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2013 Annual Meeting

The Committee conducted its 2013 annual meeting with the Association of Ministers with Disabilities on July 10-13 in Birmingham AL.

Sharon McCart and Deb Wade converse at the dinner.We gathered at Bluff Park UMC for a get-acquainted buffet dinner, introductions, and vespers led by Deb Wade. Her theme was Unity, from Romans 15:5. To illustrate, she talked about how sticks can be easily broken, but when gathered into a bundle, become impossible to break. As people with disabilities and allies, we need to stand together to make a difference in the Church and in the world.

On Thursday, July 11, we met at the United Methodist Center on the campus of Birmingham Southern University. Meeting with the Association, we began with devotions led by Rev. Greg Edwards. Using John 17:20-26, Greg used various coins to illustrate the need for unity while appreciating differences.

We then had our first session with David Watson, Academic Dean of United Theological Seminary, " Theological Anthropology and the Incarnation,", based on John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:5-11.

  • Impairment refers to a physical and/or mental condition of some kind that deviates from the norm that is considered "typical." If a person has one leg rather than two, or if a person has an extra chromosome in every cell of his or her body, or if a person has low vision or blindness, this physical condition is an impairment.
  • Disability refers to the ways in which a person with an impairment may encounter difficulty, and perhaps discrimination, because of his or her impairment. If a building has only stairs, and no elevator or wheelchair lifts, the person in a wheelchair is disabled because of the structure of the building and the lack of consideration in planning the building for people who must use wheelchairs. If a church cannot accommodate children on the autism spectrum or Down Syndrome, these children are not disabled because of the social environment created by the church. Impairment, then, is a physical category. Disability is a social category.
  • The concept of disability as a social category leads to what has come to be called ableism. Ableism refers to all of the social structures that, actions, and attitudes that lead to discrimination against people with impairments.
David Watson stands to left of projector screen with slide projected listing assumptions about people with disabilities as he addresses group session.There are ways to read the biblical texts that contribute to ableism. The biblical world view is vastly different than our own. In the Gospels and Acts, healings are demonstrations of God's power and the presence of the kingdom. While we may celebrate such things, they don't really help us with challenging social systems that discriminate against people with disabilities. We will often have to bring the biblical texts into dialogue with later theological ideas and developments in order to draw redemptive significance from them.

The sections of John and Philippians we're looking at today are both hymns. In John, Jesus has a real body. He really does die. And even after his resurrection, he still bears the marks of the crucifixion in his flesh. John studiously avoids a "docetic" Christology. The early church insisted, that Jesus' body was real. God took on the vulnerabilities of human existence.

The passage from Philippians helps us to understand this even better. This is called the kenosis hymn, after the Greek word meaning "emptying." Jesus was "found in human form." It was this emptying that allowed him to humble himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. In the Incarnation, God took on the vulnerability of human existence.

For people with disabilities, the Incarnation has significant implications. First, it says that God values our embodied existence. And embodied existence necessarily involves all of the contingencies that life throws at us.

Second, it shows us that God came to save us not through overwhelming might, but through the vulnerability of human existence. The very traits that make human beings vulnerable became the media through which God would save us. Presumably, God could have saved us in any number of ways. God could have overridden our free will. God could have done this through some overwhelming act of force. But God chose to save us by becoming human, subjecting himself to all of the vulnerabilities of human existence. The Incarnation, then, tells us that our embodied existence matters. Further, it tells us that the cultural ideals for embodied existence that we so often encounter—ideals around appearance, strength, capability, etc—aren't what God values.

Properly understood, then, the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the biblical texts that support it, could be understood to undermine ableist understandings of human beings. To be like Christ, the Incarnate God, is to be subject to all of the physical, mental, and emotional contingencies that can accompany the human condition. Christ is the one who shows us what it means to be fully human.

The Committee and the Association then met separately. Chair Deb Wade first thanked Mike Dyson for his time as our Financial Secretary. We also worked on our task of gathering contact information for all of the U.S. conferences. Mike Dyson then gave a financial report. Our main expenditure is the annual meeting. UMCOR awarded some grants for church facility accessibility. We also have an Advance Special and need to develop policies for use of these funds, as well as for fund-raising.

Lynn Swedberg, consulant, reported that newsletter circulation is 635. She has completed two of the five classes needed for UM disability ministry certification from United Theological Seminary. She attended the National Camp and Retreat Leaders gathering, and has been asked to return, and has also developed a partnership with United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries. Lynn also manages the use of a banner we prepared for conferences and other meetings. It has been used by several members.

photo of the committee with members wearing blue shirtsWe then took a break from business to take our group picture wearing our blue DisAbility Ministries t-shirts!

We then met for another session with David Watson, "Overcoming barriers", based on Mark 10:46-52. In this story, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and passes through Jericho. This is just before the passion narrative begins. This is also the last healing that Jesus will perform in Mark's gospel. As he passes by, a blind man who was also a beggar begins to call out to him, "Son of David, have mercy on me." The crowd tries to silence him, but he won't be silenced.

Bartimaeus is an interesting name: "Bar" is Aramaic and means "son of." "Timaeus" is Greek and is related to the word for "honor": the Son of Honor.

Why is this important? Earlier in ch. 10, James and John come to Jesus and ask him to do whatever they want for him. They want to sit one at his right and one at his left in his glory. He tells them that they don't know what they're asking. They don't realize that, for Jesus, the way to glory will go through the cross. The other disciples hear about this and they get mad. They think—correctly—that James and John are trying to secure a place of privilege, to establish themselves higher on the pecking order than the other disciples. Jesus tells them that they have it all wrong. He teaches, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (10:42-45). The disciples are trying to gain honor, and Jesus is teaching them that their priorities are all wrong.

Now along the road to Jericho, a large crowd has gathered. They want to see Jesus. They want Jesus' attention. And Bartimaeus is crying out for him to have mercy—to help him. The crowd wants Bartimaeus to be quiet. Why? They want Jesus' attention, and they are in a better position to get it. Bartimaeus is getting in the way. Bartimaeus may divert Jesus' attention from them. They are not recognizing his essential worth as a person.

What Bartimaeus is encountering here is a form of ableism. The able-bodied people wish to get Jesus' attention, and they are willing to exert their place of privilege over Bartimaeus in order to do so. But it is Bartimaeus whom Jesus identifies, and asks the same question he put to James and John: "what do you wish."

James and John wish for glory. Bartimaeus wishes for sight; and after receiving it, "he followed Jesus on the way." This way is the road to Jerusalem. We're about to begin the series of events that will lead to Jesus' passion. So Bartimaeus uses his newly received sight in order to follow Jesus into the city where he will undergo his passion. This is in sharp contrast to the disciples who wish Jesus to give them glory. It comes back to values: There are God's values and there are human values, and these aren't the same.

Our first business session began that afternoon with approval of 2012 minutes. We heard a report from the Capacity Building Team, centering on expanding our network and database capabilities. This included the possibility of a membership organization, similar to the UM Congress of the Deaf. There was also discussion of offering training or certification and items to hand out at events.

Bishop Peggy Johnson told us that United Methodist Women's Mission U in 2014 will be about disabilities, so women EVERYWHERE will be studying this topic.

Lynn Swedberg detailed the disability ministry certification program from United Theological Seminary.

Our Friday (July 12) session began with devotions by Eric Pridmore. Using John 17:20-23, in the manner of lectio divina, several people shared the words and phrases that spoke to them. He closed with thoughts from Dr. Nancy Eiesland, his professor of sociology of religion and disability studies at Candler School of Theology. Dealing with a disability takes a lot of time and energy out of a person, so it is important to hold ourselves together through spiritual practices. She also said that we should hold ourselves together as a group.

Our second business session began at 9:30. Barb Skarbowski reported on the Tri-Conference Disability Workshop that she and Rev. Jackie Burgess assisted with. For the past four years, three United Methodist Conferences (Eastern Pennsylvania, Peninsula-Delaware and Greater New Jersey) have joined together for this meeting. This year's conference was "Local Church Leadership Training for Including Persons with DisABILITIES in the Life of Your Congregation." It was held on April 20, 2013 in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, with 36 people attending.

Sharon McCart has partnered with Kelli Parrish Lucas, secretary of the UCC Disabilities Ministries Committee, to have a booth at Abilities Expo in Los Angeles. the goal was to let the community know that churches do care about people with disabilities. Sharon also attended Widening the Welcome in November 2012 in Ohio and in June 2013 in Long Beach, CA, the UCC Disabilities Ministries and Mental Illness Committee conference.

Lynn Swedberg visited southern California in April and she and Sharon visited four churches and two church camps in a four-day Accessibility Audit blitz.

Deb Wade told us about "Bridge Builders," is a program she started and runs in the North Alabama Annual Conference.

Howard Guetherman reported on his work with the United Methodist Men to develop ramp-building team. This works really well to build ramps not only for churches, but in the broader community.

We joined the Association for their closing worship service. In our afternoon session, we selected the following officers:

  • Chair: Sharon McCart
  • Secretary: Barb Skarbowski
  • Finance: Tizzy Von Trapp Walker
  • Long-Range Chair: Terry McDorman; new committee member, Alyssa Green, will be part of this team

We decided that our 2014 meeting will be held in conjunction with the United Theological Seminary - Ginghamsburg UMC "Light the Fire" conference, May 7-8; we will meet May 9-11.

On Saturday, Russell then led us in our devotions, again using John 17:20-23, using the Trinity as an example of cooperation and difference.

Debby Newman reported for Communications on problems with the UM curriculum, Bridges, presented a list of curricula available, a sample lesson from her church, and our communication schedule.

The Long-Range Team reported that because guaranteed appointment is still in place, it is not necessary to track pastors with disabilities. The team is also developing a lay speaking program text and guide. We also discussed possible legislation proposals for General Conference 2016.

The Capacity Building team reported on network development, including a database and camping ministries. We concluded with our tradition of a service of Holy Communion, led by Russell Ewell.