A Theology of Difference and Disability

by Susan Richardson

Kids with learning differences don’t let us linger too long on the idea of love in the abstract. Love becomes embodied, tangible, and grounded. They help us understand that the question isn’t where people belong, but whom they belong to – not location but relationship. If they belong to God, then they belong to this community of the church.

They help us wrestle with a culture of forgiveness. Can you forgive me for my not understanding where you’re really coming from and for not seeing your strengths? Can you forgive me for projecting my own fears onto you, and saying the wrong things? Can I forgive you for the fear you bring up in me?

Within that forgiveness, parents of kids with learning differences will probably need some measure of absolution somewhere in the mix, either implicitly or explicitly. Culture still tends to blame parents, and even if they parents are educated and “know better,” they may well carry a sense of guilt and fear that they did something wrong. At some moment when they’re able to name their fears, they may need to experience the grace of absolution.

Such families may also need to experience the grace of abundance. In our culture, there’s an ethos of gaining for one’s self and of fighting for resources. For families who need extra support, especially those with financial strains that exist on all kinds of support networks, the church needs to feel like a place to experience abundance, whatever emotional, logistical, or spiritual form that might take. In this way, many families may come to know Christian hope and healing best through the experience of community itself – through hospitality, accepting the stranger, learning, kindness, and being joyful. It may be the best embodiment of theology.

Nearly all the theology in the Bible is learned from stories. Even something as seemingly explicit as the Decalogue must be understood in the context of God’s care for the Israelite community and God’s deep desire for ongoing relationship. So too must our theology be understood in stories. Ask people for their story, and then let your stories be shared.

As your congregation includes children and adults with learning differences and disabilities, there will be moments and experiences that create great stories. Ask any group of parents or adults with disabilities to tell you their faith stories, and you’ll get stories full of preaching and transformative possibilities. The challenge and grace in faith communities is for my story and your story to become our story – and an ongoing part of God’s story.

How does your congregation welcome and embrace those with learning differences?

ChildbyChildThe Rev. Dr. Susan Richardson is an Episcopal priest who lives and works in the Diocese of New Jersey. This essay is from her book, “Child by Child: Supporting Children with Learning Differences and Their Families” (Morehouse, 2011). 

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