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)
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