Human Devaluation

Like many people, I am deeply disturbed by recent events. Time after time police officers shoot at or get into confrontations with unarmed black men and grand juries fail to indict them. The response from many is “Black Lives Matter.” And I am as angry as many others that our justice system is failing time after time to produce what its title implies. I do not blame or impugn anyone who is protesting, no matter what form that protest is taking, although I believe that nonviolence will go farther to achieve the goal of correcting what is wrong with our system.

But there is a broader story here, one that indicates that there is even more happening than police brutality and racism and corrupt prosecutors.

Human devaluation. Some people are worth more than others.

The news media report far too often about children with autism being murdered by their own parents, of people tying them up and putting them in closets or basements, sometimes not feeding them or allowing them outside. Sometimes teachers and assistants have placed these children in cages. And there have been incidents where police officers have reacted inappropriately due to inadequate training when people with disabilities are involved—not prepared for someone who is deaf or has Down Syndrome or autism or mental illness. Some of these people have died at the hands of the police. Public sympathy is often not on the side of the victims.

Human devaluation. Some people are worth more than others.

Even the increase in news stories about hit-and-run accidents adds to this. People in cars are hitting pedestrians and bicyclists and not stopping to help or call the paramedics. Sometimes the drivers continue on with the victim embedded in the windshield or desperately holding on to the hood. Crosswalks and bike lanes are no protection.

Human devaluation. Some people are worth more than others.

Racism. Ableism. And what’s the third one? Transportism? People who are driving are worth more than people who walk or bike? I am not sure. But it’s clear that some people are not worth stopping to help.:

Some people are not worth treating with dignity and respect. Some people are not worth working for justice for or spending more time to arrest them uninjured than to just shoot them.

I am just thinking—–

And I am greatly disturbed, actually more and more disturbed.

Because if some people are not worth as much as others, where are we going with this?

Where will it stop? What classification will be safe?

Not poor people. Not black, brown or any other people of color. Not people with any type of disability. Not women. Not people with sexual orientations other than cis-gender. Not unemployed people. Not sick people. Not elderly.

Not anyone.

God weeps.  

Disability and Diversity-Access Sunday 2013

On Access Sunday this year I was invited to speak to a local congregation about disability and diversity. Below is the talk I prepared, I did not follow it completely in speaking but it is my thoughts on the matter. I am available to speak with congregations about accessibility and disability ministries.

I am Rev. Kelli Parrish Lucas and I want to thank you for asking me to speak with you this evening. I was asked to speak with you this evening about the issues of disability and diversity—I am especially happy to have this talk with you this evening as today is what the UCC calendar calls Access Sunday, which is a day to celebrate accessibility in local churches; it is also the beginning of disability awareness week which concludes a week from today with Mental Health Sunday . So by further way of introduction let me introduce myself as a person with disabilities I was born with disabilities so I grew up with all the social stigma of disability but as I grew I was also well trained to pass as a person without disability; I have also acquired disabilities as adult and been a caregiver for persons with disability and mental health issues. So I come to speak with you about the diversity of disability as a person with disabilities. As I believe you were told in preparation for this evening, I also serve on the Board of Directors for the United Church of Christ Disability Ministries, for who I am the Secretary; and I am engaged in the ecumenical work of disability advocacy through EDAN a program of the World Council of Churches.

In many ways I am still musing about how to speak to you about the diversity of disabilities. (Because of our limited time I am going have to be rather general so please write down your questions to ask later.) Disabilities and all that is included as a part of that is a very broad spectrum, but that does not mean it is relative and we can say we are all somehow “disabled”. I say that up front because I think that as we look at what disability is there is the temptation to make it into something that includes all people, and it simply is not. Disability is a social location experienced by living in the world in an individually unique way, and yet that experience of being  uniquely different from everyone else is an experience that is shared by roughly 1 in 5 persons world-wide or 20% of persons. I also want to say a word about mental health. Mental Health issues affect 1 in 4 families, or 25% of American families. While disability does not guarantee that a person has a mental illness, often times the social stigmas, effects of bullying and/social oppression/discrimination that people with disabilities commonly experience lead to the development of mental health issues—btw I have read some statistics that suggest that bullying of youth with disability is more common then the bullying of any other youth, including GLBT youth. Similarly although having mental health issues does not necessarily mean that a person with mental health issues has another form of disability, many mental health issues have physical effects and may lead to temporary physical disability as part of the mental illness. I am going to talk about later about the specific work that UCCDM and the UCCMHN are doing together. But for now, I just want to underscore for you what these statistics mean—it means that for every 100 people in your church, 20 people likely have some type of disability and 25 likely have or are in a family with a person with mental health issues—and there is likely some over lap of these persons.

If we had more time I would ask you at this time to tell me what a disability is and I would write that all out for us to see, we don’t have time for that, so pull what it is you think a disability is up in your mind. Have you got it? Good, but we won’t have time to share that right now, but hold it for your small group discussions. There are two definitions of disability that I find to be very very useful.

1. “[a] firm definition of ‘disability’ underlies the authority of the ADA, which defines ‘individual with a disability’ rather broadly. A person may be considered disabled if he or she has (a) has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more of the major life functions, (b) has a record of such impairment, or (c) is perceived as having such an impairment. Even if the impairment is no longer present, the individual may still be considered disabled. [Arthur Shapiro, Every Body Belongs: Changing Negative Attitudes Towards Classmates with Disabilities, (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 1999) 263.]

 and, people with disabilities have developed the following definition of disability, which is used in the ecumenical movement

2. “Impairment: Lacking all or part of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body.

Disability: The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities.” [Arne Fritzon and Samuel Kabue, Interpreting Disability: A Church of All and for All, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2004), ix-x.]

We are still going to talk about what disability is for a moment but I want to start moving into disability  and the UCC. The UCC has been involved in addressing the issue of disability through an active disability ministry for at least the last thirty years. The most recent General Synod resolution about disability, called “The Called to Wholeness in Christ Resolution”, was passed in 2005 and it calls on all expressions of the UCC to become accessible in the spirit of the ADA. This means our Synod has called for local congregations to work for the full inclusion for all persons with disability–

This includes: Physical disabilities, Developmental disabilities, Mental/Emotional disabilities (including mental illness, brain disorders, autism, depression, anxiety, ect.); Mobility disabilities (arthritis, back issues, use of canes/walkers/wheelchairs ect.); Auditory/hearing impairments; Vision impairments; Temporary disabilities; Hidden disabilities (things people don’t/won’t talk about); Disabilities brought on by accidents or age; and anything else missing from this list.

Guiding churches in doing the work of becoming accessible and inclusive of all persons with disability is part of the work done by UCCDM. The UCCDM has a designation we call A2A. Churches who want to be A2A are asked to work through a curriculum/resource packet to help the congregation gain a better understanding the breath of the diversity of disabilities, how to be welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities, and how to be prepared to make appropriate accommodations when necessary. This resource packet is called “Any Body, Every Body, Christ’s Body” it is free and you can download it from the UCCDM website. The UCCDM Board acknowledged that while accessibility for churches often means making physical accommodations, the majority of work involved in becoming accessible is related to what we term becoming “socially accessible” to people with disability and this is a process of learning and integrating disability etiquette.

Many people do not realize or forget that up through the 1970’s people with disabilities were prohibited from public spaces under what were called “ugly laws”,  confined to institutions (sometimes w/o consent), denied the right to marry due to eugenics laws, and that people with disabilities were not guaranteed access to public education until 1973. As you can guess there is still much work to do in society before we reach the full inclusion of people with disabilities and persons with mental health issues—but there is actually more work for us to do in our churches. When the ADA came into existence it was supported by the churches, but most people don’t realize that the clergy supporting the passage of the ADA also worked to exempt churches from the implications of the law; the result is that in addition to churches being among the most racially divided places on Sunday mornings, churches have become the most inaccessible places in our communities.

The UCC and UCCDM have been heavily involved in area of civil rights for people with disabilities; just as all groups of people who go through a civil rights process seem to reclaim. language and even rename themselves as a group, the disability community has done this as well. The UCCDM through the A2A resources have sought to establish the use of what the disability community calls “people first language”, and that handout is on the table for you. People first language is language that names the person, or theologically the humanity, of the person about whom one is talking or writing before defining that person by their disability, as previous terms did. People first language is the standard within the UCC and within the disability community—I will tell you that some disability scholars with disability are using other terms and the language within the disability community is in flux, but people first language will not offend, so its safe as a rule to use in all settings.

So I just want to close with a very brief description of the larger work of the UCCDM. The UCCDM has fostered a renewal of the UCC Mental Health Network, which this summer changed their name to the Mental Health Network. Some of the other projects that the UCCDM is actively engaged in are….[this has been omitted from this post, please see uccdm.org for more information about UCCDM activities]

So that is just a little about the diversity of the disability community, disability history, civil rights, and how disability is part of the life the UCC. I am going to stop and open it up to questions. 

NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!

Note this maybe a part one of more.

Occasionally I am reminded that people don’t understand me…reminded that I don’t fit the neat categorical boxes…and occasionally I am reminded how uncomfortable that can be for me and other people.

I had the unfortunate experience of this happening to me at the recent UCC Synod in Long Beach, California. I was there as a delegate for the Justice and Witness Ministry of the denomination, the board that I served as the disability ministry liaison to until the denominational structure changed at the end of Synod. As a delegate I was on the floor for discussions, and there were a lot of us, so I tried to minimize my speaking so all who needed to speak may be heard. If you know me, or have read a few of these blogs, you may know that means I found myself at the microphone at least two or three times (in five days to be fair to myself). Once upon returning to my seat I had the following conversation with a man who was also in the Justice and Witness delegation with me, thus he knew me from previous board meetings and who I represented. My inner thoughts, no matter how badly I wanted to say them, will be in italics:

Man: You don’t (snidely) really have a disability, but I think its nice you speak up for people who do.

Me: Excuse me, wh-at? What did you just say? I’m not disabled, or not disabled-enough? Act-u-ally I do have a disability. (I spoke slowly and clearly so he could hear me in the convention hall with 2000 other people, and at the table full of our delegation, and clearly he lacked understanding the type for which I lack diagnostic powers.)

Man: (He leaned in close to me, and if he had been any closer I would have felt his beard hairs brush my face.) No you don’t. (Nodding his head closer to me. This man was in my face!) Well, then what is your disability?

Me:  Are you kidding me? I can’t believe I am going to answer that question. But I have to because if I don’t he either thinks I am a fake or a liar, my only choice is to revel my personal medical history. So I gave him the bullet points of my history. I felt like I was unveiling a secret window into my personal and family history–not because I was ashamed but because it was personal and vulnerable and I was surrounded by people in a loud place and practically commanded, not asked, to reveal myself, or else be deemed a fraud. Only in retrospect as I consider the gender, age, and racial power dynamics of this interaction do the connotations of white, male, aged, and able bodied privilege reveal themselves. In retrospect this man becomes more and more a creepy old man.

I quickly looked away and avoided eye contact with him. The business of the evening moved on. I glared.  He moved back to his seat at the other end of the table. I watched him and his presence made me uncomfortable the whole rest of the evening. I knew I was upset, I did not want this unjust and unequal type of exchange to color my experience of Synod. I knew he was only one person. But, still, this was church, ALL SHOULD BE WELCOME, INCLUDED, and AFFIRMED. But I felt uncomfortable and unsafe. I seethed. I had trouble focusing on the worship but somehow pulled myself together. I knew if given the chance I needed to ‘lean-into’ this conflict.

At the end of worship and the evening I felt heavy and weighted, and only partly because I was exhausted from the day. Most people left the convention hall quickly. I soon found that myself and this man were among the last at our table. I glared at him. He stepped forward to give me a hug, having been all pumped up by the preacher.

Me: No. I am sorry. I want to be in fellowship and Communion with you, but I am still thinking about our earlier conversation and I am just really hurt.

Man: I understand. (He dropped his arms and started to drop his head.)

Me: I don’t fall for the dejected liberal do-gooder act very well. UMM. No I don’t think you do. To insinuate that I don’t have a disability, or am not disabled enough, when you know that is obviously how I self-identify is not ok. It is a form of bullying. I have to put up with that type of bullying in the world and in the workplace but I’ll be dammed if I am going to put up with it in church! And you did that while wearing your anti-bully scarf so no I don’t think you understand at all!

He but his hands to together as if in respect and walked away out of the hall, as he left I saw him take the anti-bullying scarf off and place it in his bag, that made me feel slightly better. I was very upset and had to find one of my disability peeps to talk to about this.

The next day, Synod debated the anti-bullying resolution that was before us. I spoke from experience about being bullied as a person with disability, and reminded the church, the Synod, that it happens even “here” within the “bar” that separates delegates from the rest of the church; and I asked they vote not to feel good but to change themselves.(The UCC News quoted me.)

One of the staff members saw me the following day and asked about my comment related to being bullied at Synod. Upon my arrival to Synod I had been talking with this staff member, who happens to be African-American, when another (white) delegate came up and asked her if she had “gotten a tan” on vacation; by the time I was mid-way through my double take processing the comment about a “tan” the staff member was so elegantly agreeing that she had gotten a “tan” that I almost believed it was casual conversation. It wasn’t and the staff member brought it up when she asked about my bullying comment. We alluded to having some of the same feelings related to our separate experiences.

So church, think before you speak or ask… Think about the privilege you carry that others may not have. Consider the other, the Thou, the beloved child of God before you speak. Just think before you open your mouth. Could what you are about to say be offensive? Can your curiosity be framed another way? Because, yes, I do have a disability; and yes, maybe she did get a tan. But then maybe, just maybe. ITS NONE OF YOUR DAMMED BUSINESS!

Widening the Welcome is Coming!

Widening the Welcome 2013 Postcard

The Fourth Widening the Welcome: Inclusion for All Conference sponsored by UCC Disabilities Ministries and the UCC Mental Health Network. A Pre-Synod event will be held Thursday, June 27, 2013 in Long Beach, CA. 8am-8pm. Exact location to be announced.

Speakers will include Rev. Susan Gregg Schroeder, Founder of Mental Health Ministries and Rev. Kathy Reeves, Coordinator of the Ecumenical Disabilities Advocacy Network–North America, a program of the World Council of Churches.

Save the date, more details to come!

I am coordinating this event. I will also be offering the following workshop at the event:

Spiritual Care for Persons with Disabilities and Those Affected by Serious Brain Disorders Associated with Aging

This workshop is a multifaceted look at providing pastoral care to people with disabilities (PWD). This workshop will provide disability culture and awareness information that all professional pastoral care providers should be aware of in providing pastoral care to PWD. This workshop will touch on some historical ecumenical responses to disability, particularly the shift in ethical responses to disability that affect care provided. Finally this workshop will address providing pastoral care to persons affected with dementia, relying on first and second hand accounts as available. (Developed for professional pastoral care providers, and accessible to lay people.)

“Its A Beautiful Place”

I recently went from a denominational Justice and Witness meeting to a denominational Disability Ministry meeting and Conference. As I spoke with people at my second meeting and told them that I had just come from a meeting at the Franklinton Center at Bricks I heard again and again “that is a beautiful place”. The Franklinton Center is supported by the Justice Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.

 

Photo of one of the buildings at Franklinton Center

It is a beautiful place but its beauty is haunting. The Franklinton Center at Bricks in located in rural eastern North Carolina. The land upon which it sits was once a slave plantation, but it was not just any slave plantation it was the plantation, we were told, where the “rebellious” slaves newly brought ashore were taken to be “broken in” and inducted or acculturated into slavery. The historical tradition of the place includes the report that there was once a “whipping tree” on the grounds. This was once a place of torture.

 

The old dormitory at Franklinton Center

What was once a place of grave injustice and inhumanity has also been a place of hope. After the civil the property that the Franklinton Center now sits up came into the ownership of a Northern white woman named Julia Bricks. At that time a school for freed slaves was founded on the land. It was a school that educated emancipated slaves and also allowed them to work on the property to earn the funds to cover their tuition and room and board. In this way, what is now the Franklinton Center became an integral part of the surrounding community and has remained so.

 

Building used as a dinning hall at Franklinton Center

Eventually the school at Bricks was closed. However, the Franklinton Center at Bricks has remained an integral part of the surrounding communities and the people who call this area home. During the Justice and Witness Ministries meeting we were taken on a tour of the tri-county area surrounding the Franklinton Center to get to know the people there and current mission work of this place. Now, I spent some time of my youth in northern Florida and had been through some impoverished areas of the South; I am not exactly a stranger to poverty having lived below that line for part of my childhood. That being said, the communities in the three counties we saw around Franklinton Center are areas of extreme poverty—one of the towns had had the highest unemployment in the nation every year for the past twenty years. Nearly every other house in these neighborhoods were not only empty but boarded up. There was an absence of grocery stores, although there were a few fast food restaurants. There was an absence of jobs, an absence of public transportation. The schools in the three counties had been consolidated so better use public funds but some children had long bus commutes. One of the ex-mayors of one of the towns told us that half the housing in the area did not currently meet community building standards but that the town could not condemn the substandard houses because they had no other place to house people in the community. Another local community leaders explained how the local tax system had been gerrymandered after desegregation to funnel property tax funds into schools where the majority of students were Caucasian, while the schools with the majority of African American and other minority students struggled for state and federal funding. This area is one that has been called a community of “educational genocide”; I still do not know what to make of that. It is also a designated “food desert” meaning that there is little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

 

The pool at Franklinton Center

Hope remains at Franklinton Center. While we were there, we also met community members who are working to renew the community. There is a woman at the local community redevelopment corporation who showed us a newly built housing area is single and multi-family dwellings with community space for after school tutoring and computer labs; she showed us a commercial development they are trying to build to so local dollars can general local tax money that will stay in the county, since many have to shop in surrounding communities where goods are more available. She spoke to us about the pervasive racism in the area and how this has made it difficult to find commercial entities willing to locate in a predominately African American area. She also took us to the downtown area of one of the local communities to show us how parts of this area had been redeveloped and locally-owned businesses had begun moving in—including a pediatrician and soon a restaurant will open. We were introduced to man fighting the environmental racism inherent in the polluting nature of the region’s hog farming industry, who pointed out that while this industry supplies jobs they are jobs that often maim workers. There was also hope in meeting the principal of the local school who shared how the Franklinton Center is partnering with the local school. Hope is embodied at Franklinton Center in the center’s director Vivan Lucas who approached the local schools to create a family literacy camp using the dormitory and space at Franklinton Center. Hope abides in families of community members who can trace up to four generations who have enjoyed summer camp activities at Franklinton Center, and name children who have learned to swim at Franklinton Center which has the only pool in the tri-county area—did you know that African Americans have a higher risk of drowning because they often lack access to pools to learn to swim? Hope resides in this ground as a retreat and conference center has been developed to support its other ministries even as it teaches about the past. Hope is taking root as the Franklinton Center begins to plant fruit trees and experiment with community sustainable agriculture on its land to empower the local community to address its status as a “food desert”.

Field near Franklinton Center

 

There is on the grounds of Franklinton Center a tree called “the tree of life” it is a symbol to commemorate the whipping tree that once shadowed these grounds. As our meeting at Franklinton Center came to a close, we stood on a platform beside this tree of life to worship. In the Communion liturgy there was a pause to read the names of some slaves who had been transferred as property of the plantation from one family to another—how deeply I felt the brokenness of humanity and deeply I yearned for the new covent of hope of that meal, as I stood before that tree commemorating the tree upon which so much blood was shed. This place bears a resemblance to our most sacred story, does it not?

As I stood in silence with others after that meal, I looked out at the vast empty field beyond the tree. The land was grassy field on one side, cotton field on the other, train track in the not too distance, and the surrounding community was hungry. Still it is a beautiful place. It is a terrible, beautiful place. A place that wants to imbibe hope as it blooms out of the roots of its past. It is a land rooted in time past and present that reminds us of how far we have come and yet so far we have to go. It is a place that teaches us that hope is as much as verb as it is noun and calls us to continue the work for all types of justice in a world where “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”.

field #2 near Franklinton Center

While I do not normally use this site to advertise or fundraise, the work of Franklinton Center is too important to not make it known that the center needs financial support, including the kind that come from holding your event there, as well as prayers

Justice is a very real issue at Franklinton Center.

For more information about Franklinton Center, or to learn how to donate click: Franklinton Center/UCC

Hosana! The Time is Now!

The “Friendly Beasts” has always been one of my favorite Christmas hymns. If you have, or have had pets you know how important animals are to out lives. As a hospice chaplain I meet people for whom their animals are their last friend, another being they feel connected to and shows love and connection to them. Animals are amazing and sometimes I think our modern-world makes it to easy to separate ourselves from the animals around us.

In Jesus’s time animals were a necessary and important part of daily life. In today’s story–and we hear it every year–Jesus sends the disciples to find a donkey that Jesus later rides into Jerusalem to be met with people who wave palms and shout “Hosanna”! The donkey is not only part of the proof of Jesus’s divinity in that he told the disciples exactly where to find the donkey but the young donkey also becomes a key part of the social drama and guerrilla theater in which Jesus is  celebrated as King of Jews. Riding on a horse was symbolic of royalty in those days, so for Jesus to ride a donkey was not only conveying the message that there was divine royalty about Jesus, but it also one of the ways in which Jesus subverted the social symbology of the day. For Jesus to ride an animal into the city was a way to assert his authority, but using a donkey rather than a horse also poked fun at power structures of the time, particularly the Roman structure. In a not so subtle way this poking fun at the symbols of the power structure was a direct assault on the authority of the system itself. A way of saying ‘you think you are are so powerful on that horse, come down just a bit closer to the people and lets see how powerful you really are!’ It was a dare, and by the end of the week the powers that were, would respond to Jesus’ challenge. But is wasn’t only Jesus being subversive it was the crowd as well. By welcoming Jesus with palm fronds, a welcome reserved for entry of the victorious, the crowd proclaimed that Jesus had arrived as the victorious power in the city.

There remains so much social injustice in the world that I wonder what Jesus would focus on if he were teaching in the flesh among us today. No doubt Jesus would focus on teaching on the reality of God and kindom of all people, but I wonder what other issues of justice he would speak out on. Likely, as in Jesus’s day, one foci would be the systematic injustice and oppression of the poor and outcasts of society. That’s a nice neat concise sentence, but truly addressing systematic injustice is messy and unpredictable and certainly requires calling into question the authority of those with the power to oppress–those collecting the taxes and those with the political connections to keep the Roman legions at bay. Where, I wonder, is our donkey today? What has Jesus sent us into the cities to find that will assist us in subverting the authorities who allow and perpetuate injustice? When we can answer that and start to see it in our streets then we too will shout Hosanna in the streets!