In 2022 MST will offer a subject that everyone should do, say Dr Lindsey Gale and Dr Nathan Grills.
Gale and Grills, drawing on expert input from theologians and people with lived experience of disability, will teach the unit ‘Disability and the People of God’.
It’s a unit that can bring a student to a renewed, deeper understanding of what it means to be created in the ‘image of God’ and to love others, according to Gale.
But it’s also a unit that people are afraid of.
“Disability is a world people find terrifying,” Lindsey explains. “We tend to avoid people with disability or we put them on a pedestal, which is just another avoidance.”
“We probably all want a nice, happy life that’s easy and accepted by everyone. We’d prefer to mosey gently down the river, without any rocks or rapids,” she said. “But that’s not what life is. In fact, it’s not like that for anyone.”
Lindsey has found the unit to be transformative in her own life. “When I understood more deeply about God’s image and Christian community, and service and support using the unique array of gifts God has given us, I came to a greater appreciation of the countercultural nature of Christian community; how it can be a place of belonging for everyone.”
Lindsey designed the ‘Disability and the People of God’ unit for the Australian College of Theology in 2010. This is the second time it has been taught at MST.
“At the time I wrote the material, my job was developing educational resources on disability inclusion for the church. I focused on bible studies and educating about access requirements and practical ideas for inclusive church services and ministries. But it quickly became clear that more formal training also needed to be developed for pastors and church leaders,” she explained.
The unit will give students the opportunity to think practically about what it means to include by developing an idea for inclusive ministry for their own church. They will also dig into the thinking on disability of the Church Fathers and explore how disability deepens biblical and doctrinal understanding.
Nathan Grills, co-teaching with Lindsey at MST, first came across the unit as a student. He had already spent some years in India amongst people with disabilities before his daughter had been born with a profound disability.
“The training program in India we set up for serving and equipping people with disability was called Samvedna, which means ‘empathy’,” he said. “But when my daughter was born, I suddenly gained more empathy!”
Nathan benefited from the teaching both personally and professionally and has continued to work amongst disability in India.
So who will enrol in the unit in 2022?
“We expect to see parents of children with a disability or people living with disability themselves doing the course, and we’ll probably see some professionals from faith-based organisations who work in the space,” Nathan said. “But we’d hope to see the fresh, enthusiastic faces of every MST theology student there too. After all, every pastor and ministry worker will encounter people with disability in their work. Our response can either exclude (often passively) or promote loving inclusion and ultimately church growth.”
But it’s not about growth. Quite simply, “Churches need to be inclusive around disability simply because we’re Christian,” said Lindsey. “But it often only happens because parents come to the leaders and advocate for their disabled children. I’d like to see all church ministry staff do training in this space.”
She says that choosing not to be inclusive can happen for many different reasons. “Often we hold assumptions that some people can’t learn, or we feel too ill-equipped to respond, or we find the topic too challenging, or we don’t want our church to ‘look’ a certain way in case it’s not ‘attractive’.
Nathan added: “But when we include people with disabilities in our churches, communities and families, we are blessed as a body, we’re blessed as individuals, and we’re blessed as a Christian community. Look at Luke 14:13-14! It says, ‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed’.”
Both Nathan and Lindsey hope that students will come away from the unit understanding the importance of inclusion and feeling confident, empowered, and enabled to engage with and love people with disabilities.
Lindsey added: “I hope also that our students would have a renewed, deeper understanding that we’re all one, that we all belong, that we’re all the same.”
Over the years, Lindsey has had the privilege of hearing many wonderful stories of inclusion which have led to outreach and blessing.
“A physiotherapist who was involved in Mainly Music as a ministry became aware through her physio practice of young children with autism who couldn’t participate. She recast the program to be more inclusive, and one little boy with autism began coming with his mum and dad.”
“He had never really connected with people, including his parents, but this physio was able to find a way to communicate with him through a big puppet. After many weeks, the dad was able to put the puppet on his lap, and put his arms through the puppet’s arms, and for the first time, give his little boy a hug. It was an extraordinary first for that family.”