we moving forward together? The price of family life is that we move together. What skills are being developed? Are you resolving conflicts with Christ at the center? It’s hard to Band-Aid a deep wound; healing requires an acknowledgement of feelings (like how some marginalized persons feel with this last election.) We, as a church, need to light the way for how to deal with pain, injustice and inequality. This is HARD and PAINFUL work sometimes – grace is not cheap. Galatians 4:19 speaks to this: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.”
  4. Power & Potential: Are you a family on a mission? God’s family is on a mission, and we have such power and potential!! In what ways is your family moving? How are you responding to the Word and the Spirit?

What is Theology and its Purpose (A Pre-Assignment)

Webster defines theology through the following description: “the study of religious faith, practice and experience; especially: the study of God and of God’s relation to the world… a theological theory or system…. a distinctive body of theological opinion.”[1] Theology is often perceived as the lofty language of the religious who possess plenty of knowledge but lack wisdom in its application. That they spend so much time studying God and what faith, practice and experience look like that they fail to actually have faith or practice their beliefs; that they miss out on the experience God has to offer those who seek Him. It raises the question, is this really theology and if so, what purpose does it serve? As we begin to ask ourselves why we study generally, and specifically God, we can begin to understand the reason for theology.

Many people have very different motivations for studying, but the root of the work to gain knowledge is often change. Perhaps we are studying to change our career, or to move up at our job, or to better understand the systems in place and how they influence our lives. Maybe we study the past so we can better understand the future. Ultimately, we find a very close relationship between studying and a desire to move beyond the place we are. While there are many reasons why one might seek knowledge regarding God, most often they are motivated by a desire for something different.

If we did not study God, as it is phrased, if we did not dive deeply into the words of the Bible as well as the history of God’s people we could quite easily lack the understanding to correctly apply the teachings we find. Consider that Jesus, the foundation of the New Testament, was well versed in the word of God through the Jewish people’s sacred documents. Even the Son of God sought to have a thorough understanding of those books and often made them the foundation upon which he built his teachings. Contrast this to an example of poorly formed theology, such as Christians who used the Bible as justification for the enslavement and abuse of Africans brought by force to America and its profoundly heart-breaking impact. By selecting the verses that were meant to encourage the enslaved and ignoring verses that called for followers of God (both Old Testament and New) to care for the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, and to work against poverty, they formed a theology that elevated them rather than one that was seeking God.

Thus, the purpose theology should serve is as a means of preventing ourselves from forming our faith around truths we’ve created that serve ourselves rather than God. By learning about God and putting those teachings and the context of them first, we can transform our lives from ones defined by moral convenience to lives lived according to the values and principles that God provided to us. It can be challenging not to become lost in the seeking and easy to forget the application but a well-formed theology should always be something that a person walks in, speaks to and demonstrates. As it is defined, it is not just the study of God but of God’s relation to the world. The way God views and interacts with the world ought to guide us on the ways in which we do.

[1] Marriam-Webster. n.d. Definition of Theology. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theology.

 

My Relationship with Disability

My relationship with “disability” goes back to when I was a kid, and the impact it had was powerful. I wish I had a better understanding back then of how society, God and “disability” all come together but I didn’t. An illness that I saw as disabling was ultimately the reason I abandoned God for a while. My mom is an extraordinary woman. I remember listening at the top of the stairs with my eyes closed as she played the piano. I recall the light in her eyes as she talked about running. I can hear the love in her voice as she points to the costumes and outfits in pictures that she had made for us with her sewing machine, or told us about the outfits she would make in college. I remember the comfort of her running beside me as I learned to ride my bike and the joy of her pedaling next to me as we biked down the beach as a family.

And I can remember the ache and pain of watching all those things slowly getting stolen from her. I can still feel the anger sometimes; that so much of what she loved was snatched away from her by MS. The girl’s weekends with her friends from college. Having to go from running, to a cane, to a walker, to a wheelchair. Did God not know my mother? What could she possibly have done to deserve this? I saw affirmation in the godlessness of this world as I studied history: the Holocaust, the history of women throughout most societies, slavery practices in North America, the treatment of the people indigenous to this country… The list could go on and on of one group of people perceiving themselves as being better than the other and getting away with untold atrocities.

As I found God again, there was a timidity I had in approaching disability and God. Could my faith really stand up to my questions? Was this a space I wanted to seek in? Yet through this class I came to understand even more deeply that more often than not, biblically, a person’s embodiment was not tied to their sin. Furthermore, Jesus went to them time and time again and cared for them holistically: he went after the physical, the spiritual and even the provision of basic necessities. He ministered on every level and then called his followers to do the same.

It wasn’t God that failed my mother but me. My family. My society and its institutions. The “religion” I knew that said that God blessed the good people. Nobody explained to me that when it says in Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” it meant that if you are delighted in the Lord, you’ll desire what God desires. It didn’t mean if you desire your mother to be healed, you have to reach a certain level of “Christian” to get it. In this context, it would more look like my mother not experiencing isolation in this society, of her having access to the medicines that she needs and the places that she needs to go. Of society benefiting fully from her participation. It would mean that she wouldn’t see herself as a burden because nobody would think to treat her like one. God loves my mom exactly how and where she is and He wants us to do the same. To reap the gifts that she uniquely offers as a creation made in the image of God. How short we fall in doing this for her and all people.

My mother is an extraordinary woman who has not let this disease called Multiple Sclerosis prevent her from impacting lives. Instead of giving into the pressure society puts on her to accept how things are, she identified gaps in where society cares for its people and worked with my father to create a business that provides more affordable, private transportation for those who require ramps and wheelchairs.

This class gave me language to engage with God and others in my community around what I sensed but couldn’t put words to for quite a while, particularly ableism.  Jesus came for everyone; his community was filled with people that society rejected, marginalized and oppressed because those things are not the ways of God. Our Father tells us repeatedly that he came for the widow, the orphan, the prisoner, the ones society throws out. God tells us to be an inclusive community: to love one another as you love yourself. To give and care and comfort. To do the things we are called to do requires all of these very necessary parts of the body.

I Corinthians 12:21-26 explains it best: “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” And so we need to see ourselves, our community, as all one body with each part offering something so that we can all be whole. Just as Jesus honored the parts of the body that seemed weakest, so should we, because they are the ones that bring us to wholeness.

Final Paper: Disability Theology and it’s Application

 

When it comes to our society and disabilities, there are many injustices that have occurred and continue to occur. As we look to our faith to understand what our response should be, it becomes necessary to conclude that where our faith and disability intersect, we must put the Catholic Social Teaching of the dignity of human life at its center and build a fully inclusive community based on love. From that foundation, we must continue to be vigilant and identify ableism where it flourishes in society so that we may come against it, to the benefit of all. I will examine a case study of this by looking at poverty in Cincinnati and the effort to come against it through the establishment of CityLink.

First, we must seek to understand what guidance our faith gives us. Christianity does not exist in a vacuum, it is a faith that is meant to be lived out, that provides guidance for how to participate in life and community throughout our lives. In Galatians 2:20 it says: “…yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible, p. 1774) This says that to be a follower of Christ means that your life is a reflection of Christ, that you are an embodiment of those things which Christ is. To understand what that looks like in the face of disability, we must first understand what disability, impairment and ableism is.

Instead of viewing disability though the lens of the medical model, which sees a person whose embodiment deviates from medical standards as something that is at best fixed and at worst a burden with which the person must struggle with, we will examine disability through the social model. “The social model of disability is now the internationally recognised way to view and address ‘disability’. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) marks the official paradigm shift in attitudes towards people with disability and approaches to disability concerns.” (The Social Model of Disability, p. 1) The social model says that persons have impairments, which are medical conditions, potentially resulting in disability when society prevents them via various barriers from participating fully in community, because of the impairment.

When a society operates in a mode where there is a preferred embodiment that is acceptable and people with various impairments are separated from full participation, this is referred to as ableism. “’Ableism’ names a subtle and pervasive bias that assumes nondisabled people (people with no physical, sensory or mental impairments) are ‘normal’ and that people with disabilities represent an undesirable deviation from this norm… Ableism defines a person in terms of his or her appearance, impairments, and limitations and uses them as a prejudicial measure of the person’s acceptability and worth.” (Thompson, p. 211) This results in a view of the normal people as being worth “more” and those who are deemed not normal as being worth “less.” This separation poses a real risk to our society and our faith. “We’re beginning to see the immense dangers of separation, of apartheid. We’re seeing that if we separate ourselves, and then create barriers around our group, we’ll tend to become rivals.” (Vanier, 33-34)

Jean Vanier, an extraordinary man who served in the military and was extremely well-educated, altered his life path when he understood the call Jesus gives to us, and he began living and establishing communities where people of various embodiments could live freely and communally rather than in institutions. This was not necessarily an easy path for him. Even though this occurred decades ago, the struggle he underwent in this transition is very similar to those we experience in our society today. “When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself.” (Vanier, p. 18) The call by Jesus that Vanier speaks of was not one specifically given to him but was one that was given to us all.

The Catholic Bishops in the US state, “The same Jesus who heard the cry for recognition from the people with disabilities of Judea and Samaria 2,000 years ago calls us, His followers, to embrace our responsibility to our own disabled brothers and sisters in the United States.” (United States Catholic Conference, p. 1) Thus, we now acknowledge we have been called, as a community of Christ followers, to those that are treated as “other” in society. In order to develop an understanding of what disability theology would look like, it would be necessary to understand the means by which persons within the “other” group are oppressed.

Thompson lists five types of oppression that occur towards groups of people: cultural imperialism (the feeling of invisibility while simultaneously being viewed as an outsider), marginalization (fundamentally expelled from active participation within society and excluded from the benefits of that participation), powerlessness (where one is constrained by their position or role in such a way that it allows no growth or choice), exploitation (where the value of a groups labor, etc. is transferred to another group with little or no reciprocity) and violence (the use of various kinds of force by one group to degrade, stigmatize or humiliate another group). (Thompson, pp. 214-218) All five methods of oppression have one thing in common: one group oppresses another group at the cost of their dignity. Yet the God Christians worshipped didn’t love sparingly or narrowly, but holistically. It says in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible, p. 1588) All human life is equally valuable to God.

We ultimately arrive at the conclusion that where our faith and disability intersect, we must put the Catholic Social Teaching of the dignity of human life at its center and build a fully inclusive community based on love. “As the bishops point out: ‘This central Catholic principle requires that we measure every policy, every institution, and every action by where it protects human life and enhances human dignity, especially for the poor and vulnerable.’” (Krier Mich, p. 9) We are not called to love those who are easy to love, but to love others as we love ourselves. To love our enemies. To love the widow, the orphan, the prisoner and the immigrant. To love our neighbor. The benefit of this is that we as a community will also receive the benefits of the gifts each person has to offer. Vanier noted, “Community is not ideal; it is people. It is you and I. In community we are called to love people just as they are with their wounds and their gifts, not as we would want them to be.” (Vanier, p. 35)

In I Corinthians 12:18-22 Paul reminds the community of Corinth, “But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body… Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary…” (Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible, p. 1734) The wide variety of people we share this planet with are actually necessary to ourselves. Paul reminds us that those that appear to be weak are necessary to the body of Christ, to the Church, to our community. We are not complete without them. Vanier illuminates part of why that is when he says, “I think we can only truly experience the presence of God, meet Jesus, receive the good news, in and through our own poverty, because the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the poor in spirit, the poor who are crying out for love.” (Vanier, p. 20)

When we instead put people away, locking them up in prisons, institutions or even pushed to certain parts of town where they are isolated and stifled, we also isolate ourselves. Consider this passage that examines what a father tells his daughter of institutions:

“’A place where there is no one to love you.’ I suspect that many will accept this verdict as generally true about institutions… The point I want to draw attention to, however, is not about institutions… My point is about the father telling his daughter what matters most… Being loved by someone is what matters most in our lives… and this logic is what I ask you to contemplate for a moment. If ‘being loved’ is the most important thing in our lives, then the most important thing is something we cannot do by ourselves or on our own.” (Reinders, p. 432)

 

We must have others to love and by whom we are loved; all parts of the body need to be together. It can sometimes be difficult to understand what loving someone looks like. It can often be easier to fall into a place where you provide services to someone rather than relationship and love. Vanier explains, ‘To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’” (Vanier, p. 16) It doesn’t mean we ignore or avoid their embodiments but rather embrace it; we love them as they are rather then pitying them and that can bring healing and restoration because “…even though a person may have severe brain damage, that is not the source of his or her greatest pain. The greatest pain is rejection, the feeling that nobody really wants you ‘like that.’” (Vanier, p. 13)

We can see such a theology applied when we walk through the pastoral praxis using the response of five organizations to Cincinnati’s desperate poverty situation. “According to U.S. Census data and the Ohio Development Agency’s Ohio Poverty Report in 2015, 30.9% of Cincinnatians live in poverty – that’s more than 86,000 individuals… compared to a national poverty rate of 15.9… This means that approximately one in three Cincinnatians fall below the poverty line…” (City Link, p. 1) Furthermore, within the US, between the ages of 18 and 64, for non-disabled person the poverty rate sits at 12% while individuals categorized as disabled sit at 29%. (University of California, p. 1)  Although these various organizations provided a multitude of services to people that range from medical treatment to basics like food and clothing, they realized that they weren’t addressing the primary issue that could provide what was needed in order to escape the cycle of poverty. Ultimately, it was determined that, “their attempts to coordinate services often fell short because clients found it difficult to navigate between services.” (City Link, 2016)

Social analysis of the situation through the stories of the people they served revealed that while medical treatment might be possible, the ability for many to get to doctors, school, childcare, employment and various other social services just wasn’t feasible. Cincinnati, currently ranked as one of the ten most segregated cities in the US, is separated not only by race but by socio-economic status; poverty is concentrated to certain parts of this city, the same city where black children are twice as likely as white children to live below the poverty line. (Sparks, 2014) Furthermore, many of the services they required are outside of their community, often requiring lengthy travel on buses to each needed service for the vast majority without a personal car. While this type of travel can be a huge burden for most people without a personal car, for those that have various embodiments that require specialized transportation it can become practically impossible to be able to travel to and access all the services needed to escape poverty.

Entering the theological reflection part of the praxis, the eventual founders of CityLink quote Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., in whose words you can hear the echo of Paul and his emphasis that all parts of the body are important: “…all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly… You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the interrelated structure of reality”. (Why Does CityLink Exist?) CityLink isn’t about reaching down and lifting up, but rather a whole community recognizing the potential each individual has; that the city reaching its potential relies on all citizen’s having an opportunity to reach theirs. CityLink founders believe that, “clients have as much to teach our staff and volunteers as our staff and volunteers have to teach our clients… We believe that by providing a platform for people to come together, we can build lasting bridges across socio-economic divides. We believe we’re called to serve, and that faith without action is dead.” And so, they moved into the fourth phase of the praxis: pastoral planning and action.

The organizations decided to establish one location where multiple services could be provided. CityLink faced a tremendous amount of opposition , even by the city itself.  “The city of Cincinnati fought the location of CityLink but lost its court challenges. Opponents argue that the West End and nearby Over-the-Rhine already are home to too many social service agencies.” (May, 2010) After spending years struggling to get it off the ground, they opened in October of 2012 and officially launched three months later. (About Us) Although their core services focus on education, employment and financial education, they are now networked with 15 different organizations and many local churches. An example of this would be their Changing Gears program, where people can donate cars and get a tax deduction. Those cars are then repaired and sold at fair market value using a no interest loan to clients. Before they can purchase a car they go through a financial management program and save up money for a down payment as well as creating a plan for future payments and maintenance.  (Changing Gears) CityLink has proven to be effective enough that another CityLink “mall” for services will be duplicated with partners in Africa.

CityLink is living out what the bishops call a defense to the right of life: “Defense of the right to life, then, implies the defense of other rights which enable the individual with a disability to achieve the fullest measure of personal development of which he or she is capable. These include the right to equal opportunity in education, in employment, in housing, as well as the right to free access to public accommodations, facilities and services.” (United States Catholic Conference, p. 3) These organizations examined the obstacles that stood in that path of people being able to fully participate in society and removed some of those obstacles by consolidating the services they needed into a single location near those they served.  Simultaneously, they respect the dignity of each individual that engages with them, walking alongside people as they discover the vital role they play in society. The actions of CityLink communicate that their clients are loved, they are trusted, and they are valued.

Consider Larry from a piece about the value of community and relationship. He could be viewed through many lens, one being someone you’d rather not be around.

“Larry is a man with all sorts of limitations and problems, not the least of which is that he tends to scream with his high-pitched voice in such a way that you rather would not have to be around him. Because of his screaming, people avoid his company. Larry, however, likes company. So the more people avoid him, the louder he screams. Now the key question in Angela’s program—as I understand it—is this: What is it that makes Larry’s screaming into a gift?” (Reinders, p. 435)

 

Programs like CityLink or Angela’s program (described within Reinders piece) seek to discover how to bring transformation to society rather than the individuals. In the example of the Larry, whose pain in isolation is evident in his increased screaming, the attempt is not made to change Larry. Instead, Angela’s program finds that he can experience an inclusive environment in places where his screams are directed, such as baseball games. There, he would be both surrounded by people and able to yell with them, rather than in isolation. Thus, he is both giving something to his community and is accepted by his community. For clients of CityLink, many describe it not as changing who they are but rather, becoming who they were meant to be. As Vanier said of such communities: “I am allowed to be myself, with all my psychological and physical wounds, with all my limitations but with all my gifts too. And I can trust that I am loved just as I am, and that I too can love and grow.” Vanier, p. 28)

In summary, we can see even through the poverty in Cincinnati that injustice is present even today. By applying the Catholic Social Teaching of the dignity of human life we can move towards a fully inclusive community with love at its center, reflected through organizations like CityLink. By examining what has been achieved there, it becomes evident that where we dismantle ableism society flourishes to the benefit of all. Vanier said it best when he explained the value he found in living in the L’Arche community. “And I come here to tell you how much life these people have given me, that they have an incredible gift to bring to our world, that they are a source of hope, peace and perhaps salvation for our wounded world, and that if we are open to them, if we welcome them, they give us life and lead us to Jesus and the good news.” (Vanier, p. 9)

 

 

 

Works Cited

About Us. (n.d.). Retrieved from CityLink: https://citylinkcenter.org/about-us

Changing Gears. (n.d.). Retrieved from About Us: https://www.changing-gears.org/about-us/

City Link. (2016). Retrieved from Poverty in Cincinnati: https://citylinkcenter.org/about-us/the-need/poverty-in-cincinnati

Krier Mich, M. L. (2011). The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

May, L. (2010, July 13). Cincinnati’s CityLink Loses Director. Retrieved from Cincinnati Business Courier: http://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/stories/2010/07/12/story5.html

Reinders, H. S. (2011, Nov 10). The Power of Inclusion and Friendship. Journal of Disability, Religion and Health. Retrieved Sept 10, 2013, from http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wrdh20

Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible. (2007). United States of America: Saint Mary’s Press.

Sparks, S. D. (2014, Jan 22). Still Segregated After 50 Years: A Visit to Cincinnati’s West End. Retrieved from Education Week: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/01/22/18wop-cincinnati.h33.html

The Social Model of Disability. (n.d.). Retrieved from People with Disability: http://www.pwd.org.au/student-section/the-social-model-of-disability.html

Thompson, C. (2009). Injustice and the Care of Souls: Taking Oppression Seriously in Pastoral Care. (S. A. Kajawa-Holbrook, & K. B. Montago, Eds.) Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

United States Catholic Conference. (1989). Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Handicapped People. National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities.

University of California, D. (2015, 10 15). How is Poverty Related to Disability. Retrieved from Center for Poverty Research: http://poverty.ucdavis.edu/faq/how-poverty-status-related-disability

Vanier, J. (1992). From Brokenness to Community. United States of America: Paulist Press.

Why Does CityLink Exist? (n.d.). Retrieved from City Link: https://citylinkcenter.org/client-engagement/why-does-citylink-exist