Counseling Services for Individuals, Couples, and Families

Rita Berglund, MA, LPC~Psychotherapy: Care of the
7600 East Arapahoe Road, Suite 315, Centennial, CO 80112


Empowering the Ministry of the Disabled

Published in Vital Woman, October 2004

The white cane danced in its graceful arch left, then right. I watched the dark haired young women hesitate as the sidewalk fell away and entry and exit lanes obscured the path. She wasn't yet to the corner intersection and I became concerned that she would lose her way and walk into the heavy traffic. I doubled back through a parking lot and watched as she too, doubled back in the open lane looking for a curb. She stumbled over the center triangular divider and then with renewed determination resumed her original direction and found the sidewalk on the other side. Without my 'loving' interference, she found her way.

I find this to be a typical reaction in myself and in others. Instinctively when we see an individual with a visible handicap we see someone who needs help and protection. We see ourselves as the helpers and we see them as ones in need of help. More rare is the thought: there is someone who is an amazing person, someone with something to teach me, someone who can help me, someone who represents Christ in the World.

Beginning in 1989, we watched our then 5 year old son, in a battle with brain cancer, become mentally and physically handicapped. We struggled deeply to find meaning in the tremendous pain he and our family were going through. And we became part of the larger community of other families who have handicapped members. Brandon, now at age 19, is struggling to find work that he can enjoy and that gives him a sense of meaning.

Living in the community of the uniquely broken, I have come to see the many ways that they are representatives of Christ. Their non-competitive way of life has invited me into a place where simply 'being' is of greater value than all my 'doing.' Brandon and others present frequent reminders to slow down, to be more aware of the beauty and miracles around me. They have invited me to see my own brokenness as an opening into more compassionate ways of responding to myself and to others. They have taught me that love is sacred regardless of whether it comes from a Ph.D. or a child with Downs Syndrome. And the lessons and the learning continue.

While visiting friends in Southeast Asia, I was invited to a community celebration in a small Lahu village. As the community prepared for dancing, I was moved to see them place the sick, disabled, and very elderly members of their community in the center of the gathering, along with the musicians. Then gathering in concentric rings around this center danced the older members of the community, then middle-aged, then younger, until the last ring was the teenagers. I was struck by the contrast with my home community where the disabled and elderly are often marginalized physically and socially, placed on the outer and back edges of any gathering.

As I watched this model of community so beautifully gathered in movement, I could not help but think about the stories of Jesus turning the social order on its head by putting the sick, the children, the outcast and the most vulnerable into the center, rather than the strong and powerful. How can inviting the most vulnerable into central ministries change our communities?

There are many practical considerations and how-tos, many of which must be designed to specifically fit the needs of your disabled ministers. Although the details cannot be covered here, I hope is this article will prompt new discussion, new thinking, and new levels of open-heartedness in your community. Christ repeatedly showed us the value of brokenness. Soil must be broken to allow new growth; bread must be broken to give strength; our attachments must be broken in order to experience true freedom; our hearts must be broken in order to be bearers of compassion and forgiveness.

Where in your congregation is there fertile brokenness? Where are the most vulnerable? How do they communicate? How do they move in the world? How are they like Christ to you? How do they depend on others? How do others depend on them? Is there value in their 'being' that is beyond 'doing'? In a culture that values doing and money, what does it mean to have members for whom 'doing' and earning money is not a possibility? How do they experience being valued in the church?

To this list of questions I am sure you can add many others. It is sad to me that many handicapped people do not feel welcomed or empowered in churches. They have experienced churches as places with physical barriers, social barriers, and spiritual barriers. They have experienced them as places where their contributions are not valued. They have experienced them as places of polite tolerance with little vision for building meaningful relationships.

My son, Brandon, does not want to just be tolerated. His spirit is not handicapped, his prayers are not handicapped, his loving ways of just being present is not handicapped. He wants to participate in many ways. He wants to be valued as an important member of Christ's family. He wants to help others, just as others help him. He is a human being.

Christ himself experienced brokenness and through that brokenness he continues to change the world. Who are the broken change-makers in your congregation? Who are the wounded healers?

What does it mean to be empowered in ministry for those with unique disabilities present in your congregation? How can you create paths of accessibility? What are the stereotypes, the fears, the prejudices, that church members have towards those with disabilities?

There are numerous books and movie resources that congregations can use to promote discussion and new thinking. Congregations must be careful that learning about people with disabilities doesn't replace actually getting to know them. All God's children are unique regardless of capabilities. Before just guessing at what someone needs in order to feel empowered - stop. Talk to them. Find out what their perspective is. Explore how they see their gifts and abilities. Explore what you can learn from them.

Author's Bio:
Rita Berglund is a Psychotherapist, Spiritual Director, and Retreat Leader based in Centennial, Colorado. She is also the author of An Alphabet about Kids with Cancer. If you would like a bibliography of recommended books and movies or have further comments, please contact her at: or 303-523-7111.

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