October 4, 2022
Perspectives from disabled Christians enrich our theology
A scholar’s book emerged from theology done in partnership with disabled Christians.
My recent book, “Becoming the Baptized Body,” owes its origin to a rather unexpected place: the waiting room of a multidisciplinary pediatric clinic. In this waiting room, where I’ve met countless families as an occupational therapist over the past decade, I encountered a preteen named Hallie and her mother, Heather (whose names have been changed for their anonymity and whose story is being shared with their permission). Engaging in some introductory small talk, I mentioned to Heather that in addition to my clinical work, I studied and taught theology at Duke Divinity School.
With this revelation of my bi-vocation, something shifted within Heather. Her eyes lit up intensely, and she began to lament her and Hallie’s experiences in the church. Hallie loves loud gospel music and being around people. She also uses a wheelchair and has an intellectual disability. Though Hallie is nonspeaking, she communicates her needs and emotions in a rich diversity of ways.
Heather longed for Hallie to be baptized. She recounted to me their family’s story of traveling from church to church, seeking a community of belonging. But Hallie and Heather couldn’t find this kind of church. Pastors and lay members of congregations told Heather that Hallie’s vocalizations were too disruptive during their services. In many churches, Heather recalled, Hallie couldn’t access Sunday school or the sanctuary in her wheelchair. And in one conversation Heather had with a pastor, she was told that it wouldn’t matter if her daughter were baptized, because Hallie couldn’t understand what was happening.
Hallie and Heather’s story of seeking a community of baptismal belonging is one among many stories, wounds and questions that disabled Christians in my life have recounted to me over the years. Their stories have shaped me into the kind of theologian I am today — a partner alongside Christians with intellectual disabilities, seeking to uncover how we might grow in love of God and love of neighbor more faithfully.
Over the past several decades, various theologians and Christian leaders have contributed to the field of disability theology. However, in this body of theological literature, perspectives from people with intellectual disabilities are few and far between. As I sat with the pain of Hallie and Heather’s story, along with other experiences of rejection from churches among my friends with intellectual disabilities, I resolved to prioritize the perspectives of disabled Christians in my own theological work on disability and the church. I committed to theology done in partnership.
With this commitment, I spent a year visiting Christians with intellectual disabilities around the state of North Carolina. We had meals together, worshipped together, sat in silence together and shared stories together. In short, we did theology together.
My partners included Christians like James, who watches a recording of his baptism on a weekly basis and, with this constant reminder of his baptismal identity, beautifully lives into his life as “God’s beloved son.”
My partners included Christians like Al, who repeatedly said to me that in baptism, he has truly become “who I am.”
And my partners included Christians like Ava, who witnessed to me that the practice of baptism serves for her as a gentle but steady assurance of “knowing who you are, where you belong with Christ.”
These partners in doing theology together have transformed my imagination about my own identity as a Christian disciple. Whenever I hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, I think of James’ insistence that he, like Jesus, was named as God’s beloved in his baptism. And in these moments, I give thanks to James for his witness to me that I, too, am a beloved child of God — a reality that I too often forget.
When people ask me to describe who I am or what I do, I often think of Al’s insistence that baptism is the act where God reveals to us who we truly are — people welcomed into God’s covenant and equipped by the Holy Spirit with unique gifts for ministry. And when I feel isolated or despairing, I recall Ava’s assurance to me that remembering my baptism affirms my belonging with Christ.
Five years later, the fruit of our doing theology together is out in the world in the form of a book: “Becoming the Baptized Body: Disability and the Practice of Christian Community.” The book, dedicated to all those like Hallie and Heather who are still seeking a community of belonging, stresses the importance of thinking about how core practices of the Christian faith — prayer, Holy Communion and, most centrally, baptism — are sites where God’s action challenges us to take seriously the gifts of all Christians, disabled or nondisabled.
In close conversation with the stories and experiences of my research partners, the book explores disabled perspectives on baptismal practices, disabled interpretations of Scripture on Christian identity, disabled critiques of baptismal liturgies, and the rich possibilities for practicing baptismal preparation, testimony and reaffirmation that emerge from the witness of disabled Christians.
Though the formal work of this theological research has concluded, I remain committed to the work of doing theology together. My co-researchers and I share in decision making about where the royalties from the book will be donated. And as my partners read or listen to the book and offer me their thoughts, I commit to not only following up personally but responding in my ongoing scholarship.
When I speak in academic settings about this work of doing theology together, colleagues often comment on my work with “unlikely” theological partners — Christians with intellectual disabilities. I find myself somewhat puzzled by this characterization of who exactly constitutes an unlikely partner. After all, in my explorations of the intersections of baptismal identity and intellectual disability, I, a person without an experience of intellectual disability, am the unlikely partner in learning and transformation!
I wonder how in our own work we might find ourselves positioned as unlikely partners. I invite you to ponder how developing new ways of being together might expand your perspective, your wonder, and your learnings about love of God and love of neighbor.
Expanding our perspectives can begin as a small practice of asking a new question or seeking out someone we might not initially consider an expert. Becoming an unlikely partner might require us to reflect on the stories and wounds that others have shared with us — stories like that of Hallie and Heather. Reframing our work in the world as something we must do together might be energized by participating in a new kind of gathering, such as an event with L’Arche North Carolina, where people with and without intellectual disabilities flourish together.
May we be open to the transformation that comes in and through unexpected partners in a commitment to doing work, ministry and worship together.